A couple of things caught my attention on the news this week. Firstly, there's the Electoral Court which has convened in the Uppermill area of Oldham to look into allegations of electoral wrongdoing by Oldham Labour MP Phil Woolas. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, has accused Mr Woolas of a dirty tricks campaign in the run up to the election by stirring up racial tension in order to win the white, working class vote - essentially, Mr Woolas claimed that Mr Watkins was courting Islamic extremists in the area in an attempt to win their votes.
This is the first time in almost 100 years that an Electoral Court has been convened in the U.K., the last being in 1911 when there were instances of violence and bribery in the Ireland Constituency of North Louth. Disputes over local elections are more commonplace but these are heard in front of electoral commissioners or magistrates. The judges rule on disputed polls, and in this case two High Court judges have descended on Oldham to hear the accusations. Mr Woolas won the election by a majority of 103 votes and Mr Watkins claims that the accusations made by Mr Woolas as part of his campaign were completely false and therefore in contravention of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
The case started on Monday and was due to last four days. A little bit of history in the making in this little area.
The second thing that interested me is the call for a campaign of "civil disobedience" by several trade union bosses at the Trades Union Congress this week (see here and here) in response to government spending cuts. They have intimated a willingness to instigate general strikes, with some going even further and calling for citizens to stage "sit ins" on the country's motorway network in an attempt to cause gridlock on a massive scale.
These leaders always talk a good fight. What is clear is that they will not be the ones at the front line of any "disobedience" - they won't be the ones putting themselves in a position where they can be arrested, or for that matter in a position where they lose part of their salary for going on strike. You can bet while the proletariat are on the picket lines they will be sat in their office making sure they're being paid.
However, it was the idea of civil disobedience itself that lodged itself in my mind. Whilst I'm not advocating any of what I'm about to say (an important statement given my chosen career path) there are some points that are worth mooting given the current economic climate. If the unions are capable of organising this on a large scale, and the population is willing to take part, what is to stop action being taken on a smaller scale?
If you think about it, statutes are acts of parliament given the power of law by the consent of the governed. But how many people actually consent to being fined for driving at 31mph in a 30mph zone? I think the answer is probably not very many.
There are so may laws out there that are unjust. How many people are actually aware of the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre? Set up very much without fanfare a few years ago, this government body uses the police to identify individuals who may be a "threat" to high profile individuals. A good idea on the surface, but who decides where the fixation is? It's not doctors any more, but this special unit. So, if I decide tomorrow to devote this blog to attacking the political decisions of members of the cabinet, and set up websites to do the same, not out of any mental instability but simply to exercise my right to comment, it may well be that this unit can decide that I'm "fixated" and have me held under mental health legislation. A good way to remove political dissent. And if you think I'm being ever so slightly paranoid perhaps you should have a look at Maurice Kirk's story.
So the laws are there, but what if the citizens of this country decided en masse to stop giving their consent? I don't mean there should be a complete free-for-all and a breakdown of civilised society. A simple return to the common law maxims of respect for the life, liberty and property of others. Those are simple laws that keep society in check. People are being fined for putting their bins out on the wrong day - how would concils cope if they tried to enforce one of these crazy fines only to find that all the inhabitants of a town reacted by putting their bins out on the wrong day? They'd never be able to cope with the administrative feat of fining everyone.
Taking it a step further, what if someone on your street was about to be evicted from their home. They'd missed a few mortgage payments because they'd been made redundant, no fault of their own, but were actively seeking work and would soon be in a position to get back into shape financially. But the bank won't allow them the time - possibly a bank that had been "bailed out" by the taxpayer. So, on the day of the proposed eviction the bailiffs turn up to find thirty or forty people peacefully barring entry to the property - no violence, just making it awkward for them. I know the bailiffs are only doing a job, but it's arguably one that profits on other people's misery. If this kind of thing started happening up and down the country, perhaps there'd be a stronger sense of community and the balance of power would start to swing back in favour of the people.
And this kind of thing can work. I had a friend who had his car clamped and had to pay a £70 release fee, which he could barely afford. He argued the point that the warning signs were displayed behind parked cars (this was some years ago) but the clamper remained unmoved and he had to pay the release fee. However, instead of getting violent he simply sat and observed the clamper and waited til he clamped someone else. When this person returned to their car to be greeted by the sight of bright yellow wheel clamp my friend put his recently hatched plan into action. He drove his car into the car park and parked it directly in front of the clamper's van. He then casually walked over to the clamper (who was clearly enjoying fleecing another motorist of £70) and told him that he'd be pleased to move his car and allow the clamper to get on his way so long as he refunded his £70 and took the clamp off the other vehicle without charge. The clamper was clearly not impressed and began to issue threats of physical violence. Now this friend used to be a teddy boy and was quite used to violence, so he remained impassive but did remind the clamper that the there was at least one witness to his threats who was hardly likely to be on his side were the police to be called. Funnily enough, the clamper saw the error of his ways and capitulated to my friend's demands. At no time was my friend violent or abusive - he just decided to make things difficult. So maybe a bit of civil disobedience can work...