What Is Britain Tolerating?

Every time something goes wrong, every time there is an injustice, and we tolerate it, that is shaping our society, and in the worst way possible. When the state stops playing by the rules, we all have a duty to make it start again.

I don't know what's happened in the last week, but suddenly we seem to have elements of Tsarist Russia creeping into modern Britain.

But the really disturbing thing is, why are so many people not complaining?

Last week, the country's largest university had a student occupation evicted from its library, Senate House.

This was controversial, but nearly so controversial as the actions of the police carrying out the eviction. One of them was filmed brazenly going round punching students. Multiple photos appeared on Twitter showing the pavements of Bloomsbury spattered with blood.

I told this to my housemate. I told him that the occupation being evicted may have been unlawful but it was still peaceful. And then I told him about the police deciding that it's not assault if it's done against protestors.

And what was his reply? "Yeah, but does anyone outside of student politics really care about that?"

The thing is, he's kind of right. Most people seem to imagine that all student protests are violent and destructive and if the police reacted similarly then it must be because they were forced to.

This blind trust in authority figures is bizarre and worrying. Kurt Tucholsky once wrote, "A country is not only what it does: it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates."

If people tolerate police brutality against any section of the population, whether one stereotyped for being violently radical or not, that affects everything. It affects the tone of the country, it affects our reputation; most importantly, it affects how people take their decisions - including their decisions at the ballot box.

This phenomenon of unthinking deference to Authority is not just confined to non-students against students. It happens within campuses as well. Take Sussex University's recent suspension (now sheepishly overturned, following a national outcry) of five protestors without providing them with evidence or an opportunity to mount a defence.

There was a huge groundswell of support from their peers, which is not surprising. What was both surprising and horrifying was the huge groundswell of hostility.

"Where the f*** are you getting this god-given 'right to protest'?" ranted one Sussex student on Facebook. Erm... how is it possible that there are people in the UK, studying for degrees at a just-about-respectable university, who have never heard of Article 11?

Another: "The fact is, the University is the governing body here: if they feel they have grounds then I support them." Well quite. The minor matters of the Sussex Five not having been able to present a defence case, and not knowing the charge or the evidence against them, are just technicalities. The decision must be sound because we trust the University authorities, don't we, even when they don't provide any reasoning for their actions. In the same way that we trust the government when they take out court orders against terrorist suspects without providing them with any evidence, by a procedure strangely similar to Sussex's.

Another social media comment about the Sussex debacle: "Its [sic] not a decision the uni would have taken lightly so I suspect they have been building up evidence against them." Ah yes, the old he's a wrong'un and no mistake argument for doing away with a fair trial. Of course; we only want to give a fair trial to the innocent people, don't we? The guilty ones should just be strung up immediately.

These same attidues were behind the controversial legal aid reforms proposed earlier this year: the Well, they're poor, and they've been arrested... probably did it! attitude, as John Finnemore put it.

People are naturally untrustworthy of those who are accused of wrongdoing by authority figures: whether student protestors, suspected terrorists (especially those who make things worse for themselves by having a foreign-sounding name) or just plain old poor people who get arrested. But this is precisely why procedural safeguards - the presumption of innocence, fair trials and the right to mount an informed defence - are so vital.

It's all too easy for Society to say, Well, they got noticed by the Vice-Chancellor/ police/ Home Secretary: there must be a reason for that, eh? Eh? and this is why we rely on Authority to follow proper processes.

But it now seems that we can't rely on that. The police are punching people, Vice-Chancellors are confusing their role on campus with that of feudal lords, and the government has decided that some evidence is too secret even for the suspect themselves to see.

So what happens next? Society needs to speak up. Everyone needs to stop blindly trusting Authority, to stop saying, "I'm sure they had their reasons." Never again should the he's a wrong'un and no mistake 'argument' rear its ugly head.

Because every time something goes wrong, every time there is an injustice, and we tolerate it, that is shaping our society, and in the worst way possible.

When the state stops playing by the rules, we all have a duty to make it start again.


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