Tony Benn: 'Protest is vital to a thriving democracy'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The recent UK demonstrations by students against the huge increase in university fees has provided the latest example of media coverage of such events: they are often presented as being motivated by violence which endangers the fabric of our society.

The police's stance is very simple – they claim that they are there to protect demonstrations, but that inevitably violence occurs. But my own experience suggests that this is a gross oversimplification.

Two or three years ago, there was a meeting in Parliament Square organised by those who opposed the Iraq war, at which a Member of Parliament spoke, together with two very senior UN officials who were involved in Iraq. The event was attended by hundreds of peace campaigners, many of them elderly, and all of them committed to peace.

The demonstration had been organised in connection with a plan to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister in Downing Street, and after the speeches were over the crowd began to move towards Whitehall.

But that same day, President Bush was visiting 10 Downing Street and the police were ordered to close Whitehall, preventing the letter from being delivered. As the crowd moved to enter Whitehall, they came up against a body of police. The pressure from the back pushed people forward and the police began using their batons on the crowd at the front.

As I was at the head of the protest myself, I saw what was happening – the violence of the police against the demonstrators was clearly visible and was very frightening.

It is in these circumstances that occasionally someone may pick up a brick and throw it – not that I saw it happen that day. But such an action would be taken as proof of violence against the police.

Similarly, the process of "kettling", in which police surround a crowd and prevent anyone from leaving, has caused trouble, since kettling is a form of imprisonment of demonstrators without any court justification.

There is no doubt that you will find a few angry people in any crowd, and kettling may bring this aggression out further. But then the media uses the inevitable clash as evidence that the demonstration is violent, which is not actually the case.

No government likes to find itself faced with demonstrations against its policies and as these recent pictures show, there are plenty of disillusioned citizens across Europe right now. Over Britain's long history, many significant gains have been brought about by such demonstrations – as with the recognition of trade unions, the campaign for the vote by the Chartists, and for votes for women by the Suffragettes.

Each of these campaigns was denounced at the time as violent. But it's interesting to see exactly how they unfolded. To begin with, the demonstrations are ignored; if they continue, they're described as absurd, and then if they persist, they are described as violent and the people responsible may be imprisoned.

Then comes a pause as public opinion realigns itself to support the changes being demanded. Once the government has finally got the message, you can't find anyone who doesn't claim to have supported the demands in the first place.

It's not possible to find anyone now who was opposed to the recognition of trade unions or to the principle of one woman, one vote. Yet it was only a committed group of campaigners who actually brought these changes about. There's no justification for violence – if protesters resort to it, it can turn public opinion against the cause.

Remember the way that public opinion shifted in support of men such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Both are now regarded as heroes for the sacrifices they made to defend human rights. There is hardly any support now for the Vietnam war and public opinion is strongly opposed to the Afghan war.

This all goes to prove the importance of demonstrations and popular campaigns for peace, human rights and democracy.

We must expect far more demonstrations in the future and they must be seen as an integral part of political action in a democratic society. Without them, injustices would continue unchallenged and people would lose confidence in the democratic process by which such injustices are changed.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Consultants - OTE up to £35,000

£15000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Franchise Operations Manager - Midlands or North West

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The position will be home based...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent publishing and...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue