Monday 2 November 2009

Consent and (the relative comfort of) State Control

Why have a lie-in on a Saturday morning in the comfort of your London flat when instead you can be up at the crack of dawn and travel with Demos Researchers Peter Bradwell, Dan Leighton and Max Wind-Cowie up to Bradford to help out their “People’s Enquiry” into Personal Information? Well, I fell for that argument, and was really glad that I did.

Having previously addressed the group that had met at the Demos HQ in London on Wednesday 28th October, I was ready to speak to a group of people that I expected to be engaged, dispassionate, keen to ask probing questions, and very accepting of the fact that others should feel free to express views that were quite different to their own. And I was not disappointed. What a pleasure it was to meet such a friendly bunch who welcomed me into their midst and treated me, a newcomer, to their deliberations with such courtesy and respect.

Returning to Leeds Station later that afternoon, my mood changed from one of elation to one of despair. The main route to the railway station had been sealed off by West Yorkshire Police who were striving to contain a small bunch of mindless thugs, mostly extremists from the English Defence League, who had congregated in Leeds city centre to campaign against what they saw as the perils of Islamic fundamentalism. Opposing them, a few hundred yards away, were a small group of rival demonstrators from Unite Against Fascism. And the police were stuck in the middle, trying both to record the scenes on film and also to gently remind the crowd of onlookers (who greatly numbered either group of demonstrators) not to encourage the thugs to partake in any more acts of mindless vandalism.

Just what sort of society are we living in? The police were trying their hardest to be professional and dispassionate, and to reduce the tension that was evidently in the air. At the same time, they were being required to respect the rights of a bunch of bigots who were screaming messages of hate and intolerance to anyone who would listen, and who were threatening violence to anyone they could get close enough to lay their hands on.

So, I have a message for Peter, Dan and Max. Next Saturday, as you travel to Bradford for the next session of the “People’s Enquiry”, don’t bother travelling much past Leeds Railway station. The pleasant, thoughtful and considerate group that meets in Bradford doesn’t really need your assistance. They can do the work very well by themselves. It’s that small group of fascist thugs you really need to turn your attention to, many of whom were barely out of their teens. Why should they be afforded police protection to enable them to spread their vile message, when what they so desperately need is to be educated in the ways of expressing different ideas and values in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect?