Tom Sutcliffe: Profound self-regard of the peace vigil

Social Studies: There comes a point when being a lone voice comes to have its own corrupting allure
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The Independent Online

I feel a bit conflicted about the prospective clearance of Parliament Square, which must be imminent now that the Democracy Village protesters have lost their last legal challenge against Boris Johnson's plan to have them evicted. On the one hand I think this strange aggregation of elective-martyrs, alcoholics and the homeless is an eyesore – unhygienic and civically undignified. On the other hand I don't entirely care for the bit of me that feels that way. There are things that matter more than neat lawns and tourist photographs, aren't there?

And perhaps sometimes your eyes should get sore – and not be soothed by having gritty, unpalatable facts (such as homelessness or civilian casualties) swept away where they won't irritate you. So while sometimes I find myself fulminating at the fact that the centre of the capital has been turned into a wino's Glastonbury, lightly inflected with oppositional politics, at others I think that popular resistance probably always looks a bit ragged, and that this accidental community might be latter-day Levellers, exposing the limits of our commitment to free speech and free association.

On the whole though I'm glad they lost – and that's less because of the late arrivals and hangers-on who turned Parliament Square into an unregulated campsite than because of the pious lone protesters who started the whole business off. One thing we can be clear about, I think. The level of self-regard and self-righteousness is going to drop sharply in the square once the vigils have gone. I wasn't very surprised to read that Brian Haw, the man who effectively founded this modest tent city, was disinclined to talk to its other citizens. He's reported to think that they've all been deliberately moved in to create a public nuisance that will provide a pretext for his own removal – a solipsistic explanation which hints at another possible cause for his standoffishness, which is that it's much harder to look like St George if there are a lot of other St Georges milling around beside you.

To charge a peace protester with attention-seeking behaviour might be thought to be missing the point. Of course they want attention, because without it the cause they care about will continue to be ignored. But there's something about the lone protester (and not only Mr Haw) that suggests the attention is sought personally, rather than on behalf of an idea. The banners and the bric-a-brac may all shriek "Look at the issue!" but the manner of the protest itself says "Look at me!". And this isn't to argue that a single individual cannot make a big difference (just think of Rosa Parks if you want proof that a single person can). It's just to suggest that there comes a point when being a lone voice comes to have its own corrupting allure.

At that point it doesn't matter that the enterprise is futile because that in itself only confirms the purity of your devotion. The protesters who took up permanent occupation of Parliament Square were effectively staking a claim to sole and exclusive ownership of dissent, and making a shared space of protest into a private frame for their own radical virtue. It's time for them to go and do something more practical, involving a bit less limelight.

High time we thought radically on dope

The latest opinion poll on California's Proposition 19 – a plan to legalise personal cultivation and possession of marijuana – suggests growing public support for the measure, with 50 per cent of likely voters in favour, 40 per cent against and around 10 per cent still undecided. It continues a reversal of attitudes on the issue over the past three months – as police chiefs, judges, doctors groups and some city councils spoke out in favour of a change to the law. When the California State Board of Equalization, the body which is responsible for collecting Californian state taxes, ran the numbers on a proposal to legalise and tax the drug, along with alcohol and tobacco, they calculated that the state could raise $1.4bn in new taxes – quite apart from the savings involved in policing and prosecutions.

The Rand Institute poured a little cold water on this fiscal bong dream by pointing out that prices would be likely to drop by 90 per cent if marijuana was legalised, thus cutting the sales tax revenues – but I'm sure there'd be a way round that. Any government closer to home which was interested in expanding the personal liberty of its citizens, cutting the very considerable costs of alcohol-related disorder and opening up a new field for revenue generation, might like to think it over. Even though 20 per cent VAT and excise duty wouldn't solve the country's financial problems, some citizens, at least, would be a lot more laid back about the austerity measures.

Hitch and humour are still on good terms

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about some religious responses to the news of Christopher Hitchens's cancer. Judging from a long conversation last week between Hitchens and the conservative evangelical talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Hitchens – far from being affronted at the fact that he's being prayed for – finds it touching. He doesn't think it will do any good, of course, but even so he says he appreciates the thought.

Anyone anxious that Hitchens has been mellowed by his illness needn't worry too much though. Earlier in the same conversation (an amicable and mutually respectful affair built around Hitch-22, his recently published memoir) Hewitt asked him whether there can be such a thing as terrorism by incitement. Hitchens replied that he figures Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qa'ida idealogue, might qualify. "In fact", he continued, "If I had a wish, if what I've got turns out to be terminal, I wouldn't mind my last act being an interview with him, followed by a nasty surprise. I'd feel then I was dying in a good cause." He was joking – I think – but it's good to know that his spleen hasn't yet been affected by the treatment.

For further reading: 'Hitch-22', by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic, 2010)