In a democracy, civil disobedience is not ok

Where there are constitutional means to bring about changes in the law, there is no justification for breaking it to achieve political ends

A few days ago, Green MP Caroline Lucas and a group of co-defendants have been cleared of breaching the Public Order Act during a protest outside an oil exploration plant in Boscombe.

Now I do not want to get into the question of whether or not Ms Lucas and her fellow protestors broke the law.* The judge seems to think that it has not been proved that they did and that’s enough for me.

However, there is a broader issue. There seems to be a view that whether or not Ms Lucas broke the law did not matter because she was doing it to further a political cause. This is a view she herself seems to sympathise with.

I think this is misguided. I would argue that having a political motivation does not excuse law breaking or mitigate it but rather is an aggravating factor. I’ve already quoted this week from a speech by B.R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, on preserving democracy. In it he was very critical of civil disobedience:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

Essentially Ambedkar was arguing that while civil disobedience had been justified in resisting the British Raj, now that India had its own democratic constitution efforts to bring about political changes.

We have developed a political and legal system conferring rights and responsibilities on groups and individuals. There are agreed channels through which these can be modified. Just because one holds the strong conviction that a particular activity that say fracking, same sex marriage or whatever is wrong does not entitle one to go outside these. It is the whole purpose of having a constitution to balance different convictions. Restrictions on ones freedom should only imposed in an accountable manner after proper public debate (as happens in the legislative process) not arise from the self-appointed champions of a particular cause. Regardless of whether or not, Caroline Lucas did try and block the entrance to a business going about a lawful activity, she would not have been within her rights to do so. The proper way to stop fracking or any other right is through the exercise of our right to free speech (including the right to peacefully and legally protest) and the deliberations of democratically accountable members of parliament. Anything else is an illiberal and undemocratic attempt to impose one’s views on one’s fellow citizens, their rights or the views of wider society be damned.


*There would also be the question of whether any breach was more than a technical infraction.

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