09 August 2009

The Rights of the Mob

Previously on Anomaly UK, I have discussed Rights and the relationship between rights and Mob Violence

I am brought back to these subjects by a programme I happened to catch last night on BBC4, about the Miners' Strike.

The point I had previously missed, but has to be taken into account, is that a mob of protesters is generally recognised to have additional rights beyond those that exist in law.

From a legalistic viewpoint, the violent clashes of 1984 were very clear. The government has the duty of keeping the roads open - that has been the case for as long as there have been governments and roads. If a group illegally blocks the road, they must be removed, without more force than necessary, but with as much force as is necessary. If that means charges of mounted police, then send in the horses. If it means tanks, send in tanks. If it means machine-guns, load them up. It is out of the question that the law can be openly defied by violence.

Clearly, that's not the situation - nobody saw it that way. The horses were controversial, tanks and guns would have been out of the question, while giving up and allowing the strikers to block the road was a real possibility. Nor was the restraint on the government's actions some irrational daintiness on the part of Lady Thatcher - to have employed sufficient force to make victory in the field certain would have torn the country apart. The Police and Army would have run real risk of mutiny, workers in other industries would have sided with the miners - these were real dangers which put the outcome of the overall dispute in doubt.

Any model of where real power lies in the country, such as I have been attempting to create, is incomplete unless it can explain what rights a mob is understood to have, to form and to break the law without facing any greater force than lightly-armed police.

The limitation of the power of the state is simply that it can't shoot everybody - it requires a level of voluntary cooperation from the population in general in order to function. But that only pushes the question back - why would rolling armoured cars through picket lines have forfeited that cooperation? It breaks some unwritten rules, but where did they come from?

I wrote in the context of more recent disturbances that rights are acquired by violent precedent - that if a group has won a conflict in the past, they will be assumed to win again, so that conflict is avoided. But that does not cover the case - what is the precedent for the use of military levels of violence against mobs in England not being successful? The chief candidate that comes to mind is the Peterloo Massacre, but that was not really unsuccessful, in that a revolt was averted. 1972's Bloody Sunday would seem more relevant, being both recent and a case where lethal force used by the government did backfire politically, but I get the feeling that at the time Northern Ireland was seen as more of a special case, being at that time a conflict between two groups in the population rather than one group against the government.

My impression is that Peterloo is the key precedent, and the reason it counts as a defeat for the government is because the British regime in its entirety - from the TUC to Margaret Thatcher herself - is descended not from the government of 1819 but from the protesters of 1819. They won in the end and the measures that the ancien regime used against them are now out of bounds.

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