Politics, Civil Disobedience, and UK Uncut

A couple of weeks ago I made a big fuss about UK Uncut taking over Vodafone’s World of Difference blogs.  I was very critical of it here on my blog – see UK Uncut triumph over the Vodafone website… but lose my support. (I have actually edited that now to remove a lot of my initial criticism.) For the reasons why I was so critical, have a look at what Tim Hardy said in his response at Beyond Clicktivism in Activism is Serious Business. The main cause of my reaction was the seriousness of the potential offence. Computer crime can have some fairly serious consequences.

But this leads me to an important question: How far can protesters go to make their point? All the famous protests in history, all the ones that made a difference, involved civil disobedience. The American Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes, and much that Gandhi achieved involved civil disobedience.

Several issues are raised:

  • How serious is the offence committed for the civil disobedience?
  • What is the threshold of injustice at which civil disobedience becomes justifiable?
  • Should civil disobedience target only unjust laws, or should protesters break other laws to make their point?
  • Can protesters break a law to argue for the imposition of another law?

One of my concerns is the severity of the law breaking. The actions of UK Uncut so far, in occupying shops and banks and refusing to leave, are civil disobedience. The protesters are trespassing once asked to leave by a shop manager. In England, trespass is largely a civil wrong not a criminal offence. To me, that makes it a less serious issue than damage to property or violence against people, which are criminal offences. Although seemingingly trivial, the unauthorised access to Vodafone’s blogs is potentially a breach of the computer misuse act, and therefore a more serious criminal offence. The difference is mainly academic in this case, but what about other more serious law-breaking? How far should it go? I don’t know.

What about deciding when to break the law for a cause? Is there a threshold at which it becomes ethically acceptable to break the law? In 1849 Henry Thoreau said in his essay, Civil Disobedience:

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now.
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

Many people are opposed to speed limits; they could argue that their speeding is civil disobedience against speed limit laws. Is that acceptable? Some people do not pay their council tax in protest at bad service in emptying their bins. How about that? Should civil disobedience be restricted to protesting against loss of freedom, or only breaches of human rights?

It seems to me that civil disobedience becomes acceptable once a person has found a group of other people that accept it! The larger the group, the more acceptable, perhaps. Obviously there will always be a group of people opposed to these actions, otherwise it wouldn’t be disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, you can bet that an awful lot of white people thought she was wrong.

Some would argue that the only laws that should be broken by the protesters should be the laws that they are protesting about. This would rule out occupations, refusing to obey police with a section 14 order, and all sorts of other protest methods. I have come to the conclusion that protesters must break other laws to make their point. Although the right to peaceful protest is enshrined in law, the government and the establishment work very hard to make it meaningless. An example being the current protest method allowed by the police: Arrive, march from A to B along routes checked by the police, getting in no ones way, then go home. All innocuous and quiet and not offensive in the slightest. And completely useless for achieving political aims, even when a million people attend. More is needed, but more may be illegal. And so laws must be broken to get results, or even to get noticed by those responsible for the injustice being protested against.

UK Uncut are arguing for a change in the law to clamp down on tax avoiders. Inherent in this argument is a respect for the law – how can anyone argue for large companies to obey a law on paying tax if they themselves do not respect the law? Civil disobedience can only make sense in this context if the laws broken in protest are carefully selected. Go too far, break the wrong law, and the argument will fall apart and public opinion will turn against the protesters.

And so, I have concluded that UK Uncut must break laws to achieve their aims. Since they are not directly protesting against specific unjust laws which they could break in protest, other laws must be broken instead. I think it is important to consider precisely which laws to break very carefully, or risk losing public support. But after much thought on the subject, and despite my initial reaction to their actions, they still have mine.

Further reading

Civil Disobedience – the history of the concept

Civil Disobedience – an essay written by Henry Thoreau in 1849

The Role of Civil Disobedience in Democracy

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

5 thoughts on “Politics, Civil Disobedience, and UK Uncut”

  1. What I would like to know , is what one can do about the Robber Baron attitude of the councils.
    OK we know they have the law on their side , but do they have to be so damn bombastic about it.
    Personally I would like to see the councils put up against a wall and ( weelll , projectile weapons of your choice comes in here ) sharp implements introduced to soft and sensitive parts of their anatomies !.
    No regard for the common man is the norm
    Absolute , total disregard for the realities of life
    An “I’m OK Jack , I’m in the Lifeboat , Hope you can swim ! ” attitude
    Which forgive me for being old fashioned , but, I don’t appreciate at all
    So how about a bombing campaign ?
    Target their offices , late at night of course we don’t want to hurt anybody , just shake the fuckers up a little .
    Get the ALTITUDINOUS ILLIGITIMI to realise real people haven’t got money “on tap” like they have, not everyone has the luxury of a council salary !
    Oh , and where exactly does that come from ?
    We can’t just magic money in seven days
    And if they had a more efficient book keeping protocol they could tell people timeously that they were falling behind , instead of waiting till the last minute , and then DEMANDING ! FULL PAYMENT within seven days .
    The ( begins with “c” Oxford defines as a mean and despicable person ) expletive caged !
    The excuse you get , is that ” The Computer . . . . . . . .”
    Absolute anus gravy .
    The Computer is a machine , it does what YOU TELL IT TO DO !. . . rectumwipe

    I call upon all Righteous people , to do what they can , whenever they can , to trip up , hinder and generally make life difficult for councils throughout the land
    Use the law where you can !
    Be an outlaw if you must
    Resist the Robber Barons wherever and whenever you can
    Magna Carta and all that !
    To quote ” Theym Barstids”
    Resist for resistance sake , (and sing the frikkin Marsellaise )

  2. All of which I am sorry to say gained me nothing
    I was actually looking for a way to resist the thieving sons of female dogs
    This, it seems , is a rant site ( with spellcheck nogal)
    Still it’s good to have a rant
    Und I stick by my assertion ,
    Resist for resistance sake , and a hard boiled egg
    Love , Light & Peace

  3. How gentle people are we to resist the ROBBER BARON attitudes of the councils? My heart cries out for a latter day Robin Hood. These illegitimate sons of female dogs ride rough shod over our liberties. They think that ,because the law is on their side they can do as they please ! I say come on people , magna carta and all that ! our continental counterparts would not stand for it! Why the hell do we? Even the ” obedient” germans wont stand for the excesses that our councils get up to. It costs £2 a day to live in our supposed free country . For which you get your bin emptied once a fortnight. Damn thats good value , especially when its a holiday and they cant manage it! or if there’s a bit of snow so they cant manage it , you still have to pay though!Street lights ? what a laugh . Cops ? aint seen one in two years , before that ? only when I didnt want the thugs. Oh yea , only difference between a cop and a thug is which side of the badge its stood on!Cmon folks , how do we take the councils down ?
    Don Crawford

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