Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Democracy in Action

The strapline of this blog is “Cycling, London & Life” and to date, cycling has predominated so far, but I’d like to do a bit of the “Life” stuff today.

Over on my main blog I posted a picture of the self-styled “Democracy Village” (like this) and said that I was please that our elected officials were taking it away. A frequent habitué of London Daily Photo, Imajoebob, took the time to leave a long comment, the rest of this post is my response, which visitors here may not be interested in so…

Here’s my post:
Those who have occupied Parliament Square call it "Democracy Village" but that could not be further from the truth. This motley collection of tents and misfits has been on the square since the beginning of May, something that could only happen in a democracy, but democracy is working through the ballot box and accepting the result, like it or not. Direct action is as far from democracy as are the fascist structures these people claim to despise. I say this although I, too, have been steadfastly anti war; they are such a messy bunch. Thankfully, it looks like they will soon be out, courtesy of our elected Mayor. Now that's democracy. I don't mind Brian Haw, he is a great British Eccentric, but I don't want one of our more pleasant London spaces turned into a campsite.
And the comment:
Wow, what a disappointment Ham. Because a group of people appear "motley" they should be removed from such a public spot? And "democracy" is when a person in authority removes unpopular people from public places? Because their simple presence makes your life a little less "pleasant?" Perhaps Boris can start arresting the homeless every night because they make the stroll down The Strand so depressing? And all those giant protests that are a trademark of so many (hundreds of thousands) of "eccentrics" can be eradicated. It makes it so difficult for you to whiz through town on your bike when all those people take up the public roadways just to try and get their MPs to listen to their views. There must be better ways for them to do this without causing you such inconvenience!

I'm sorry Ham, I usually find you right-minded about most things - even when I may disagree with you. But you really missed the mark with this one. These protesters have been there in some fashion since 2001, when Mr Haw recognised Blair for the Lap Dog he became, and as the religious apocalyptic he tried to keep hidden. If it weren't for these people I doubt most days you'd think even once, never mind twice about the soldiers still in Iraq. That's not meant to reflect on you, just on current reality. How much of the news is dedicated to covering this, except for days when someone dies or is wounded?

This "messy bunch" is not only a protest against government policy, it is also a testament to British democracy. Parliament Square is surrounded by monuments to great statesmen, each of whom was willing to do the extraordinary to make the world better. I believe Churchill, Lincoln, and Mandela would rather suffer the unkempt tents than a daily onslaught of picnickers, Frisbees, and tour buses.

Finally, I am compelled to point out that public speech is not the same as direct action (just see the G20 summit for examples of direct action). It IS however, the most fundamental part of democracy after voting. And I'm quite pained to have to tell you that removing these protesters because you either don't like what they say, how they appear, or because it inconveniences you is a fundamental exercise in... fascism. As is passing laws aimed at specific individuals to try and silence their ability to speak; i.e the 'Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005" which was enacted by Parliament solely to persecute (and prosecute) Mr Haw. As was his "coincidental" arrest on the morning just before the Opening of Parliament last month.

Far from a "motley, messy eccentric," Mr Haw has been recognised by your countrymen as a dedicated and brave man, and the Most Inspiring Political Figure in 2007.

I think the issues raised here go to the heart of our society and point up a malaise that runs through and through. Imajoebob, I think that in objective and sentiment we are probably not far apart, if at all, but I think you are entirely wrong in your conclusions.

So, what’s so important? Democracy. Most people understand it in terms of Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and think no more about it. The truth is mind-achingly different. The Wikipedia article starts with the words “Democracy is pretty much dead” and goes on to justify the statement with detailed explanation. Frankly, the complexity of the political spectrum is far too much for most people, who are only interested in the simplistic version meted out by the media which can be summarised as “Democracy (us), Good. Everything else, Bad (them)”. However, our parliamentary democracies are what makes our lives comfortable and ensure our freedom.

In our Parliamentary Democracy the prime responsibility of the Government is to secure the safety of our country and the freedom of the individual. Soundbite style, it is “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, a less succinct version is the European Declaration of Human Rights, running to 28,000 words. If the mood takes you, you can read it here , if you can stay awake that is. For all its wordage, don’t underestimate its significance.

The focus of the protests that we see are all around the wars we are engaged in, mostly but not entirely centered in the Gulf. And, underscoring each and everyone, is the fight for oil. Let’s look at the wars first, leaving aside the post-communism skirmishes in Europe that come under the banner of “Peacekeeping” (and acknowledging that sweeps a lot of smelly stuff under a carpet).

Thirty years ago, there was the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq were our friends then as it seemed they were the least likely to threaten our continued supply of oil. That was a real messy one, but apart from small US involvement against Iran, we “let” them blow up and gas each other. Thirty years ago is buried in history, nobody much thinks about that now but I bet it is still in the psyche of those who lived though it. Then there was our best friends Kuwait and that nasty nasty man Sadam Hussein. Yes the same one we had helped a few years back, I doubt that anyone anywhere thinks that wasn’t about oil. Then there was the shock of 9th September 2001, followed by Afghanistan invasion. Possibly because we had to kick ass, possibly because of the mineral deposits, who knows. Then there was Iraq, and still is. More oil? This is getting a bit broad in its scope, so let’s bring it back.

All those invasions, all those wars, all those interferences were engaged in by our democratic governments with the intention that it would serve their party and their country the best outcome. However misguided the decisions (and I was among those who felt Iraq was misguided from the start) I am utterly convinced that the decision makers believed that they were taking the best path of action, including in that misleading the public (if that is what they did, although with hindsight it may be hard to see it any other way).

So, what were they hoping for? Glory, is one thing. Security of oil supplies is another. We are an oil based economy, and life without it (or with the price doubled) is barely imaginable. The direct impact to any government that presided over a shortage would be immediate and devastating. We had a taste of that in the UK with the self induced shortage caused by panic buying of fuel with tanker driver strikes in 2005; the real thing would have been so much worse. If an administration has to choose between a few (thousand) soldiers dying half way around the world or a fuel shortage, their course of action is easily decided.

But it is us who make that decision for them, we who need our consumer goods, our cars, our facilities, heating, lighting, water. Nobody is exempt. So I cycle a lot, big deal. I still like and enjoy the benefits of a consumer society, it is entirely impractical for me to opt out even if I wanted to. The upshot of that is that like it or not those who are protesting against the war are virtually as responsible as those who declared it.

We are all part of the same society, and that confers the rights and responsibilities. We cannot abrogate ourselves from it, we cannot distance ourselves from it, we are part of it. We get the government we deserve. The only options if you do not wish to be part of a society are pretty much move or start a revolution.

Freedom of expression is a basic tenet of our society, our last Government was shockingly restrictive and prescriptive, increasing police powers and encroaching on personal freedom in so many ways. It’s very good to see them gone for that reason alone, and I suspect that the Con-Dem coalition is likely to float back towards the previous state of affairs. SOCPA and its associated veneration of Parliament is a terrifying piece of legislation, I wonder if it will get reprieved.

So those anti-war protestors who see themselves as apart from the society that went to war - but I argue are as much a part of it - should have the right to protest and make their voice heard, and they have done. And after that? They’re just a mess now.

Why should their minority view (that they want to camp in Parliament Square, nothing to do with the war) take precedence over the majority who would like them gone? Not only that, but Boris is the democratically elected Mayor. We have asked him to act for us, and so even if I did not agree with his decision I have to go along with his decision. There is a whole other rant on the subject of the tyranny of minority view that I won’t go into here although it is extremely relevant as I’m running much longer than I wanted to.

It’s not fascism to expect and require certain standards of behaviour and we have a tradition and history of tolerance in this country. Brian Haw if nothing else is a monument to the ineptitude of the previous administration and should be allowed to remain if he so wishes, but the rest of them? Sorry. And to describe what they are doing as democratic is to stretch the term to breaking point. They don’t like democracy, or our flavour of it, and its consequences. Fine, protest, make your point, eight weeks should be enough. Now go.


  1. First, we all caught a break here. I wrote this erudite, moving tome replete with history, philosophy, and compelling argument. Then I went back to double check something from the LDP comments and it reloaded on top of this and it's all gone. So I'll try to be short(er).

    Ham, you ignorant slu- oops, wrong web site. I mean, I enjoy LDP in part for it's "agnostic" philosophy. This kind of discussion doesn't feel right there (hint).

    Plato was one of the earliest to warn against the "Tyranny of the majority" as a legitimate use of democracy. Modern western democracies were warned of the same danger by James Madison. Ironically, the ultimate outcome of a majority's tyranny is fascism. Look no further than Italy and Germany, and to a lesser extent Spain, for examples. Without democratic majorities neither Mussolini nor Hitler would ever come to power. It was the abuse of the minority that led to totalitarian states.

    Your concern with the aesthetic of Parliament Square taking precedent over the ability of someone else's free expression hints at the apocryphal allowance that at least Mussolini made the trains run on time. As often as not, a little public messiness is more beneficial to open democracy than is the public order.

    At best, you pay lip service to Mr Haw, saying you share his general sentiment about the wars, but that commitment disappears when he ruins your view. At worst, saying "Eight weeks should be enough. Now go." is abhorrent and offensive. You've tired of having to sacrifice a tidy lawn as a reminder that your countrymen are dying in far away lands for convoluted reasons.

    I don't believe you're so callow or shallow (paging Señor Gallo..), but it's what you've expressed. And to compound it, you use a classic fascist tactic of claiming that another's exercise of their rights is a threat or infringement on yours and mine. I chalk that up to an error of convenience, not intent.

    Consider this: fascism gives us efficient trains, pristine. monolithic stations, and Black Shirts; Western democracy gives us St Pancras, Victoria and Charing Cross. And the National Rail and Mr Haw and tents.

    Pick your poison.

  2. So how do you square Brian Haw not liking these Johnny-come-latelys? (as reported, anyway)

    This is no Greenham Common, this is no protest with purpose, this is not coherent politics. This appears to be (and therefore is) a rag-tag bunch of woolly minded liberals who are doubtless sincere but are unable to convey their meaning and I'm afraid they won't be missed.

    There is a place for vox populi, there is a place for the voice of a minority to make as much noise as they can. I have certainly actively participated in many causes over the years, and I uphold the right of anyone to do so whether or not I agree with them.

    So let's give 'em what they are asking for. Soldiers back from Iraq. Afghanistan. (Now what?) Sri Lanka ostracised. Capitalism dead. Land & Freedom (whatever that means). Peace in the Middle east (damn fine idea, how?)

    Yeah, right.

    I'm sorry, but I really don't think confining their aimless protest to eight weeks smacks of fascism, nor do I think that eventual deployment of due process by an elected official through an independent judiciary could ever be construed as fascism. Not only that, but we are constitutionally incapable of running trains to time.

    I believe that the wars and aftermaths we are currently involved with in Afghanistan and Iraq are largely pointless, and I have always held that view. I think that our involvement has created a responsibility that we did not have previously which means that at this stage we cannot and should not just pull out and leave them to it. I believe that both the US and UK administrations recognise the folly of the original decisions and will do everything they can to get our troops out if they possibly can. I hope only that they will stand up to the obligations that we have created for ourselves.

    That the protest is unfocussed reflects the fact that there are no or few decisions to be made now that could be influenced.

    So you want those people to stay, apparently, because you think it is their democratic right. As opposed to what I am suggesting that it is democratic process that properly sweeps them away. Come back to my question, what will you give them to make them happy?

    (Note: you keep rolling up Brian Haw with the rest of them and I have constantly made a distinction. He at least has been single minded and a thorn in the side of the administration. Oh yes, and I did shift it to here rather than LDP which is not the place for these discussions)

  3. Oh, and I'd argue it wasn't abuse of a minority as much as the blaming of a minority that leads to totalitarianism and fascism. There is a world and a half of difference. It's the difference between ignoring a minority view and actively trying to stamp it out.

  4. Let's look at some facts here - the protestors are no breaking any laws so should be allowed to stay. When the troops come home, they will leave the square. I doubt very much they want to live in the middle of a traffic island indefinitely. So what if they're not pretty. So what if they are a ragged band; they are here to show the peoples will.

  5. Facts? hardly. "the protestors are no breaking any laws" Then they will be allowed to stay by the judiciary.

    "When the troops come home, they will leave the square" seems a strange assertion given that their "protest" is so ill defined. And do they seriously think the very best thing is to bring the troops back now? I was dead against the war(s), but now it has happened it would be entirely wrong to cut and run. Having caused harm, we are duty bound to minimise that harm.

    "I doubt very much they want to live in the middle of a traffic island indefinitely" What DO they want? you certainly can't tell from their presence.

    "So what if they're not pretty. So what if they are a ragged band; they are here to show the peoples will" Again, not a fact, and what people, and what will? Most people DO want the troops home, I believe. My view is that those people do not care what additional harm is done in Iraq and Afghanistan, I really do. But look at the thing, they don't know what they want.

    I despair of the generation that we have brought up that appear so hedonistic and focussed on themselves that agitprop is a thing of the past. This ramshackle party on the green is not even an excuse for a protest, it says nothing and does nothing useful. Politics is turning into a reality show soundbite-fest, and protest is paper thin.

    There are no alternative politics any more in this country, all we are offered are shaded versions of the same thing. As a result we have observed the growth of the far right, a groundswell that is one of the most worrying things in years. Against that a few tents and a ragbag of things they want and don't want.

    It's not protest I'm against - it's this so called protest, which is a just sh1t poor example, sorry.


Your thoughts are welcome