Thursday, October 20, 2005

Civil liberties defenders should hang out with the foxhunters more

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Those amongst you who have misgivings about the Blair government’s cavalier attitude to civil liberties as they seek to combat Evil in all its devious forms by playing "Variations sur le Thème de l’Acte du Terrorisme, en cas de Force Majeure" repeatedly, until we stop being able to distinguish the notes and doze off, should probably take a good look at what the persecuted minority that are foxhunting supporters are up to. If you haven’t been paying much attention to this ongoing conflict over the years, it may come as a surprise to you that, following what appeared to be a final triumph for opponents of foxhunting earlier this year, when the 1949 Parliament Act was used to finally force the ban into law, the foxhunters haven’t actually stopped hunting at all. If their PR war left something to be desired, especially compared to that of their opponents, they have no lessons to take when it comes to their current civil disobedience campaign. You may think that foxhunters have no right to use civil disobedience tactics, they’re for people like you who oppose the introduction of ID cards or nuclear waste reprocessing. However they’re just as viable for the defence of foxhunting, and the Militant Pine Marten is impressed.

Before I explain why this is case, I should define what I mean by civil disobedience*. At its simplest, civil disobedience is simply the refusal by people who consider a law to be iniquitous to submit themselves to it. However as this leaves the door open to arguments such as "Well suppose I disagree with the law that forbids murder then?", I shall add a few details. First of all, an act of civil disobedience must be conscious and intentional. Breaking a law by mistake doesn’t count. Making a conscious decision to sit in the "whites only" seat on the bus when you’re black does. Such an act is also public, which is a major difference with a criminal act, which must be clandestine to reap benefits. It is an individual action that purports to have a collective goal: the participant breaks the law to benefit others. Civil disobedience is non-violent. Its effect should come from its resonance with a with a larger body of people. Finally, and this is of course where the whole concept turns into a legal and philosophical powder keg, civil disobedience calls upon "higher principles" than those invoked by the lawmakers. Whereas these could be religious or ideological, they can also be constitutional. In this way, paradoxically, it is possible for civil disobedience to strengthen established institutions. Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s move on to the case in point.

On the 20th November 2004, the rightwing philosopher (and foxhunter) Roger Scruton published the Hunting Declaration, inviting foxhunters and supporters to openly pledge to disobey any eventual ban on foxhunting. The text fulfils all of the above criteria. None of the signatories hid their identities, denied that they would be breaking the law, and importantly the website states "The success of the Declaration will be judged by the press, public and Government, by the number of people who sign it, and especially those that do not hunt.". So far, outright defiance has not been necessary. Interestingly, what the foxhunting supporters are doing now is to push the law as far as it will go, testing both the word of the law, and the authorities’ will to enforce it. This may be enough if not to have the ban law repealed, to maintain a situation in which it is not effectively enforced, until such time that another government will repeal it. Although I’m quoting Che Guevara out of context here, I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties with the logic if I say that this stage is analogous to the pre-revolutionary stage described here:

"Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted."

So far, the ban’s opponents haven’t quite finished exploring legal routes, and of course they can’t become violent because there is at least a semblance of constitutional legality. And anyway what Che liked wasn’t civil disobedience, it was revolution, which is a different matter. However there is scope for making the authorities’ lives really difficult through civil disobedience should they decide to start trying to prosecute hunts, which would be a pretty expensive and time-consuming process.

Now the fact is that this is very, very interesting stuff for anyone who has toyed with the idea of refusing to carry an ID card if they are introduced and made mandatory. It is very similar to what the NO2ID (banner on the left) campaign is trying to achieve: first you sign a pledge that you won’t register for an ID card, then you give money to support legal resistance should it come to that. The key things are being non-violent, being public, and not giving up. And of course accepting that the PTBs are likely to make your life harder. But that’s not going to be so easy for them if a million people do the same.

And when you’re out there demonstrating against ID Cards and sitting in the way of the riot police van, don’t be surprised if the guy next to you is in tweeds. He’s already a civil disobedience veteran after all.

* Acknowledgements to Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and the Wikipedia.

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