18/02/2016 09:16 GMT | Updated 15/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Conscience to Be Criminalised?

We woke up this week to the news that the British Government is to introduce "severe penalties" for ethical boycotts. Unless blocked by parliament or public protest, this could amount to the criminalization of conscience on a scale not seen since the infamous "Gagging Acts" of 1795.


You might have thought it was not possible to turn the clock back two centuries. 1795 was the year of the Seditious Meetings Act and the Treason Act, popularly decried as "The Gagging Acts". Designed to suppress rebellious tendencies in the kingdom, they curtailed public meetings and ordered that places permitting the criticism of unjust laws be labelled "houses of disorder" and punished.

You may well rub your eyes in disbelief. It's 221 years on. The government has just announced that local councils, public bodies and university student unions are now to be banned by law from boycotting "unethical" companies. All publicly funded institutions will be prevented from boycotting companies "involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the West Bank".

According to The International Business Times, Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock will announce the new proposed regulations this week during a trip to Israel. The bill will allow the government to prosecute universities, local government, councils, and student unions that back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Although the announcement includes a specific reference to current efforts to boycott economic links involving Israel's policy in its occupied territories, it is not at all clear that its impact will be limited to that.

"An attack on local democracy"

"The government's decision to ban councils and other public bodies from disinvesting from trade or investments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy," said a spokesperson of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.


"This government's ban would have outlawed council action against apartheid South Africa," he said.

It's a telling example. It's worth remembering that at one point, London's police banned anti-apartheid demonstrations outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. Activists were harassed and arrested.

A 1984 leaflet issued by the South African Embassy Picket Campaign warned: "The ever more open alliance of the British government with the racist South African state is inevitably leading to greater attacks on democratic rights in Britain. To protest effectively against apartheid now means to fight to defend democratic rights in Britain."

For all their intransigence, the governments of the day were unable to stop the "Free Nelson Mandela" campaign and the growing boycotts of trade, sport and university contacts that eventually weakened and helped sweep away the apartheid regime.

The empire and the "half-naked fakir"

It's also worth recalling that for all its efforts the empire itself could not withstand the sustained impact of an earlier boycott inspired and led by a man once denounced as "a half-naked fakir". Mahatma Gandhi's "swadeshi" (self-rule movement) had, as one of its core strategies, the goal of using only the goods manufactured in India. Millions boycotted or refused to use imported goods.

Mercifully, despite the current government's lurch back to the 18th century this week, the historical record gives us reason to believe that it is just as likely to fail in its efforts to stop today's acts of popular conscience as its predecessors were through repressive legislation in the 1700s.

Indeed, it was at the end of that century that British activists launched one of the earliest recorded boycotts. After parliament refused to abolish slavery in 1791, anti-slavery campaigners, led by the legendary Wilberforce, distributed thousands of pamphlets calling for a boycott of sugar imported from slave plantations in the Caribbean colonies.

The government was unable to stop it. Sales of sugar fell by as much as a half, according to some estimates. In support of the boycott, shops started selling Indian sugar produced by 'free men'. Sales are said to have risen tenfold in two years. The momentum was unstoppable. Within a matter of years, the slave trade was outlawed.

Of course, no one can predict whether today's government, exercising power in an increasingly extremist and authoritaran world, will prevail in these latest efforts to curb the conscience of local activists. But no doubt there was also a time when those in power told Wilberforce, Gandhi and Mandela their boycotts too would never win.