What to do?
You might have noticed that, as well as thoughts on running and writing, I also write here about random things that interest me or that concern me. I think I’m probably meant to stick to one subject for a blog, but I already know that I would get bored very quickly if I limited myself in that way. I think that was somewhere between an apology and an explanation for the randomness.
So what’s bothering me this week? Democracy, really. Or how on earth you can have either meaningful engagement in the political process. Or accountability of politicians. You might remember Winston Churchill’s observation on forms of government, which should really be slightly longer than the more commonly seen soundbite:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
I liked the bit about “this world of sin and woe.” I’m trying to think of a current politician who might say that.
Leaving aside the question of whether things would be better if everyone agreed that having me as a benign dictator would be preferable (history suggests not), I’ve been asking myself what my role in the current system should be. I have voted in every election since I was eighteen, for a range of individuals who happened to be members of different political parties. Maybe that makes me a floating voter. At the last general election, I read every manifesto of the main parties. One of them was even well written. The rest were somewhere on a spectrum of dreadfulness. How many meaningless soundbites can you string together to create what is, technically, a sentence? A lot, it turns out. But understanding what the high level policies will mean in practice seems to be a task which eludes most of us, me included. But we have to decide what we believe would be best and put our cross in the box. So I did that.
And I was pretty unhappy about this process. What do you do when the person whose policies you most agree with/least disagree with has no chance of winning and you cannot in good conscience vote for any (either) of the parties who could win in your constituency?
I got annoyed. I had in my entire life only once written properly to my MP when the government decided to cut the tariffs for renewable energy generation with very little notice. In the end, the government lost that one in court. Not that my MP was interested. That was a good few years ago, but then two things happened and I went from annoyed to angry because they were both issues of principle and then my moral compass jabs me in the ribs and I know I can’t leave it be. One was the Assisted Dying Bill which I blogged about at the time, where my MP seems not to have understood either the question he was being asked to vote on or the parliamentary process involved. I’m still trying to engage him on this. I might return to it here in the future. But I think the other example is worthy of more comment.
In October, you might remember the visit by China’s president to the UK. China is not known as an example of democracy. But what really troubled me was the way in which one protester in particular was treated in London. Let’s just rewind a few years though, because the context matters here.
The Tiananmen Square massacre is something that those of us around at the time can never forget and the image of one man standing in front of a tank has been used ever since as a symbol of protest. Shao Jiang survived that protest (and you might remember that even mention of it is banned on the censored version of the internet available in China). He spent months in prison in China for his role in the associated opposition movement. Since then, he has been a prominent campaigner for democracy in China. When the Chinese president visited London, Dr Jiang ran into the road where the motorcade was to come and held up two placards. One said “Democracy now,” the other “End autocracy” in both English and Chinese. For doing this, he was arrested. The legislation he was arrested under is targeted at two or more people acting together to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” Right. The president of China was harassed, alarmed or distressed by this?
It gets better. His laptop and phone were taken by the police when his home was searched (“raided” is the slightly more emotive word for that.) And he was banned from being in a few places, including within 100 metres of Xi Jingping. The reason for that was “to prevent further offences and to prevent further harassment of the victim.” Wait. When did Xi Jingping become a victim in all of this?
As well as concern about this specific case, I also realised that I couldn’t say why I wouldn’t be arrested and have my home raided and my belongings taken if I went to, for example, another climate march. For all I know, a visiting politician might feel harassed. Do I think that likely? No. But if you can be arrested in London for being, at worst, a nuisance to a politician we are supposed to be being nice to, and a member of the cabinet doesn’t feel he can express a view, is that the end of the right to peaceful protest? Where do any of us stand now?
Ready to be arrested and have your home raided?
Oh, and I also wrote to David Cameron. Summary of responses:
MP (highlights are mine):
The operational policing of protests and the use of police powers are entirely matters for Chief Constables in the United Kingdom, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time on specific individual cases. Similarly, the system of policing complaints in this country is an independent one, to ensure that officers and staff are answerable to the public.
I am a strong believer in the peaceful right to protest and as I have said, the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under UK law, but protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the right of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent, threatening behaviour, and the police have the powers to deal with such acts.
So – (1) no comment – fortunately other MPs have expressed their view in public, (2) violent, threatening behaviour is not acceptable (guess what, I agree – what it has to do with this case escapes me).
Civil Servant (I didn’t expect to get an answer from the prime minister – for transparency, I will include the full reply on this one at the end as I’m including only two lines here. It’s also almost amusing to see how it takes five paragraphs to say nothing about what I wrote about):
Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police.
Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.
Wait – didn’t I just read that? Oh yes, that must be the standard explanation being given then – word for word in the second part.
I’ve written back to my MP. No reply after a month. Starting to feel like I’m talking to myself. That’s normally reserved for long runs.
There is, in my view, something seriously wrong here. I am, however, pleased that Dr Jiang has now complained to the independent IPCC about the way the police behaved in this case. And optimistic that the important questions which it raised will be dealt with properly.
So I’m left with one unanswered question – what do I do when I think something is badly amiss and when genuine questions are met with non-answers? Stand for election myself? I can’t imagine anything worse. But if everyone said that, where would we be left? (Don’t say “where we are now,” that’s not helpful!).
There is one thing I can do. I will engage in another “first” for me and go and see my MP at his next surgery. Of course they are all during working hours so that will have to be holiday time. But I cannot accept that not replying to a constituent gets an MP out of engaging on an issue.
Democracy. Loving it. Need to fix it. This might take some time.
And here is the full reply from the Home Office on my Shao Jiang question – which in my opinion does not even touch on the question:
Thank you for your email of 24 October to the Prime Minister regarding your concerns. As I hope you will appreciate, the Prime Minister receives a large amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each piece individually. Your email has therefore been forwarded to the Direct Communications Unit at the Home Office and I have been asked to reply.
Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society. It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views, however uncomfortable these may be to the majority of us, provided that they do so within the law.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck. Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.
The law has to balance the need for the police to have powers to prevent and deal with disorder at demonstrations, with democratic rights to peaceful protest. This includes rights to express views that are within the law but which we may find uncomfortable or distasteful. However, if individuals cross the boundary into criminal acts including public order offences, the police will take action.
Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police, in line with their duties to keep the peace, to protect communities, and to prevent the commission of offences, working within the provisions of the legal framework set by Parliament.
I hope you find this reply helpful.