What are the arguments for and against direct action?
Direct Action is political pressure that by passes the normal means such as parties, elections, petitions, peaceful demonstrations and marches or interest group lobbying.
It can be:-
- Non –violent – such as, for example, sit-ins, boycotts, workplace occupations or blockades. Strikes can also be non-violent political direct action, but the vast majority are related to issues of working conditions and pay and take place within a legal framework.
- Violent – involving, for example, sabotage of other people’s activities, property destruction, or assaults on individuals. At its most extreme it merges into terrorism, though the latter may include the killing of people, sometimes those people who represent the State, such as the military or politicians, sometimes the general public.
- There is a higher law than the law which Parliament has created. For example, the view that there is a moral duty to give equal rights to animals and humans, even if the legal framework does not recognise this, or the view that possession of nuclear weapons is so abhorrent that it must be opposed by any means. Closely related to this, but more specific, is the view that a particular law is unjust and so the breaking of another law through civil disobedience which leads to protesters being taken so court so that they have a platform for their views when the court case is heard. Greenpeace protestors in 2007 climbed a power station chimney and, when prosecuted for criminal damage, argued that they were trying to prevent the damage to property across the world as a result of global warming. The jury cleared them of the charge. This was the method used by the civil rights movement in the United States in opposition to segregation laws in the Southern states that had made black people second class citizens.
- In modern politics some issues are ‘on the agenda’ because politicians and the media want them to be and other issues will be ‘off the agenda’ and given little attention and little or no action by government. A general election which leads to voters choosing who gets elected to Parliament may be decided by a very limited range of issues. The Government may, in any case, bring forward policies not proposed at election time as with the increase in student fees and the reforms to the NHS after 2010. Groups may feel that direct action is the only way to force publicity and get something done. Direct action, such as that by the suffragettes, in the period before the First World War, campaigning for women to have the vote or the recent destruction of experimental GM crops by protestors have kept an issue in the public eye.
- Some groups feel that they are effectively disenfranchised by the way the political system works with no influence over what happens. They may be a minority group that considers itself oppressed by the majority, for example, in the way that gay people were before the 1990s, and so direct action is the only way to combat this. It is also the case that, under the first past the post voting system, a Government can be elected with a majority in Parliament and so claim a mandate to change legislation, despite getting the support of well under half of the electorate.
- Western democracy is based on the idea of the Rule of Law. This means that there are a set of laws, created by a democratically elected parliament and enforceable by judges, which everyone, including the Government must abide by. Everyone has an equal vote in deciding who is elected to Parliament. These laws create certainty and give protection to people. Action which breaks the Rule of Law therefore threatens the whole democratic system.
- In a democracy, it is important that what may be a small minority should not try to impose its will on the rest of the population by disrupting their activities. Instead they should use democratic means to persuade the majority that their cause is right. Pluralist theory argues that everyone has an equal opportunity to organise an interest group and put pressure on Government.
- Direct action violates the human rights of others by taking away such freedoms as their right to privacy or their enjoyment of their property.
- Direct action is counter-productive and hinders the cause that it is meant to promote. The hostility that the disruption provokes in the general population leads to a belief that the cause is an extremist one and not worthy of support. It attracts media attention but this often focuses on the nature of the action rather than the reasons behind it.