These Daughters of Rebekah are a terrifying spectacle

By Alan Watkins
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The Independent Online

After 1839 some of the small farmers of South-west Wales banded together to roam the countryside destroying toll gates whose operators were overcharging. The agricultural depression also played a part in their nocturnal activities, for which they dressed up as women and called themselves the Daughters of Rebecca, the reference being to Genesis xxiv.60: "And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate [italics mine] of those which hate them." Their activities came to be known as the Rebecca Riots. They must have presented a terrifying spectacle.

After 1839 some of the small farmers of South-west Wales banded together to roam the countryside destroying toll gates whose operators were overcharging. The agricultural depression also played a part in their nocturnal activities, for which they dressed up as women and called themselves the Daughters of Rebecca, the reference being to Genesis xxiv.60: "And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate [italics mine] of those which hate them." Their activities came to be known as the Rebecca Riots. They must have presented a terrifying spectacle.

They cannot, however, have been much more terrifying than the Daughters of Rebekah of the year 2000. I refer to Ms Rebekah Wade, who retains the spelling of the Cambridge Bible and is the bashful editor of the News of the World. Following her "naming and shaming" campaign against child molesters of one sort or another, a campaign which is now in abeyance but probably at an end, new Rebekah Riots have flourished in various parts, notably Portsmouth.

Here the rioters are not Welsh farmers dressed as women but real women, even though some of them sport tattoos. I do not know what they do to the child molesters or "paedophiles", as they are now universally called in an interesting linguistic upgrade, a half-crown word becoming popular currency. But, by God, they terrify me.

In fact they terrify the child molesters as well. Some of them have decamped, goodness knows where. Others have done likewise when they were innocent of all charges. Indeed, one unfortunate man in his early fifties was popularly held to be guilty for no other reasons than that he lived with his mother and proclaimed his love for her. We have been witnessing a phenomenon described by the 19th-century French sociologist Gustave le Bon in his pioneering work The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind:

"We have shown that crowds do not reason, that they accept or reject ideas as a whole, that they tolerate neither discussion nor contradiction, and that the suggestions brought to bear on them invade the entire field of their understanding and tend at once to transform themselves into acts [italics mine]".

This country has seen several breakdowns of civil order since James Callaghan, as Home Secretary, sent the troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 to protect the Roman Catholic population of Belfast. Civil society appeared on the verge of collapse several times during the last two years of Edward Heath's administration - when the Labour opposition did nothing to support the rule of law, being wholly concerned with extracting party advantage from the government's difficulties. In 1978-79, again, civil society almost broke down even though there was surprisingly little violence. In the early 1980s, Brixton, Moss Side and Toxteth were all put to the torch. In the miners' strike violence was used by both sides, with Sir Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary, in effect creating an unconstitutional national police force.

Among these breakdowns, which the English do not like to talk about or remember much, the Rebekah Riots of August 2000 will undoubtedly rank low. No one suggests that Mr Jack Straw should have imported extra policemen from forces outside Portsmouth. But he should have said something. He is, after all, supposed to be in charge. Mr Straw, however, is on holiday. The Home Office refuses to tell me where, saying it is not normal practice to disclose such matters.

To be frank, I do not greatly care where Mr Straw may be resting his head at this moment. Anyway, the clear impression one gains is that the Government wants to give a wide berth to the Rebekah Riots. On Friday morning Mr John Humphrys told us on Today that no ministers would appear on the programme to discuss them. It seemed he was talking not about refusals from a succession of ministers whom the programme had invited but, rather, about a comprehensive prohibition against their appearance of which he had been informed.

This is a serious matter. Government representation began with Mr Paul Boateng, who has not grown into the job; has not, as the racing writers say, "trained on". He shares this deficiency with many other junior (and, for that matter, senior) ministers. One of them is his colleague at the Home Office, Mrs Barbara Roche, who, until Mr Humphrys's candid announcement, seemed to have taken the baton from Mr Boateng. Whereas he sounds as if he is not quite on top of his job, Mrs Roche seems, from her excursions into other areas of policy, notably that of asylum-seekers, a political disaster in the making. But no one is now, it appears, going to say anything at all.

Not that others have been notably free with their opinions about the Rebekah Riots. She herself is being kept quiet because some Mr Wordly Wiseman in Mr Rupert Murdoch's organisation has decreed that she is "no good on television". Instead spasmodic and uninformative performances have been given by one of her subordinates, Mr Stuart Kuttner, and by some woman described as the News of the World public relations officer. Why a paper should need a public relations officer escapes me, when most of us manage perfectly well without one.

The Church has put up a slightly bolder show. The local vicar has unequivocally denounced the rioters, while the Bishop of Oxford, the ubiquitous Dr Richard Harries, has spoken to the same effect. But from the more exalted Princes of the Church there has been, as far as I can make out, absolute silence.

The silence of ministers is more understandable though equally discreditable. They think public opinion has a certain sympathy with the rioters. I have some sympathy with them myself. It was manifestly a scandal that the murderers of Jason Swift were released from prison at all. But even if they lived on the Portsmouth estate, as they do not, it would not justify what was allowed to happen last week. It would have been open to the police, who seem to have acted feebly throughout, to disperse the rioters by force because they apprehended a breach of the peace. Apart from damage to property, the rioters were guilty of the ancient crime of "besetting".

But in a contest between political expediency and the rule of law, expediency wins every time. True, the relationship between government and police is one of the permanently misty hollows of the British constitution. It includes the even murkier region of who decides on a prosecution. If it suits a government to keep out of things, as it does here, keep out it will. It suits Mr Tony Blair to behave thus not only because he suspects the voters half-support the rioters but also because Rebekah herself is in the employ of Mr Murdoch. He must have been told of and approved her campaign. So far Rupert has got off remarkably lightly. The cautious Mr Blair does not want to do anything rash to change this happy state of affairs.

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