Sunday, February 26, 2006

A pretty pickle

The Sunday Times has a leading article on the demonstration in Oxford yesterday in favour of the new animal testing laborator. It rightly applauds the protestors for standing up to organised thuggery. Many people will be in awe of the bravery shown by those who took to the streets. As a certified coward they appear to me to border on the insane - facing up to people who have no compunction in using violence against anyone who opposes them.

They can be under no illusions that the police offer any protection from the thugs, the boys in blue regularly making it clear that they cannot offer a protection service those who are threatened. So once again one can only stand awestruck by their courage.

But when you think about it, the implications of this are very profound. The police do not offer a protection service. Their role is limited to detection and prevention. Not protection.

Who then is to protect us? Who will guard those whose opinions attract the threats of the violent fringes? The answer has to be that individuals must defend themselves, but how they should do this is a mystery that nobody will answer. The thugs go armed with baseball bats, or worse. Any law-abiding citizen who attempted to do the same is guilty of a criminal offence.

Once again, I can only shake my head in admiration at the courage of those protesters yesterday.

The BBC reports that there were only 500 of them. This is an extraordinary number representing as it does those willing to take on armed men while they themselves are protected by nothing other than the force of reason. We can wonder how many more might have made their voices heard if there was no threat, or if they believed that they would be defended or could defend themselves.

There can be no doubt that the cause of free speech is under attack in the UK, not only from authoritarian government legislation, but because too many people are rightly frightened to speak out. It is surely no coincidence that the UK is one of the few countries where the Danish cartoons were not published.

There is a gaping hole at the centre of UK law and order policy which must be answered if the liberal value of free speech is to be protected. A written Consistitution is only half of the battle. We must be able to defend ourselves against those non-governmental forces who want to cow us into silence. Unfortunately I don't think we are ready to grasp this particular nettle yet.