Paul Barker: Don't put the boot in too hard, there's a PR war going on

There's a fine line between ensuring safety and allowing people their rights

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On top of the Old Bailey, a gilded Edwardian statue of Justice holds in her left hand a set of scales, weighing guilt and innocence in the balance. (In her right hand she holds a sword of vengeance.) But to apportion blame in a criminal case is one thing. You have evidence, lawyers, a judge and jury. It's quite another thing to try to weigh in the balance the rightness or wrongness of a form of protest.

On top of the Old Bailey, a gilded Edwardian statue of Justice holds in her left hand a set of scales, weighing guilt and innocence in the balance. (In her right hand she holds a sword of vengeance.) But to apportion blame in a criminal case is one thing. You have evidence, lawyers, a judge and jury. It's quite another thing to try to weigh in the balance the rightness or wrongness of a form of protest.

The fox-hunters who got on to the floor of the House of Commons last week may eventually be found guilty of such offences as forgery (because they used a spurious letter of invitation). By contrast, the aggrieved father who clambered up the front of Buckingham Palace, dressed as Batman, hasn't yet been charged with anything; the police are reduced to suggesting a new law to cover trespass on royal property. But in both cases, and many more, the legalities are mostly trivia. People usually make up their mind about forms of protest, according to how strongly they feel about the purpose of the protest in question.

The intrusive fox-hunters arguably fall into the same category as a long line of pranksters who've tried to make a serious point. Members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for example, dressed as skeletons and blocked the streets of the City of London in order to protest at Margaret Thatcher's weapons programmes - even though these armaments, eventually, like President Reagan's much-mocked Star Wars schemes, were one component in the collapse of communist control within Europe and the ending of the Cold War.

Anti-globalisation activists glued a mohican haircut on to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square - even though such a protest might have been better directed at the Chinese embassy in Portland Place. China's rocketing economic growth is pulling in raw materials from across the world, and pushing out everything from cheap clothes to cheap radios. Sheffield's remaining steel mills owe this year's new-found profitability to China's insatiable demand for their product.

Life is never as simple as single-issue protesters would like to make out. But as George Bernard Shaw pointed out in his Maxims for Revolutionists: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Or woman. Shaw was writing, in 1903, at the same time as the Lord Chancellor's architects and stonemasons were erecting the Old Bailey and preparing to crown it with the female statue of Justice. That same year, the campaign to win the vote for women in parliamentary elections was also building up into a frenzy. As in all protest campaigns, the membership started to divide between those who favoured polite chivying and those who preferred rougher tactics. A private member's Bill, proposing women's suffrage, reached the floor of the House of Commons, but the all-male MPs laughed it out.

The so-called "suffragists" carried on with their politeness. But under Mrs Pankhurst's leadership, the "suffragettes" - a would-be derisory nickname - plunged into hunger strikes, riots and the smashing of windows at government offices. On Derby Day, 4 June 1913, Miss Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King's horse at Tattenham Corner, as recklessly as any suicide bomber, and was killed.

Historians claim that the courteous Fabian suffragists really won the argument and, with it, votes for women. But popular memory remembers Mrs Pankhurst and poor, self-martyred Miss Davison.

CND was split between those who prided themselves on the orderliness of their annual marches from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square, and the advocates of direct action who rallied around the philosopher Bertrand Russell and his "Committee of 100". (Russell always argued that no one was obliged to obey a government that passed stupid laws.)

The Countryside Alliance now finds itself in the same fix as mainstream CND. Much tortuousness of argument results. The chairman of the alliance, John Jackson, and the editorial columns of The Daily Telegraph deplore the invasion of the Commons, and the firecracker-throwing in Parliament Square, while sympathising with the aims of those who did this. It's as hard as squaring the circle.

The mainstream opponents of animal experiments are the worst shilly-shalliers. They spend more time in explaining how they "understand" the motives and frustration of the extremists who pursue scientists and their families, even into their own homes, than in condemning their intimidation tactics. Not dissimilarly, mainstream Muslim clerics in Britain have often seemed slow to condemn al-Qa'ida terrorism outright.

Occasionally, this ethical double-think is institutionalised with some political skill. Thus, the 30-year Troubles in Northern Ireland began as a peaceful, 1960s-style civil rights movement. In turning the campaign into something very different, those who wanted to destroy Northern Ireland as a political entity had a double face. The above-ground Sinn Fein could come to Sunningdale Park or Leeds Castle in England and talk to British politicians about a settlement. Meanwhile, the underground IRA - including men such as the Brighton bomber Patrick Magee - wielded Armalites and Semtex. Sometimes, of course, they were, and are, the same people, wearing different clothes and different smiles.

A public protest aims to draw attention. But who is to be the judge of whether it's the right sort of attention? And what follows from any condemnation of a particular protest?

Let's stay with the Irish example. At every stage of the battle to overthrow British rule in Ireland, one victim has been freedoms on this side of the Irish Sea. MPs' right to talk out legislation was curtailed, and the guillotine on debate introduced, because Irish MPs insisted on using the filibuster. The limitation was never withdrawn. Visitors' access to the Houses of Parliament was curbed during the Troubles, and it looks as though that restriction will now be reinstated. Most seriously, the anti-terrorism legislation brought in to try to cope with the IRA has served as the Home Office's model for combating Islamists.

Yet what form a protest takes is more a matter of social ethos than of legislation or policing. Ethos controls what it's seen as legitimate to do or not do. Whatever security devices men can invent, other men can find a way round. Batman at the Palace, Greenpeace supporters scaling Big Ben, fox-hunters in the Commons: their main purpose, and their main achievement, was to make the authorities look like fools.

Top marks for foolishness must go to the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, who, fresh from so brilliantly guarding the Palace from intrusion, says that the only way to protect Parliament is to put more of his men in there, too. As for the panic response of Peter Hain, Leader of the House and former anti-apartheid activist, you can only bear in mind that within every revolutionary there lurks a policeman.

Most of the recent protests, including those inside and outside the Commons last week, were an extreme - and sometimes extremist - form of public relations. Perhaps, nearly 100 years after the unveiling of that famous statue of Justice, we should erect one to Max Clifford. It would be closer to the spirit of the age.

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