Civil disobedience and the Rule of Law

Why breaking the law should not be the first resort.

When should we not comply with the law? For some, the answer to this question is easy. The law should be disregarded when the law is unjust. There is, the argument goes, no reason to adhere to any law when that law is wrong. This is even the case in a modern democratic society where those making and enforcing the law supposedly have some sort of mandate of legitimacy. It would appear that any such law is made to be broken.

Against this view is the absolutist notion that the law is always to be obeyed without any question. In no circumstances can one take the law into their own hands. The only imperative is to act in accordance with lawful authority, regardless of the particular law and concerns about its source: there is nothing to be done but to do what you are told.

These extremes of order and disorder are invariably attractive to the unthinking. Both the shallow radical and the thuggish totalitarian do not need to think hard about any given situation; indeed, they do not need to think at all. But both ignore the "Rule of Law" and its crucial and precarious role in a liberal state.

The great left-wing historian E. P. Thompson pointed out that far from being necessarily an instrument of oppression, the Rule of Law can provide a great benefit for the weak and unfranchised. If all actions require a lawful basis, then those who otherwise would readily abuse power were also restrained by the law. It is not open for those with power to simply act as they will. Of course certain laws were unjust and unacceptable; but the general application of the principle that one should obey the law may protect the vulnerable from the knave and the fool.

In modern capitalism, the people most likely to casually disobey the law are actually not the "great unwashed" of student protesters and leftist activists. This is for the simple reason that a requisite of abusing power is to have power in the first place.

Instead, casual law-breakers are -- as the hacking, banking, and expenses scandals show -- often the very politicians, financiers, tabloid journalists, and police officers who routinely hold their fellow citizens to standards which they are not willing to meet themselves. They may talk of absolute adherence to the law, but they walk just like any superficial revolutionary. The powerful can be civilly disobedient, too.

The key problem with the Rule of Law in this country is not that, from time to time, protesters may stay in certain private and public spaces too long. It is rather that many with power feel -- or know -- they can get away with far worse abuses, from non-complying with financial regulations to bribing public officials. Indeed, the police officer happily using excessive force is as much a law-breaker as the aggravating trespasser, and his or her culpability is actually much worse because of the coercive force they are abusing.

George Orwell once described this country as a family with the wrong members in control. It now often feels that like a jurisdiction with well-placed law-breakers beyond any real control. Hapless individuals can end up with criminal records for minor misdemeanours, with their lives ruined, whilst those whose abuses have affected the lives of many others keep their pensions and usually their jobs. A citizen can lose their job or their liberty because of a moment's stupidity of a police officer, whilst a deliberately unlawful act by that same officer may get a written warning at worst.

The Rule of Law is therefore important because it can be the only thing which can check or deter the powerful from wrong-doing. It is a doctrine for the protection of all of us.

This, however, does not mean that there should never be civil disobedience. It instead requires us to consider the wider implications of what would otherwise be a deliberate unlawful act. Is the proposed course of action a mere gesture, some pose as a latter-day outlaw? Is a person breaking the law just to show that they can? Or is it really the case that the principle of justice cannot be asserted in any other way than to undermine the standard requirement of legality?

Each of us takes the daily benefit of the lawful behaviour of others. We are all better off because other people comply with the law. To disobey a law should thereby not be a selfish ploy or an act of vanity. There should be a greater and well-defined public good as the prize of breaking the law, and any breach should be no more than necessary than to obtain that prize. There are many ways to discredit and change a law other than to break it. On occasion it may perhaps be entirely just to disobey the law; but over time, the Rule of Law is fundamental to a just society.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.