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Tyrants and Radicals

Going Straight
by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 1 of 4)

Britain is a free country. I remember this from my schooldays. It was something to be grateful for we were told, and for good measure British justice was the best in the world, which is why so many other countries had either adopted or envied it. That, I suppose, is why we also stood for a minute’s silence on execution days. Later, as a lawyer, I learned that these claims are what are known as self-serving statements that may or may not be true, but should be treated with caution. Experience, especially in modern times, leads me to conclude that we are “sort of free”, not exactly living under a dictatorship or police state in the full sense of these words but increasingly hedged in by developments and incrementally unable to influence matters in any real or democratic sense. It has even become difficult nowadays to discover exactly what the law is at any given moment, never mind form an opinion on it or decide whether to agree with it or not.

The global nature of events means that we are less in the dark about what goes on in the rest of the world. In advanced nations at least, British justice is maybe par for the course, and frequently falls foul of European or other international standards. Perhaps it just looks better, more pomp and ceremony. Many high principles of a similar kind to those discovered in Britain appear to have arisen quite independently in other countries. Ours are now being eaten away. More repressive laws on the one hand, a diminution of rights on the other. It is now an offence to demonstrate near Parliament! Speakers Corner is still fine, so long as you mind what you say.

Radical Heritage
In former times such developments might have caused a bigger reaction. There is a lot of politeness around now and a fear of perhaps being marginalized. But there are signs of life. Over the past few months, the Guardian newspaper ran an interesting series on Britain’s “radical heritage” that it sees as important to preserve. Unfortunately, many radical events in history have ended in violence, disturbances, riots and murder, even if they have pushed the world forward – not necessarily straightaway but as the dust settled and people began to realize that a crackdown by the authorities, may, with hindsight, have involved injustice, unfairness or over-reaction towards those seeking to change matters. Sometimes questionable or savage means were used to quell disturbances, protests, uprising or rebellion. Whatever, the Guardian bemoans the general lack of blue plaques to commemorate such events and the airbrushing of them from the collective memory.

Rarely is it that the authorities rather than the rebels have been held to account in such circumstances although there are partial exceptions, as where compensation has been paid out in the wake of state violence. The miners’ strike of 1984 is a telling example of legitimate dissent that somehow turned sour, the protesters being put down by dubious means under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and whole communities destroyed. There is some evidence to suggest that there were political moves to interfere with the judicial process. Millions of pounds were later, and far more quietly, paid out to miners for the treatment that they received. The peace convoy that visited Stonehenge each June for the Summer Solstice is another, if less well-rehearsed, example of pre-emptive action by the authorities that went wrong. Police in riot gear from several forces closed in on these “toe-rags”, “vermin” and “ne’er do wells” over several days, forcing them into a bean field (hence the events are also sometimes called “The Battle of the Bean Field”), beating up travellers and smashing their wagons. Ostensibly, the convoy was a threat to local farmers and their crops. The response was politically charged and disproportionate. The TV and front pages were full of the actions of the police in stopping this lawlessness but few reported the heavy compensation payouts ordered by the High Court several years on.

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© Bryan Gibson 2006. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in February 2006

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