The great historian of British politics Sir Lewis Namier described the government of 18th century England as “aristocracy tempered by rioting.” There is something of that in any society, for all who exercise power become corrupted in some degree by the identification of their interest with the common good. Even in a place as politically placid as modern Britain, rioting has played its part in fundamental change, the last time being in 1990 when the Thatcher Government was finally frightened into dropping a tax in which Margaret Thatcher had invested a great deal of her personal prestige – the Community Charge, popularly known as the Poll Tax – by a serious riot in Trafalgar Square in central London.
That is the reality of politics. Democratic theory is rather at odds with the reality. “The law must be obeyed” and “violence is always wrong” are two of the most chanted modern political mantras in those states which seriously pretend to democracy. Not bad chants as political dicta go, for the law is the skeleton upon which society rests and violence can become an endemic social disease with a ghastly ease. Yet the logic of an absolute bar on disobeying the law or engaging in violence for political ends is that an elite may behave as badly or dangerously as they want without fear of punishment.
Suppose the House of Commons passed a law which extended the life of a Parliament to 50 years – this the Commons could do quite legitimately, because there is no constitutional restraint on Parliament on the Acts it may pass. Would we simply accept such a gross political abuse because it had been achieved legally, that it was done within the form of democratic procedure? The sane answer has to be no. But if we do not accept it, how do we act against those who abuse power without provoking something approaching anarchy or simply replacing one abuse of power with another?
The general answer can be found by addressing another question, namely what is such extra-democratic action (which includes everything from passive resistance to full blooded civil war) a substitute for? The answer is that it replaces the formal democratic political process and becomes legitimate where a society is so ordered that there is no normal democratic process, where meaningful participation in a formal democratic process is denied by those in power, either overtly or covertly, or when the behaviour of the ruling elite constitutes treason.
That is all very well as a general description of the circumstances in which extra-democratic action should be taken, but how in practice do we determine both when such action is legitimate and the extent to which it is legitimate in any particular situation?
When is it reasonable to disobey the law?
When the law is made by made without democratic authority; when the law is not equally applied; when the law in principle disadvantages one man but not another; when the law amounts to treason. When, in short, the law is incompatible with a free, self-governing society.
What are the political requirements for such a society? I suggest these: there must be free expression, for a free society must be democratic and a democratic society cannot outlaw any aspect of life from debate and be called either free or democratic. The mass media must be both free of government control and give opportunities for the expression of a wide range of political opinion, for example through the same sort of laws which are designed to ensure “balance” during general elections and a statutory “right of reply”. All adults must have the vote and meaningful opportunity to engage in mainstream political activity. Political parties and individual candidates must be allowed to operate freely and not only at the discretion of the state. The state must not place obstacles, such as deposits, in the way of candidates for election which disadvantage individuals and smaller or new parties. The state must not use force against its people which is disproportionate nor have a monopoly of force. To that end the people should be allowed weapons and no weapon forbidden to the people should be used against them by the forces of the state.
That is the ideal. The important thing is not perhaps that all these goods are met in full measure in any society, although in principle all could be given the force of law, but that sufficient of them are observed to make democratic participation and control of the elite to be such that extra-democratic action is not required. Of course, there can be no absolute standard by which that may be judged. Ultimately the moral decision as to when political circumstances are such that they fail to allow proper control of the elite by the masses is a personal one for each individual.
Extra-democratic action should be proportionate to the political circumstances and the ill to be cured and as moderate as is compatible with effect. Faced with an unambiguous, brutal and efficient dictator, the masses are left with little alternative but extreme violence such as assassination, because other and lesser forms of protest are effectively denied.
That is not the case in societies which have at least the form of representative democracies. In such societies other forms of political disobedience, including non-violent methods, can be effective and violence is inappropriate as anything but a final resort, when all else has failed and the damage being done by those in power is considerable.
In practice, governments in states which have both the form of representative democracies and some of the content are peculiarly vulnerable to non-violent resistance, provided it is truly widespread or arises from a strike in a vital industry. Such governments are bound by the pretence at least that they are not dictatorships. Thus strong-arm measures which are the common currency of the dictator cannot be used with impunity because they are publicly observed and sooner or later elections must be held.
But if non-violent protest may be effective in an ostensible democracy, it often in practice needs a focusing act of violence or the threat of violence to bring those with power to a decision to change their policy or behaviour. Thus it was with Thatcher’s Poll Tax. The tax collapsed primarily because hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, refused to pay the tax. The courts could not cope with the consequent numbers served with summons’for non-payment. Yet that alone did not bring about the end of the Poll Tax. A serious riot against the Tax was needed. It took place in the most famous modern London site for demonstrations, Trafalgar Square. Within a few months the Tax was dropped.
Generally, the more broadly power is spread in a political system, the wider the range of extra-democratic action available and the less extreme it need be.
When is violence unambiguously justified?
This is the most difficult of questions. In an outright dictatorship the answer is morally unambiguous; it is justified because there is no meaningful opportunity for any lesser action. Anything less than an outright dictatorship and the moral waters become muddied. Where an outright dictatorship does not exist, the question can best be answered by adhering to the rule that all non-violent means should always be exhausted first. That in itself will act as a good yardstick to judge whether nothing but violence will do.
But there is one instance in any society where violence is unequivocally justified, namely where the political elite as a class engages in behaviour which is objectively treasonable. It is justified because such a matter becomes a question of self-defence.
Treason is a slippery word, yet it clearly has an objective meaning. In a dynastic context it is betrayal of the sovereign. In a democratic context it is the betrayal of the population to an external power for the general population has become the sovereign.
Of what does treason consist? Generally it must be the conscious decision by those in power to act in a way which will weaken the integrity of the nation. To give up sovereignty is by definition to weaken the integrity of a nation.
Proportionality of violence
Violence should be minimised for moral reasons, but selective violence is also arguably the most effective. Elites do not care about violence perpetrated on the masses unless the violence threatens to provoke public unrest which the elite is not confident of controlling. What they really care about is violence directed at the elite. A good example of this mentality concerns the IRA and successive British governments in the years 1969-1984.
The IRA practice of public bombing continued for 15 years after 1969 without gaining anything from British governments of any political colour. The IRA then attempted to kill Margaret Thatcher and members of her cabinet in the Brighton bombing of 1984 during the Tory Party conference. Within 18 months the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which granted a foreign power (the Republic of Ireland) legal rights in Northern Ireland, had been developed and signed by Margaret Thatcher and the Irish Prime Minister.
The restriction of violence to those in the elite has another great advantage, the mass of the population will not feel threatened. This means that they are less likely to become viscerally antagonistic to the perpetrator of the violence. Moreover, if the ends of the perpetrator of violence are reasonable, then the mass of the population will probably support them tacitly or at least not violently oppose them.
Hence, for both moral and practical reasons, violence should always be kept to a minimum and directed at the elite, especially those who wield political power.
A lesson from the past
In the twelfth century there was developed the doctrine of rightful tyranicide. It has lessons for us. The first and probably the most famous of its proponents was John of Salisbury (“He who usurps the sword is worthy to die by the sword.”) John’s world is seemingly far removed from ours in custom as well as years, yet it has striking political similarities with our own, for in practice the power of European rulers was very far from absolute. Mediaeval monarchs were commonly confronted with parliaments resisting taxation, fractious towns and ambitious nobles. In many ways the late Middle Ages was more democratic, in the sense of power being shared, than any subsequent time before the nineteenth century. The consequence of this was a need to define the relationship between ruler and ruled in a way which had not been done since the ancient world struggled with the problem.
For John the distinction was between power legitimately and illegitimately exercised. In his work Policraticus he puts it thus:
“Between a tyrant and a prince there is this single or chief difference, that the latter obeys the law and rules the people by its dictates, accounting himself as but their servant. It is by virtue of the law that he makes good his claim to the foremost and chief place in the management of the affairs of the commonwealth.”
(Policraticus Bk. IV. ch. i; Dickinson’s trans. p. 3.)
In our world, formal kingship with political power is a rarity, yet we have what are, in effect, elected monarchs in our presidents and prime ministers and an abundant and never ending supply of unelected tyrants. Even in the best of the “liberal democracies” power is remote from the masses. Moreover, the signs are not encouraging for the future as national sovereignty is increasing constrained by the coils of supra-national agreements and organisations such as the EU.
Have we reached the stage where such action is legitimate in Britain? Well, it is for each man to judge that himself, but we can test what actually is happening against the criteria I have already given for judging the democratic validity of the formal political system.
Recent developments in Britain are symptomatic of what is happening throughout the West. Our elite is gradually squeezing out of our political system such democratic control as has been grudging conceded over the past two centuries. We have only two parties with a realistic chance of forming a government in their own right. Increasingly they offer no more than variations on the same theme. The only real choice a British voter has on almost all important areas of policy is between having more or less of the same general fare. Worse, much of that fare is self-evidently designed to remove more and more power from the political institutions we have. Indeed, in large part the similarity between both the theory and practice of British parties and governments is the result of the wilful giving up of sovereignty through our membership of the European Union and various organisations such as the UN and WTO with their concomitant treaty obligations.
But the situation is even bleaker than a bald description of the policy vacuum suggests, for what a party or politician says at any one point is next to meaningless. There is in practice no means of holding a party or a politician to a declared policy, because the only choice is to elect another party which will in all probability do much the same once they are in power. Not only that, but politicians of all parties frequently refuse to give a clear and unambiguous statement on anything, which allows them to weasel word their way to a new position when they think it necessary. Where a coalition is formed, as we are presently seeing in Britain, what little democratic control remains within our political system evaporates as both parties to the coalition simply trot out the mantra that a coalition is a compromise and no manifesto commitment is sacrosanct.
Because of this ideological coming together of the major parties and the draining of power from Westminster to supranational bodies and interests, there is a growing need to suppress dissent. Where there is no real electoral choice on policy, substantial minorities at best and the majority at worst are effectively disenfranchised. To that obvious disenfranchisement may be added the persistent failure of the British media to honestly report and debate many issues. Not one British national newspaper has as its editorial policy the withdrawal of Britain from the EU. Questions of race and immigration are, as a matter of course, only discussed within the narrow parameters decided by the liberal elite, namely those which almost invariably represent the immigrant as a victim of circumstances and the native population as the source of all racial evil. Those who wish to put forward views seriously unpalatable to the liberal elite are rigorously excluded from the media and from the mainstream political parties.
How did we get into this sorry state? Our immersion in the EU since 1973 speaks for itself, with all parties and all prime ministers since being culpable. The erosion of our liberties is less starkly obvious, being an insidious creeping towards authoritarianism. Margaret Thatcher began the process by showing a cavalier disregard for the law on occasion, most notably during the miners’ strike. The miners came close to success, but more importantly it caused the British state to take action against miners and their supporters which were essentially those of the police state. This began the attack on those features of our legal system which had long offered a safeguard to the individual such as the absolute right to silence.
The Blair government followed the example of Thatcher with a deluge of measures such as Anti-Terrorism Acts (which allow the Government in practice to define any individual or group as terrorist if they engage in public protest), The Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (which amongst others things allows the State to electronically spy on people without a warrant),and such authoritarian delicacies as the abridgement of the right to jury trial and control orders.
The general treatment of protestors in Britain has become ever more violent and cynical. Would-be protesters against the Chinese president’s visit in Blair’s time were rigorously policed to the point at which no meaningful demonstration could be held and the Countryside March – one of the largest and possibly the largest public protest in modern British history – encountered an astounding degree of police belligerence which extended to protestors being battered with riot sticks. This police violence was made all the more unwonted by the fact that the Countryside Marchers were probably the most pacific and law-abiding bunch you would ever be likely to find on a mass protest.
Recently, we have seen protests by students against the proposed raising of tuition fees to as much as £9,999 per annum. Many will not approve of these particular protesters, but what of protesters of whom they approve? Will the great mass of people be cheering if they are oppressed and silenced? As the Leveller, John Lilburne never tired of saying by way of exhortation to others, “What they do to me today, they may do to any man tomorrow.” Every time the state is allowed to extend the limits of its oppressive behaviour that sets the benchmark for the future. Freedom is gradually eroded.
The question which John of Salisbury addressed in the thirteenth century is an eternal question, the central problem of politics in fact, namely, how shall those who wield power be prevented from abusing the mass of those they govern? The only rational answer when formal democratic methods fail is action which goes beyond the normal democratic structures and habits, because the alternative is simply the acceptance of what is, no matter how oppressive that reality is or may become.
Have we reached in Britain the point where extra-democratic action is the only meaningful action for those outside the political elite? The answer I would say is indubitably yes if we are not to stand by helplessly while our freedoms are remorselessly removed. The betrayal of our sovereignty to the EU indubitably meets any reasonable definition of treason, because it has given foreigners power over our lives. This has been achieved by an extended and on-going act of deception whereby the British political elite constantly deny sovereignty has been surrendered, whilst ensuring that the electorate is never offered an opportunity to repudiate the giving away of sovereignty through a referendum or to vote for a party which realistically might be expected to form a government that advocates withdrawal from the EU.
Alongside that treason lies an ever tightening noose of censorship of what may be publicly said; a censorship which is enforced by the law which punishes those who breach the politically correct credo, the very real threat of the loss of employment if someone is accused of a politically correct “crime” and the willingness of the mainstream media to mount hate campaigns against those judged to be politically incorrect. It is impossible to have a functioning democracy if people cannot put forward their political ideas because they are deemed illegal. That also is an adequate reason for going beyond the normal political process.
But it cannot be said too often or too emphatically that the dangers of extra-democratic action are great. If it is not to be merely the prelude to anarchy or the assumption of power by another group of oppressors, it must be taken within a moral context. It is to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. That end must have a clear and limited moral purpose if law-breaking or violence are to have any foreseeable limit. The end must be to create or restore those structures which are necessary to a free and democratic society, nothing more or less than that.