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Trial by fury

We live in an age when everyone is encouraged to have their say on Twitter or blogs. But, in our ang

In the summer of the year 190, rioting broke out at a horse race at the Circus Maximus in Rome. It had been a difficult year, with the city afflicted by persistent food shortages, and popular discontent had been building for months. The man that most people blamed, Emperor Commodus's chamberlain Cleander, was not responsible for the grain supply. But, as the mob spilled out of the arena and began to rampage through the streets, it was Cleander's name that was on everybody's lips.

In desperation, the chamberlain sent the Praetorian cavalry to disperse the crowds, but this only made matters worse. "The multitude fled with precipitation towards the city," runs Edward Gibbon's account. "Several were slain, and many more were trampled to death; but when the cavalry entered the streets their pursuit was checked by a shower of stones and darts from the roofs and windows of the houses . . . The Praetorians at length gave way, oppressed with numbers; and the tide of popular fury returned with redoubled violence against the gates of the palace." There Commodus, Cleander's patron, was watching nervously, unsure which way to jump. The story goes that it was the emperor's mistress Marcia who made up his mind for him. A few moments later, Cleander's head was thrown out to the seething mob and, as Gibbon puts it, "the desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult".

Even today, 18 centuries later, there is something profoundly unsettling about the death of Cleander. To a modern reader, steeped in the democratic values of civility and compromise, the Roman mob can seem a disturbingly primal, elemental force, a seething mass of blind hatred, the sum of all that is worst in human nature. But while Alistair Darling and Bob Ainsworth can probably sleep easy, in the knowledge that they are very unlikely to lose their heads, we are closer to the politics of the mob than we think.

Only in the past few weeks, two major news stories - the reaction to Jan Moir's article about Stephen Gately in the Daily Mail and the outrage that greeted the appearance of the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, on Question Time - have reminded us that in an age when deference has virtually disappeared and politicians fall over themselves to appease public opinion, the spectacle of the enraged crowd, whipping itself to ever more extravagant extremes of indignation and fury, is perhaps not so alien after all.

The fourth estate

Fear of the crowd has been a significant political force throughout human history. In ancient Greece, the rule of the mob - technically okhlo­kratia: ochlocracy - was considered one of the three bad forms of government, together with oligarchy and tyranny. In a balanced, civilised polity, the thinking ran, government would tame the passions of the mob and direct it towards beneficial ends rather than allow it to run riot. But this was easier said than done, even in England, the supposed home of parliamentary democracy.

In London, for instance, anti-Catholic mobs played a critical role in the terror and revolutions of the 17th century: even during the supposedly peaceful Glorious Revolution of 1688, the capital succumbed to an orgy of violence and looting before William of Orange restored order. A century later, in an age of coffee houses, the first newspapers and stock investments, fear of the mob had become an indelible element of modern politics.

“The mob was so large and powerful a body", lamented the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding, that it had become the "fourth estate" of the realm, encroaching on the territory of king, lords and commons, and taking upon itself the power of veto over new legislation. This was the London mob at its height: the great seething, chaotic mass depicted by Hogarth in the 11th plate of Industry and Idleness, which captures the terrifying passions of the crowd at a Tyburn hanging. The mob had become so powerful, Fielding wrote, that it threatened "to shake the balance of our constitution".

“A vision of coarse faces, with here and there a blot of flaring, smoky light; a dream of demon heads and savage eyes, and sticks and iron bars uplifted in the air, and whirled about," was how Charles Dickens described the Georgian mob in his novel Barnaby Rudge (1841), a searing re-creation of the Gordon riots, when thousands of anti-Catholic marchers ran riot in the streets, looting and pillaging with impunity. By the time Dickens wrote these words the mob seemed to be fading into history, overtaken by the rise of politeness and the Victorians' determination to impose order on chaos. And yet, even in an age of mass politics, when the old passions were supposedly sublimated into peaceful electoral campaigning, the mob never entirely disappeared.

Consider what happened when David Lloyd George went to speak against the Boer war in Birmingham in December 1901, supposedly
a high point of Edwardian gentility. When friends asked Birmingham's old political boss Joseph Chamberlain - the dominant political personality in the country and a prime mover behind the war - to ensure that Lloyd George got a fair hearing, the response was cold. "If Ll G wants his life, he had better keep away from Birmingham," Chamberlain said ominously. "If he doesn't go, I will see that it is known he is afraid. If he does go, he will deserve all he gets."

In the event, Ll G did go, but he never got to speak a single sentence. Before he had taken the stage, a furious mob almost 100,000-strong had overwhelmed the police and broken into the Town Hall in an attempt to find and punish the "treacherous" Welshman. It was only by dressing Lloyd George in a constable's uniform that the police smuggled him to safety; in the meantime, 40 people were injured and two killed.

Such scenes may have been rare during the past century - an age in which, despite appearances, deference often carried more weight than democracy - but they were never entirely unknown. When the Metropolitan Police, the British Union of Fascists and a coalition of anti-fascist protesters fought on Cable Street in 1936 for control of the East End of London, it was a reminder that politics and violence are often tightly intertwined. Even during the supposedly stuffy and undemonstrative mid-century consensus years, teenage mobs ran riot in Nottingham and Notting Hill in the racist pogroms of 1958. A decade later, hundreds of dockers and meat porters marched on Westminster to show their support for Enoch Powell. In the past few decades - years when English football hooligans ran amok in European cities, poll-tax rioters pillaged central London and northern mill towns fell victim to race riots - barely a year has passed without a reminder somewhere of the mob instincts that did for poor Cleander.

Blog rule

In many ways, mob violence is not what it was. In a previous age, the recent revelations about MPs' expenses might have provoked tens of thousands to march on Westminster with flags and clubs, just as the Gordon rioters did two centuries ago. By and large, modern protesters are rather more decorous, such as the 5,000 Bromsgrove residents who signed a petition calling for their MP Julie Kirkbride to stand down, or the multitude of outraged bloggers who posted details of the scandals online.

Now, as then, however, indignation can easily tip over into violence: witness the scenes outside BBC Television Centre as anti-fascists protested at the recording of BBC1's Question Time. And now, as then, it is often hard to tell spontaneity from co-ordination. No doubt many of the people who disparaged Jan Moir in what she called "an orchestrated internet campaign" were genuinely offended by what she had written about the dead Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. But how many read her column only after they had heard about it on Twitter, and how many complained only after they had read the Guardian's Charlie Brooker, the unlikely heir to Lord George Gordon?

No doubt many readers think these were both excellent causes and that it is disgraceful to compare the Moir and Griffin incidents, however flippantly, to the Gordon riots. The problem is that one man's justified outrage is another's hysterical bullying. In a society in which the old divisions of class and ideology seem more confused than at any time in living memory, and in which every individual feels he has the right not to be offended, where do you draw the line?

Was the Mail wrong to whip up public anger at the antics of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross? If so, wasn't Brooker wrong to do the same thing, in effect, over the Moir column? Do we want to live in a society in which journalists have the right to express any opinion, however offensive, even if it means inflaming tensions and exploiting old prejudices? Or would we prefer to live in one in which speech is governed, if not by the will of the majority, then by the will of Twitter's loudest minority?

For Polybius or for Fielding, there would have been no dilemma. They lived in societies in which rule by the "best men" was seen as automatically superior to any other form of government; the idea of following public opinion would have struck them as simply absurd. Modern liberals, however, do not have the luxury of their prejudices. We tell ourselves that, in a democratic society, the will of the people is what matters - except when the people have the wrong idea. So the 1960s generation, who like to congratulate themselves for having torn down the old barriers of class and privilege, fall suspiciously quiet when they are reminded that the landmark reforms of the era - the end of hanging, the legalisation of homosexuality - went ahead in clear defiance of public opinion.

It is a sobering thought that if Britain had genuinely been governed by the will of the majority for the past few decades, we would still live in a country where criminals were hanged and black and brown faces were virtually unknown.

What made the liberal reforms of the 1960s possible was a climate of deference that has now disappeared. When this magazine was founded, in 1913, Sidney and Beatrice Webb had no doubt that they knew more and had better opinions than their readers did. Although they encouraged letters, the idea that they might post their articles in some public place for the masses to scribble disparaging comments beneath would have struck them as ludicrous. But today, when audiences bristle at the assertion of expertise, and when the gap between opinion-formers and opinion-receivers has virtually disappeared, every newspaper or TV news programme urges its readers or viewers to "have your say" on their websites.

Flames of resentment

In a sense, therefore, we are back where we started. In an age when everyone must have his say, we often feel closer to the noisy demagoguery of the Roman world than to the stuffy but dignified atmosphere of the mid-20th century, when public figures were seen as genuinely honourable men and women to be treated with seriousness and respect.

Whether the issues are politicians' expenses, the housing of convicted paedophiles or the rise of the BNP, the prevailing tone is always the same: a kind of injured outrage, with politicians competing to stoke the flames of populist resentment. And in this context, Jack Straw's shameless playing to the Question Time gallery - the well-prepared spiel about the "East Lancashire lads" buried beside colonial troops in northern France - is even worse than Nick Griffin's inflammatory rabble-rousing. Griffin does not know any better. Straw should.

The politics of populism has its merits. Whether they are left- or right-wing, politicians are far more attuned to the values and ambitions of their voters than their predecessors were; and, in this age of the digital revolution, anybody with a mobile phone or an internet connection can contribute to public debate. But at a time of permanent populist resentment, the spectre of the mob, the hysteria of the Roman crowd, is never far away.

No matter how liberal and progressive we may think ourselves, we are not so different from the shipwrecked schoolboys in William Golding's Lord of the Flies: frightened, disputatious, aggressive, demagogic. At first they rally to the sound of the conch, gathering in solemn assembly to decide their plans. But step by step they shed the veneer of civilisation and succumb to their bloodlust, preying first on a pig, then on one another. "Kill the beast!" they chant. "Cut his throat! Spill his blood!" The conch is forgotten. So are the assemblies. All that is left is the fierce exhilaration of the hunt.

Read an interview with Dominic Sandbrook

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule