Is it time to break the law?


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The most serious divide in the present world says Colin Tudge is not between political parties or rival religions or between religion and science but between those who realise the gravity of the world’s present plight and want to do something about it and those who seek primarily to exercize their power and maintain the status quo and win elections 

As is more than evident from the events of the past few weeks (and months, and years, and decades) our government doesn’t take the present plight of the world seriously enough, and neither does the opposition, and neither did the government’s predecessors, and neither does any other influential government the world over. But governments nonetheless make the laws which tell us all what we must do and must not do. So as the fires rage over entire countries and the waters rise and more and more of our fellow creatures disappear and ever increasing numbers of people are driven from their homes, and governments continue to pursue policies that are obviously inadequate and introduce laws that are downright counterproductive it surely is reasonable to ask, as Chris Packham did on peak-time Channel 4 on Wednesday September 20, “Is it time to break the law?”.  To which the answer must surely be: “Of course it is!” 

Our Home Secretary and would-be PM Suella Braverman doesn’t agree however. As she told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the very next day, Packham’s failure to condemn the protestors from Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil and Greenpeace was “incredibly irresponsible and reckless”. Indeed, she said, “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved over the last ten years when it comes to the environment”. 

Well — it is indeed incredible that anyone should be proud of the devastation wrought by successive Tory governments these past 13 years. But then, many a judge doesn’t agree with Packham either. Thousands of protestors from Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion (XR), Just Stop Oil and the rest who sit on pavements and march slowly on busy roads have been arrested, tried, fined, and sometimes banged up these past few years — nearly 3000 from Just Stop Oil alone in the 18 months of its existence. At the time of COP 27, the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, held in Egypt in November 2022, Britain’s prisons harboured more than 30 climate activists.  Way back in 2019 Prime Minister Boris Johnson called XR protestors “uncooperative crusties” who should stop blocking the streets of the capital with their “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs”.

But not all protestors quite live up to Boris’s description of them. Some indeed are eminently respectable – not pillars of the Establishment necessarily but well-appointed nonetheless. Indeed in May this year a group of 24 eminently upright citizens including doctors, a midwife, a KC and other lawyers, a retired detective sergeant, at least one Quaker and various clerics, met outside the Old Bailey to protest against a judgement passed on a 68-year old retired social worker by Judge Silas Reid (of which more later).  In the event, none of the 24 was arrested or even asked to move on although they challenged the police and indeed the judge to do their worst. Yet mere respectability does not guarantee immunity. Thus among the vexatious 24 was an octogenarian rabbi, Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, of the Finchley Reform Synagogue. He’s a seasoned protestor who way back in 2019, when he was still a mere stripling of 77, was dragged away from an XR demonstration in the City, wearing his prayer shawl and waving a lulav, the palm branch used in the Sukkot holiday ritual. 

So what were the 24 protesting about? Well, the story began earlier this year with the trial at the Old Bailey no less of some XR protestors. Judge Reid, presiding, instructed the jurors to take into account only the facts of the case as presented by the barristers. And, he ordered, no-one was allowed even to mention climate change or extinction or any of the things that the XR protestors were actually protesting about. Motive, apparently, was not relevant. And absolutely not were the jurors to consider the call of their own consciences. They must consider only the evidence presented to them. 

Then on March 27 the retired social worker, Trudi Warner, held up a sign outside a trial of protestors from Insulate Britain (a scion of XR) which read: “Jurors: You have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience”. Clearly it was a most grievous offence and the ever-vigilant Judge Reid had her arrested too. In August 2023 Ms Warner was still awaiting sentence – which could mean up to two years’ imprisonment for contempt of court (which conceivably, though apparently it’s most unlikely, could be upgraded to perverting the course of justice, which is even more serious).  

A great many people have taken huge exception to Judge Reid’s judgment, including a great many lawyers. There’s an admirable discussion on the web on the relevant legal principles by the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit organization founded by Jo Maugham KC in 2017. For as the die-hard protestor Rabbi Newman put the matter:  

“Intention is an ancient concept, fundamental in Jewish & British law, for example in distinguishing between murder and manslaughter. It seems to me, therefore, that we cannot disregard motivation when we come to look at actions and consequences in other contexts. 

“As a Jew, and a rabbi – that is, a Jewish teacher – I have had to think very carefully about issues of obedience to the law and where and when a state may enact laws that a citizen, after careful and honest consideration, decides cannot and should not be obeyed. At such times, courageous protest by posters, placards or leaflet distribution have been prohibited by repressive regimes. Judges have sometimes focussed the attention of juries too narrowly — thereby causing much harm. At this time, we must consider with all due wisdom the needs of our planet and all its species and of future generations as we assess the proportionality of protest.”

Indeed so. In the end all our judgments about everything – not just about matters of justice but also about what we accept as fact and what we feel is nonsense, however well attested – spring from a feeling in the bones. Some things just feel right, and some don’t. Everyone – whether judges or clerics or scientists or what George Orwell was happy to call “ordinary people” — relies in the end on their bone feelings. Feelings that relate to matters of right and wrong we call conscience. Where those feelings of conscience come from is and always will be a mystery. Some say they come from God. Others in non-theistic vein speak of a sense of universal harmony. Some say our feelings of conscience spring from that mysterious quality known as the collective unconscious. Some say they’re a matter of evolution, somehow encoded in our genes. After all, they say, conscience has survival value, and whatever has survival value ought to be favoured by natural selection. These various kinds of explanation with their many variations are not necessarily mutually exclusive (as in: why shouldn’t God work His will via the genes?).

Right now, in Manchester, at the infinitely depressing Tory Party Conference, the infinitely depressing Jacob Rees-Mogg declared in a TV interview that the Tory Party is all about individuals – not like those dreadful socialists who would have us all subjugate our will and our ambitions to the collective dictats of society. Well, the point of this whole website is that truly to make a better world we need to think and care both about the individual and the whole society – both to foster “personal fulfilment” and to help create “convivial societies”. Also vitally, we need to take best care of the natural world — and to do this we need to cultivate a sense of oneness with our fellow creatures and more broadly with what Jim Lovelock called Gaia. All three components are important: the individual – each and every one of us; society; and the biosphere as whole. If any one of these is sold short then our planetary ship is holed beneath the waterline. 

So of course individuals matter. Indeed, in the end, all morality springs from the conscience of individuals, and it’s the moral Zeitgeistthat determines what kind of world we live in, and whether that world is harmonious, just, agreeable, and in the long term viable, or whether, as now, it is severely and possibly terminally dysfunctional. But what Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman and Boris Johnson and all the rest of their solipsistic persuasion seem unable to grasp is (a) that all of us including or perhaps especially the wealthiest among us depend absolutely on the societies in which we live; and (b) that societies can never operate harmoniously and viably unless every individual within them, including the rich, acknowledge their responsibility to their fellow citizens and to humanity as a whole and indeed to the whole biosphere. Mere authoritarianism, as bellowed from the rostrum by Ms Braverman, and as apparently endorsed by Judge Reid, just will not do. 

So please, Chris Packham (and Rabbi Newman, and Trudi Warner and Greta Thunberg and all the rest) do keep protesting, and if you are sent to jail then wear your imprisonment as a badge of honour. After all, your fellow prisoners of conscience have included some of the greatest, from St Paul and many another martyr to Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow suffragettes and to Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King – and so the roll-call continues. Sometimes – often – the law just isn’t on the right side. There is very little scope for hope in the present world and if we, people at large, lose sight of what really is right, and allow our bone feelings to be overridden by mere authority, then there will be no hope at all.  

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6 responses to “Is it time to break the law?”

  1. David Wolfe avatar
    David Wolfe

    Thanks Colin! As you say, protest, and sometimes illegal protest, has proven to be necessary and justified through time and across the world. Law breaking politicians issuing ill-judged, blanket condemnations changes nothing and does them no favours. David

  2. Linda Newbery avatar

    Well said, and thank you! It’s increasingly dismaying that the government, and even some of those from other parties who ought to know better, view green issues as optional add-ons or, even worse, the preserve of ‘crusties’, ‘eco-zealots’ and suchlike (while the Daily Mail and Express love to amplify this message). Don’t they realise that in the face of climate catastrophe we ALL need to be ‘eco-zealots’? What would it take for them to put climate action at the top of the agenda? Love your phrase about our planetary ship being holed beneath the waterline. We’re already seeing it listing to starboard (see what I did there?)

  3. Barrie Lees avatar
    Barrie Lees

    I’d like to speak up for Judge Silas Reid. He is a cog in the forces of law and order. They seem to work (compare our lives with those in other parts of the world). In fact Britain has been peaceful for so long that we take it for granted, like the air we breathe.
    The legal system is separate from government (we hope). But the government can change the laws they must follow. So it is not for the judges to make their own political decisions, any more than it is for the government to reverse legal decisions they don’t like.
    Judge Reid’s job was to rule whether Insulate Britain protestors had blocked a road. The jury’s job was to decide if the road had been blocked and whether the protestors were responsible.
    Any attempt to influence jurors is an attempt to alter the outcome of a trial, and weakens our underappreciated system of law.
    I don’t suppose Judge Reid needs my support, but he has it anyway! By all means insulate Britain, but insulate the law from politics too.

    1. Peter Post avatar
      Peter Post

      In an ideal world your opinion would be well founded. Lamentably we do not live in an ideal world, much less so in this country. The notion that Judges are somehow independent of government is nothing more than that, a notion. HHJ Silas Reid is nothing more than a government puppet, installed in inner London crown court to do the governments bidding. He has blatantly ignored the right to not be tried twice for the same offending on several occasions , and his skill lies in twisting the law to suit his own ends in ‘rulings’ which cannot be appealed, rather than judgements. Reid and ‘justice’ are not well acquainted at all, you need to look past the propaganda.

  4. Gillian Burke avatar
    Gillian Burke

    If column-inches and air-time are the measure of success, then XR, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain have done much to push the climate crisis into the public debate, but I fear their tactics have proven enough of an irritation to the general public as to risk back-firing.

    Certainly, Sunak’s u-turn on the ban on new ICE cars and 20-mph zones ahead of the anticipated general election suggests at least the Tories think there are enough voters who will not get behind net-zero, and I think they could be right (I spend a lot of time in ‘opposite land’ browsing right-wing media and platforms to understand what is going on and I certainly get that sense).

    In contrast, the anti-ULEZ bladerunner activists who also break the law in protest, by causing criminal damage and/or removing the ULEZ number-plate recognition cameras, seem to have a fair amount of public support and popularity.

    I think the reason is their style of protesting comes at no immediate cost to the public. If anything, their actions give drivers a brief respite from paying ULEZ fees and fines while the authorities scramble to replace the damaged cameras. There may well be costs to the public further downstream (increased taxes to pay for damaged cameras, health cost for breathing polluted air, etc) but these are not immediately tangible and therefore not an easy sell.

    So I’m tempted to conclude that breaking the law to protest works best when there is minimal-to-no cost to the people whose support one is trying to garner.

    I also think what many in the climate movement are missing the fear that net-zero targets are the ‘thin end of the wedge’ of government overreach into people’s lives where restrictions will be placed on freedom of movement and other lifestyle choices in the name of saving the planet. Spend enough time in ‘opposite land’ (as I call it) and it’s clear there is a very real fear of a future of increased surveillance enabled by emerging digital technologies.

    There is a lot of fear on both sides and not enough listening to each other. I think that is where we could have real traction toward positive change if only we could beat the algorithms, overcome bias, and cross the divides.

  5. Michael Fox avatar

    It is surely self-evident that harming the environment, Nature/biodiversity, from a One Health perspective, is a crime against humanity since we and all life are connected, and should be prosecuted by all means public and just.

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