So how would you feel if I trashed your garden?

'Are we to be without GM foods, not because of an electoral revolt but because of direct action'
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The Independent Online

Lord Melchett-the-rape-reaper's vindication at the hands of a jury on Wednesday may have been a defeat for science and common sense, but it was at least a victory for liberal democracy. Though, in general terms, the principle that you can go into your neighbour's garden, house or meadow and destroy whatever you like - providing you can show that you genuinely believed it to be harmful - will be hard to sustain. The jury (I would guess) acquitted the crop-killers, not because they really thought that what they did was legal, but because they agreed with Friends of the Earth about GM crops. It's one of the reasons we have juries.

Lord Melchett-the-rape-reaper's vindication at the hands of a jury on Wednesday may have been a defeat for science and common sense, but it was at least a victory for liberal democracy. Though, in general terms, the principle that you can go into your neighbour's garden, house or meadow and destroy whatever you like - providing you can show that you genuinely believed it to be harmful - will be hard to sustain. The jury (I would guess) acquitted the crop-killers, not because they really thought that what they did was legal, but because they agreed with Friends of the Earth about GM crops. It's one of the reasons we have juries.

Round here they could make a case for similar acts of entitled vandalism. My local vicar, for example, is bent on allowing a mobile phone company to stick one of its masts inside his spire, and the local hospital plans to erect another. There are three primary schools in the immediate vicinity, and it's a fair guess that some of the beams between the masts and the hordes of "I'm just driving up the High Street now, ooops!" maniacs in this part of north London, will pass through the soft and innocent bodies of our children. There's no proof you understand, but the case is surely as good if not better than that of GM crops, so what might I not do to the church or the hospital? Providing the jury agree with me.

And if, hypothetically, the combined forces of hauliers and farmers were to make good their threat to return to the refineries in 55 days' time (yes, folks, the clock is ticking - better panic now and join the queue for petrol, bread or routine operations), and they were taken to court charged under the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act - as well they could be - what jury would convict? They'd get off too.

Whether there are concessions or not, it won't stop people who've taken part in the blockades, and had a lot of fun, from doing something like it again. In this week's Spectator a woman of the soil - albeit of patio compost rather than field clay - yclept Leanda de Lisle (who I am assured by colleagues does really exist) reveals the lines of urgent communication that now link the starving hill-farmer on the Black Mountain with the elegant woman in Harrods' food hall. Leanda is a committed member of this alliance of those who don't get out enough with those who get out too much. She is "in" with Farmers for Action. "This group," she told us, "had recently allied with hauliers and together they planned to bring English cities to standstill." And she was sure that, because of the agricultural situation, such a threat would rematerialise.

Once, not so long ago, those who took direct action were part of a small minority. A small minority that would have "Go back to Russia!" shouted at it whenever it showed its face. Fifteen years ago Neil Kinnock was regularly being pilloried by Conservatives and their tame newspapers for his party's occasional timid toleration of "extra-parliamentary action". Oh well, there's nothing quite like a Labour Government to make the right question its previous assumptions about the sanctity of the rule of law.

So now everyone's at it. Demos are tedious. Lobbying MPs is pointless. Letter-writing is too difficult. What you need is something to make 'em take notice. By coincidence, just as things were hotting up last week, a copy of The Campaigning Handbook by Mark Lattimer arrived through the interrupted post. Lattimer's book (which is excellent, by the way) has a long chapter on direct action. Of which he admits, "frequently sliding into illegality, it can be seen as a protest sufficiently radical in form to question not just the policy or decision in dispute but the very authority of those who govern."

Such a description explains why some unlikely figures were endorsing the fuel blockades last week. The veteran CND leader, Bruce Kent, was to be heard on radio practically chortling (he is not, by nature, a chortler) over the success of the action, even though - as he made clear - he did not himself agree with the blockaders' objectives. Direct action for him was practically an end in itself. It radicalised and ennobled and it buggered up the Government and spat in Tony Blair's eye.

So I imagine another action. A boycott of shops and stores, perhaps, in which a committed and serious group of citizens campaign against what they see as a damaging monopoly held by a small group of very devious people who are driving indigenous small businesses out of the market. Passing motorists hoot at their placards, which read, "Don't Shop Here. This Store Is Run By Jews". Or how about those who see mundane, banal almost, local buildings being used to murder innocent human beings? Are they not justified - these anti-abortionists - in doing anything they can - within or outside the law - to close these places? Eh, Bruce?

And this was the thing that Melchett couldn't see. That direct action was all fine and dandy, and that it did indeed "question the authority of those who govern", but that - in the absence of that authority - it left us without a form of mediation. It left us, in short, at the whim of each other. Are we to be a country in which there are no GM foods - not because of an electoral revolt, but because of direct action - but also where we cannot meet emissions targets because of the threat of direct action over fuel costs? It's all very well for these activists to salute each other's right to take action, but what about the rest of us? Where does it leave us?

It's too much to hope that the various protagonists could slug it out with each other to save the rest of us having to be picketed and lobbied and delayed by the agents of both. But this won't happen. So one alternative is for us to be drawn in. Leanda de Lisle wants to bring English cities to a standstill. Well, after my piece about heckling lorry drivers in Holborn last week, I received dozens of e-mails from people who said that they wanted to heckle them too. We could easily get organised and take direct action against the city-blockers. We could form the Citywide Alliance. Arguing that towns are taken for granted, we could drive pied-à-terre owners from our best streets, set fire to Fulham, stop yokels from driving down streets paid for by city taxes and send them back to the shires, bull bars wrapped round their red necks. Best of all, we could go and park buses across farmyard entrances and parade through Crediton with placards saying, "Leave Us Alone".

It's not an attractive prospect. But we are not going to put up with this kind of thing for ever. Some of the new direct action is a long way from Gandhi's satyagraha and Martin Luther King's non-violence. It has little of the willingness to suffer, and none of the self-questioning that gave those movements their moral authority. Without these characteristics, direct action can easily be just another form of bullying.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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