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Oxford Union Debate - This House would Break the Law to Make a Point

24th February 2004

Should the law be broken to make a point - no it should not!

Should the law be broken to make a point - no it should not! However, can civil disobedience within the law be justified as a legitimate means of making a point? Of course - the answer is yes. Now at this moment I'm looking around slightly anxiously- are we going to be invaded by both Fathers 4 Justice and the hunt campaigners tonight - if so, it could get a bit confusing ...fathers for hunting or hunting for justice!

I would never argue with the fundamental right of peaceful protest in order to raise public awareness of a particular issue. But to maintain a "right" to expression by the use of lawlessness to force ones views on others must be unacceptable. Take the recent example of the Sikh play at the Birmingham Rep, forced to close down because of intimidation and the threat of violence. Surely the content of the play was subservient to the production's right to be played. Where civil disobedience is concerned, the line between legal persuasion and illegal mob rule appears easy to cross which means that laws are required to set the parameters for debate.

Incidentally, we have a Government that is so backward that it is currently maintaining that the way to protect religious expression is to permit the prosecution of those that criticise religion. Just wait until we have one religious group using this law to try to close down plays and prosecute people of another religion for criticising their beliefs.

Even if we disagree with some laws (and goodness knows I do not agree with some of this Government's laws), in a democratic society we must nevertheless respect them. We cannot pick and choose which laws to break any more than we would wish everyone else around us to start doing so.

If you feel passionate about a particular injustice - certainly protest. Join those individuals and groups who already peacefully and effectively lobby government every day. For instance, I would suggest that the hunt saboteurs' illegal thuggery did nothing to end hunting. What did for hunting was a concerted, well funded and consistent lobby of legislators and decision makers working over years, operating within the law against, I have to say, what was a complacent and introspective hunting lobby who only pulled their heads out of the sand once their sport was already halfway knackered by Labour.

Hunters now realise that their ultimate sanction comes on Election Day, as it will this spring. That is the time when politicians have to answer for the views they have expressed, and the laws they have enacted or failed to enact. The Countryside Alliance's eagerness to fight the new hunting law has now been much more productively channelled into campaigning against anti-hunting MPs in marginal seats. I congratulate The Field magazine on its recent article showing how hunt members can scientifically target marginal parliamentary seats in order to oust anti-hunting candidates. This is the language of grown up politics.

Having said all that, staying within the law does not rule out vigorous protesting. For instance, I can tell you that I was one of those people legally protesting in Parliament Square whilst Mr Ferry and his friends were cavorting on the floor of the chamber with the men in tights.

When I saw the Fathers 4 Justice campaigner throw the coloured dye at the Prime Minister, it may not be of constitutional importance that I looked around and thought, "will I see my wife and kids tonight" but it is relevant that, as a result of these protests, the public gallery has been screened off and it has been made harder for people to watch and contact their members of Parliament.

And even where violence is taken to the extreme what is the outcome? Has Al-Qaeda threatening to blow British people up made us more amenable to their message? No - most certainly less so.

Let me take a local example of the use of violence. Based in my constituency is the animal research organisation Huntingdon Life Sciences - HLS. Now whatever your views on animal testing, it remains the case that animal research is a highly regulated area, and that those companies who continue to carry out this work are doing so quite legally. I have now campaigned for several years against the war being waged by a couple of hundred animal rights extremists. I have done so because I have seen what their "protests" involve.

Some may argue that it is right to break the law to make a point but try explaining that to the families of HLS employees, suppliers and shareholders, terrorised at their work and in the evenings at home. Menacing phonecalls and letters, bricks through windows, firebombing cars, accusations of paedophilia right the way through to beatings with baseball bats and death threats. The list goes on but I hope this at least demonstrates what illegal civil disobedience can only too readily represent in the real world. And what has this vile campaign achieved? Far from increasing support for their cause, such groups face unanimous condemnation. I would say that animal rights extremists have set their cause back ten years because few people can now see past the violence to the real issues.

However, there is a more fundamental side to this debate: whether Government can restrict the freedoms of its citizens to such an extent that people are justified in breaking the law because that is the only way they can make a point. Of course in the context of the threat posed to humanity by the Nazi menace during the war years, or in Soviet Russia or Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the position is vastly different than this country. Clearly where humanity is treated through the law with such contempt that the law itself becomes meaningless then resistance must be justified. However, I hardly think looking at the title of this debate, that here in modern Britain, albeit with this regressive Labour Government, that the law should be broken simply to "make a point" let alone to resist.

The interesting question to my mind is at what point does it become acceptable to say that one's country has become a Zimbabwe or a Nazi Germany. Listening to interviews with Germans who lived through the 1930's, it becomes clear that the establishment of a totalitarian regime was not a one day event. It was brought about through a series of incremental laws which, taken together, made what we think of as normal existence impossible. So although I speak against the motion today - that does not mean I am complacent about the need to defend the attributes of liberal democracy.

I have to say that what is going on with this Government gives me grave concern: their attacks on jury trials, the right to silence and on freedom of speech; the growth of the power of executive agencies; the outrageous current proposals to permit the Home Secretary to order house arrest - without a judge's direction; the attacks on the institutions of this country such as abolishing the Lord Chancellor, institutions which were previously the envy of the world and preserved our historic freedoms.

So how do we stop the move towards a society where individual liberties are trampled to the extent that breaking the law becomes our only recourse? By people like the honourable members of this Union involving themselves in the society in which they live, not least by voting. It is sad that young people do not vote in greater numbers. Did you know that older people are twice as likely as the average person to vote, whereas young people are only half as likely? That means that, at the moment, in terms of political influence, a pensioner's vote is worth four times that of a young person. If you want influence, if you want an effective say - then get involved in the political process rather than contemplating breaking the law to make empty gestures that do nothing for anybody.

So, I cannot agree that it is right to break the law to make a point. Perhaps if we were having this debate about some totalitarian regime, my view would be different. But, even as reduced by New Labour, we are lucky enough to live in a relatively democratic society in which we have ample opportunity to express our views. Breaking the law, simply to make a point, is not the answer.

Jonathan Djanogly MP
Shadow Solicitor General

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