Petrol Protest -- Civil Disobedience or Self-Interest?

By Geary, Roger; Patel, Chantal | Contemporary Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Petrol Protest -- Civil Disobedience or Self-Interest?


Geary, Roger, Patel, Chantal, Contemporary Review


ACCORDING to many of its supporters, the petrol protest which took place during the Autumn of 2000 was an example of grass roots democracy in action; an act of civil disobedience designed to force an out of touch government to take notice of the legitimate concerns of a significant section of the electorate (see Contemporary Review, November 2000 and February 2001). To others the protest appeared to be merely an outbreak of lawlessness reminiscent of the miners' disputes of 1972, 1973-74 and 1984-85 or the 'winter of discontent' of 1978-79; a simple issue of law and order. By organising what was termed a second 'Jarrow Crusade', a cavalcade of lorries from Tyneside to London, the organisers of the petrol protest attempted to make a connection with a historical tradition of resistance to oppression and injustice. Equally, by highlighting the law and order issue and the need for responsible government to ensure that supplies of petrol are available for the emergency and other vital services, the government soug ht to redefine the dispute into a simple matter of law and order. Of course, what is fascinating about this clash of rhetoric is that there appeared to be something of a role reversal with traditional battle lines being redrawn.

It would appear that we have alternative ways in which the protest has been represented both in the media and in popular culture. However, underpinning these alternative perspectives is a more fundamental and theoretical issue; that of on what grounds can disobedience to the law be justified. Clearly, at a practical level, the protest has had little impact on the linked issues of petrol taxation and transport policy in the United Kingdom. The significance of the activities of the petrol protest lies not at the practical level, but rather at the theoretical level. For if this sort of direct action can attract a significant degree of popular support, despite its illegal status, then it can come to represent resistance to economic oppression and, indeed, call into question the very nature of 'democracy' and the 'rule of law' in modern Britain. In this article we seek to draw attention to the various ways in which disobedience to law has been sought to be justified in legal theory and to assess to what extent th e petrol protest can be considered to fit within such a body of theory.

We commence by seeking to clarify some of the terminology of the debate. The term 'civil disobedience' appears to have been coined by the American naturalist and social critic Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) who thought that one should not obey an immoral law. In his case this took the form of a refusal to pay a state poll tax enacted to finance enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, legislation which helped to maintain southern slavery. It would appear that essentially civil disobedience consists of unlawful conduct designed to appeal to the sense of justice of the majority, in order to change the law without rejecting the rule of law itself. Thus non-violence and non-revolutionary intent, as well as a willingness to accept lawful punishment are defining characteristics of civil disobedience. As in Thoreau's case the law violated may not itself be the target of the protest. Civil disobedience can be contrasted with both martial disobedience (military action to overthrow a government - a revolution or coup) and lawful protest (e.g. some forms of picketing, purchasing boycotts). Cle arly, much of the petrol protest activity, blockading, picketing and slow moving convoys of lorries, involved offences of a nuisance or obstruction of the highway nature which the police have wide powers to deal with under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Public Order Act 1986.

Nothing that has been said so far would prevent the petrol protest from being classified as an act of civil disobedience, although it is worth noting that what are usually thought of as classical examples of civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi's non violent mass protests in India, Martin Luther King's civil rights movement in the United States and, indeed, Thoreau's own action, all involve individuals breaking the law and being punished for it in order to achieve some wider purpose that would benefit others. …

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