Prison Sentence for Fire Extinguisher Student


Edward Woollard, the teenager who threw a fire extinguisher during the NUS protests in November has been jailed for 2 years and 8 months for violent disorder. He is expected to begin his sentence in a young offender’s institute, before being transferred to prison.

Woollard had previously pleaded guilty after news video footage was released to the public showing him committing the crime. Woollard was a pupil at Brockenhurst College, near the New Forest, when he went to protest the government’s plans to raise university tuition fees. He was then seen throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof top of the Conservative Headquarters. The fire extinguisher fell seven floors, narrowly missing several policemen and bystanders below. Woollard was then briefly the subject of a media led manhunt, until he later handed himself in to Totton police station.

Despite the protests that ran throughout November and December, the government successfully won the vote detailing its plans to increase University tuition fees.


Discussion27 Comments

  1. avatar

    2 years and 8 months for violent disorder?

    OK, it has been stupid and dangerous. But then nobody was hurt and he handed in himself. Either this one was sentenced too rigorous or all the others too lax.

    • avatar

      I don’t think anybody is in any doubt that this sentence is about sending a message – any one who protests violently will be dealt with quickly and harshly. I feel terrible for him that he has been made an example of in this way but he did do something just so ludicrously dangerous and I doubt there will be any more fire extinguishers thrown. On the other hand I can’t stand the idea of prison being used for anything but the worst offenders and this scared little bunny rabbit of a boy is clearly not that. He is an idiot and did something dangerously idiotic but he was clearly wrapped up in the moment and is it worth imprisoning him for three years and killing his university prospects over?

  2. avatar

    Much as I struggle to bring myself to sympathise with this kid, it is clearly a politically motivated sentencing. A first offence, guilty plea, co-operation and good references mean a custodial sentence would usually be out of the question. The judge’s comments didn’t even try and hide the political side-

    “The right of peaceful protest is a precious one. Those who abuse it and use the occasion to indulge in serious violence must expect a lengthy sentence of immediate custody. If ever a case calls for a deterrent sentence, this is it. I wish to stress, however, that this is not a case of making an example of you alone. Anyone who behaves in this way and comes before the courts must expect a long sentence of custody.”

    A seriously dangerous precedent then for those who might find themselves facing less serious charges relating to actions on a protest. Also surely a problem that someone who undoubtedly wouldn’t have recieved this sentence in normal circumstances is treated more harshly because he had an apparently political motivation. What about the rule of law?
    I have no sympathy for him, because he knew exactly what he was doing. I worry for the next person who is arrested at a protest for something a bit more doubtful. First they came for the long haired sociopaths… then its anyone who resists arrest or gets accused of breaking a window.

      • avatar

        I feel that the law has been applied in the wrong way because of political motivations, and as a result is more likely to be in the future.
        But I don’t feel sympathy for someone who knowingly carries out a mindless and purposeless act of violence.

        • avatar

          Yes no one is arguing that what he did was not teeth-grindingly stupid and dangerous but it does appear that it was a lapse in judgement rather than an attempt to kill somebody and surely if you believe that a person has been unjustly put in prison for three years I cannot understand a complete lack of sympathy for him even if at the same time you hold him in contempt for his dangerous behaviour. Prison for a young, middle class boy from Southampton will probably not be the cosiest ride and he has had his university and career prospects shattered in conjunction. I think it takes a pretty cool heart to not feel for someone in that situation.

          • avatar

            In all honesty, I feel a degree of sympathy for anyone who gets a prison sentence. Especially when they’re young. Regardless of class and background, it will be a difficult ride and destroy a lot of their prospects. That’s a given. What I should say is I don’t feel particular sympathy for this kid because he must have understood the implications as he did it, and it really served no purpose.

            What worries me is this may be a situation where a headline case which has attracted a lot of public anger is used to set precedents which later justify locking up people who are less teeth grindingly stupid and more carrying out acts of civil disobedience …

          • avatar

            He knew when he let go of that large, heavy lump of metal that it had a high chance of causing someone serious injury or worse. In fact the video of the incident suggests he didn’t just mindlessly throw it over the side of the roof, but rather hoisted it over the railings and then dropped it. The guy wanted to control where the fire extinguisher landed; if he wanted to avoid hitting someone then he clearly understood the danger of his actions, if he wanted to hit someone then he was committing an act of attempted murder or trying to seriously injure someone at the very least. Either way I’d find it hard to believe that the guy didn’t know the potential implications of his action as he claims.

            I think, then, he should consider himself lucky that he has only been charged with committing violent disorder. I imagine the only thing preventing him from being charged with a more serious offence was that the prosecution could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that he did intend to harm somebody.

            And it’s undoubtedly unfortunate for him that he now has to spend the next two and half years in prison, but it is the harsh and necessary reality of committing such a serious offence. Do I feel sorry for the guy? Not at all, there’s a simple way to avoid imprisonment and that’s by not breaking the law in the first place. Does it send a message out to future protestors? Well of course, it tells them that if they recklessly endanger peoples lives they will be punished severely. It also tells them that the blanket of anonymity resulting from large-scale protest – which inspires these kinds of violent acts – is fallible and may not protect them from the consequences of their reckless, irresponsible and violent actions.

            Moreover I disagree with the notion that the decision had anything to do with politics. We have a robust, independent legal system where fairness and impartiality are of absolute priority. I think the most recent notable example of this is Julian Assange’s ongoing trial, despite overwhelming international political pressure to have him extradited the courts have remained stanchly independent and fair. Ultimately the legal system exists to protect the public by punishing law-breakers. In light of this I think the harshness of the sentence is more a reflection of the recent increase in the number of violent protests irrespective of their cause or target. It’s likely that as more cuts are announced more potentially violent protests will occur and more opportunities for protestors to act recklessly will arise. I think the judge realises this and has used this opportunity to try and prevent any cases like this in the future, before something truly awful does happen – to protect the vast majority of the public who do respect the law and not as a way to protect the government or subdue the people.

          • avatar

            John, your last paragraph confused me. It appears that you disagree with the idea that the sentencing had anything to do with politics, but then you seemingly went on to explain how the sentence acted as a political deterrent to future protesters?

            Forgive me, but I don’t think many people out there hold the opinion that the sentence had nothing to do with politics. Not when, as Pete points out, the judge clearly and directly referenced his decision as politically motivated in order to discourage others.

            I agree with Samuel that you would have to be pretty cold-hearted to not feel any sympathy for the guy. Everything to do with the stupidity of his actions has already been said, but I think it’s entirely unfounded for anyone to suggest that he knew exactly what he was doing. Deborah Orr explains in her Guardian piece – it was his first time in London unaccompanied, he had no history of protest, there were no signs he intended to get caught up in the protest (no weapons, hoods, face masks), he didn’t obtain the extinguisher himself, he clearly lacked any insight that the media would have been filming him, he pleaded guilty continuously throughout the trial and right from the earliest opportunity after quickly turning himself in, he had no previous convictions or criminal history, he had 30 supportive character references, and he was extremely remorseful of what he’d done. Many experienced protesters also described the occupation of Millbank as ‘highly dynamic and exciting’. Is it really hard to believe that he didn’t get swept up in the commotion of the riots? Anyone taking all of that into account and then still believing that he was aware of all of these points and thought ‘fuck it, I’ll drop it anyway’ is, I think, the owner of a very brazen opinion.

            It’s easy to put yourself in his shoes at the time of the crime with the benefit of hindsight, and project your now thought-out opinions and criticisms onto his character, and to presume that he must have known then what you know now, but to do so would be pretty presumptuous.

            This event also ties in with Samuel’s article on police brutality. Edward Woollard committed a crime that injured no-one, and was quickly sentenced to almost 3 years in custody. A police officer bludgeoned Alfie Meadows on the head so hard that he needed emergency brain surgery to save his life, and has anyone been charged and sentenced for that?

            The deterring sentence will simply make the peaceful protesters less active, and the current trouble makers more cautious of hiding their identity. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more masks, hoods and weapons in future student protests.

  3. avatar

    Well, firstly, I don’t think you can necessarily say that the judge ‘clearly and directly referenced his decision as politically motivated to discourage others’. I think you could say the judge referenced his decision as to discourage others from committing serious offences by abusing their right to peaceful protests (in fact that is what he says), but to say there was a political motivation may be putting words into the judge’s mouth.

    In fact his acknowledgement that the ‘right of peaceful protest’ being ‘precious’ would suggest to me that his main concern is protecting this right, and in doing so protect the interests of those who do protest peacefully. I think he realises, better than any myopic student angry at the government, that if the violent minority continue to cause escalating amounts of trouble during peaceful protests the end result will be nothing but the dilution of our right to protest.

    And what other option would there be? At the end of the day the protests led to hundreds of criminal acts being committed. A crime does a not become any less illegal or any more justified just because it occurred during a protest. So what we have is a situation where, isolated from the target or message of the protests, hundreds of crimes are being committed the vast majority of which go unpunished.

    With regard to the guys relative guilt in the case I’ll agree that he clearly wasn’t a seasoned troublemaker and I’ll admit that the circumstances surrounding the event were extraordinary. I am certain that he was influenced by the crowd (he didn’t break into the building alone) and what he had already witnessed that day (breaking and entering going unpunished). But to say it’s ‘entirely unfounded for anyone to suggest he knew exactly was he was doing’ is being too kind to him. The moment when he dropped the extinguisher from the roof he clearly had an intention. He dropped it for a reason. And what possible reason could one have for dropping an extinguisher from seven stories into a crowded area? Can you seriously deny that he was trying to harm someone?

    That he ‘lacked insight that the media would have been filming him’ is not a defence for committing a crime, rather conversely, is actually the most telling indictment of his guilt. He simply wouldn’t have done it if he thought he’d get caught. But from the anonymity of the rooftop and from the anonymity of the crowd he thought he wouldn’t have to face the consequences of his actions, it really is as simple as that. As the saying goes ‘the measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out’.

    And I imagine the police will enjoy more protestors self-selecting themselves into neat groups of troublemakers by wearing masks. After all if you’re not doing anything wrong then surely you’ve got nothing to hide?

    • avatar

      As close as this brings my gag-reflex to triggering, I agree with Henry. You have made a clear contradiction in your first paragraph:

      “I don’t think you can necessarily say that the judge ‘clearly and directly referenced his decision as politically motivated to discourage others’. I think you could say the judge referenced his decision as to discourage others from committing serious offences”

      If the Judge sentenced Woollard as a message to others then that it clearly politically motivated. In the UK we do not employ a deterrence theory of justice because it is inherently immoral and completely ineffective.

      A note on your next point, “A crime does a not become any less illegal or any more justified”. I think this is completely untrue. Any less illegal? No, but any more justified? I think yes. It has become extremely fashionable for some reason to denounce the student protests as pointless and while I bear nothing but contempt for the slack-jaws who go along just for a good riot – whether you agree with the students or not about the fee rises, I think it would be hard to rationally defend that their education and their futures are not a justified subject for civil disobedience over, if they feel they are being treated unjustly.

      I think you have intentionally misunderstood some of the objections to your argument; That he was unaware of media presence was not, I believe, supposed to mitigate his actions, it was part of a list of evidence that, when viewed as a whole, quite compellingly suggests that this was the action of an idiot caught up in the heat of the moment rather than a malicious attempted murder by a violent protester. It really does boil down to that point: Do you believe that Woollard was attempting to kill the people below? I don’t believe it, I think he is probably what I have previously called a hairy-knuckled, slope-browed mouth-breather, but I don’t think he is a wannabe killer. Prison time for a first time offence of this nature seems extraordinary.

      A final point on your last sentence, “After all if you’re not doing anything wrong then surely you’ve got nothing to hide?” – go away Big Brother, that is a terrifying sentiment.

      • avatar

        I think it’s important to discuss what you mean when you say that it is politically motivated (and that is a genuine question). For me, at least, this implies that the judge was actively trying to protect the interests of the government which I don’t think is true. But I’d like to you to explain explicitly what you mean.

        And whilst the sentence appears long his first chance of release is in 18 months, and he will serve that exclusively at a young offenders institute.

        Moreover what I said with regard to the media stands. Just because it’s lumped in with a bunch of other facts of dubious importance doesn’t alter what it means. All it tells us is that if he knew the media was filming him he would not have committed the crime, and that logically implies that he knew what he was doing was wrong but also that he wouldn’t have done it if he thought he’d get caught. I cannot see how this can be interpreted in any other way.

        I am certain of his guilt. If you watch this video it’s clear that he was intentionally trying to hit a police officer ( Does it make any difference whether he brought weapons with him or where he acquired the extinguisher from (he picked it up off the floor if that makes a difference)? Would he have been more or less guilty had he been wearing a mask? How about if he came to London all the time unaccompanied? Let’s not forget that the person highlighting these points was the guys barrister, it’s the very least you’d expect from someone paid to defend you in court. And pleading guilty, feeling great remorse over your actions and claiming you were not aware of the seriousness of what you were doing are par for the course when you’re facing possible attempted murder charges. You don’t minimise your sentence by saying you knew exactly what you were doing and would have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky cameras.

        The fact remains that this guy made a sequence of decisions that all indicate an intention to cause trouble even before the act: first he detached from the main protest ignoring the planned protest route in order to move to Conservative HQ, after reaching the HQ he was part of the group that broke in and stormed the building, when on the roof of the HQ he attempted to seriously injure a police officer by throwing an extinguisher at them. That’s a pretty long moment of madness.

        And civil disobedience is never justified. Destroying and vandalising thousands of pounds worth of public and private property, throwing petrol bombs, bricks, lumps of concrete and metal fences at police officers, breaking and entering, trespassing and looting – how does a feeling of being ‘unjustly treated’ make this acceptable? And who decides what constitutes a just cause? I’m sure the ‘slack-jaws who go along just for a good riot’ feel equally justified in the cause of their civil disobedience. But whatever their callous and ignorant justification is based on it doesn’t make it any more or less acceptable. You can’t pick and choose which causes are more justified than others based on your personal preferences.

        With regard to your final point, you’ve just taken what I said totally out of context and that’s pretty cheap.

        • avatar

          A sentence based on anything other than the facts of that specific case is not really acceptable. A sentence that is a warning to other protesters is clearly a politically motivated one. Politically motivated does certainly not equate to protecting the interests of the government but in this case the sentencing does appear to satisfy both criteria.

          If you think that 18 months in a Young Offenders Institute is not that bad then I urge you to read up on the places. Facilities such as Feltham have seen murder and other violence just the same as other prisons.

          Quite an old article but here is some more up to date violence from a different YOI:

          Your point that he would not have done it if he knew he would be caught is a platitude and must also be applicable to 99.99% of crime. You claim to be certain of his intent, this is of course false. I have already seen the footage and while it is clearly irresponsible to the point where he must be punished for it, although prison time is certainly too severe. I do not believe as you have stated that he was “intentionally trying to hit a police officer”, I consider it perfectly plausible that he let go after spraying the extinguisher in a very short moment of madness and then prayed it wouldn’t hit anyone.

          Up until this point I can perfectly understand your position, wanting to take a hard line with violent offenders is a stance I am sympathetic towards although you lose me when you say something like “civil disobedience is never justified”. I have heard people take this position before but it seems to be pretty untenable unless you assume an infallible government or that people should have to suffer injustice and not protest whatever the cost. As I have stated, whether or not you agree with the protesters, they feel that their futures are being jeopardised by this government and I cannot think of a more appropriate response than civil disobedience. Would you have told MLK/Rosa Parks/Ghandi/Mandela that civil disobedience is never justified?

          If the ‘slackjaws’ justification is that they want a good riot then we obviously don’t have to put up with that, the student protesters believing their education is at stake is a different question. I would have thought that to be a common sense distinction. Can you also reference these ‘petrol bombs’ you have mentioned, I was unable to find any cases other than a boy who was released without charges.

          On that last point you’re correct, I did take your words completely out of context, I cannot resist a nice cheap shot sometimes. I do hope you will accept my apology.

  4. avatar

    We have to accept throwing a fire extinguisher down into a street was a pretty stupid thing to do, but then young people do stupid things all the time, I do agree this is political sentencing. People are caught drunk driving or stoned on drugs and get a slap on the wrist because they didn’t cause an accident, but they could have. The extinguisher didn’t hit anyone, and if this had been a stag night stunt they would just get a warning, that’s if the police had bothered to investigate which would be unlikely.
    I’m not very political, and these conspiracy therories can become tiresome, but I heard stories from people talking quite casually, not at a rally where they were trying to sell something, that violence during the Steel strikes 30 years ago, and at the Anti Poll Tax demonstration was started by undercover police or government activists (rent a mob), the aim being to discredit any protest so that it looses support, it just seemed to sum up what happened, a peaceful protest wandering along happily until out of nowhere come a ranting violent group who wind everyone up. The police play their part by refusing to let anyone leave the demonstration, and the crowd is forced by the police into a confined space so that even moderates get angry, so maybe it happened again.

  5. avatar

    “And civil disobedience is never justified. Destroying and vandalising thousands of pounds worth of public and private property, throwing petrol bombs, bricks, lumps of concrete and metal fences at police officers, breaking and entering, trespassing and looting – how does a feeling of being ‘unjustly treated’ make this acceptable? ”

    What. Of course it was a bit of an overreaction in this scenario but stating that civil disobedience is “never” justified and mocking the fact that some people are genuinely unjustly treated are the words of someone living in an Ivory Tower.

    • avatar

      This was written in response to Dhanesh’s post but I think some points are relevant to your response Samuel.

      Firstly please explain at what point I ‘mocked the fact that some people are genuinely unjustly treated’ in my statement. No really, when did I laugh and deride the ‘genuinely unjustly treated’? What I did say is that ‘a feeling of being unjustly treated’ is no justification for civil disorder. If you hadn’t of conveniently ignored the next half of that paragraph it would be quite clear that this statement had nothing to do with my own personal views on whether or not the tuition fees protests were justified. In fact quite contrary to this, the central point of my argument is that an individual’s justification for a cause is entirely subjective. And who decides what constitutes a just cause and what does not?

      Let me explain the logic behind this. It’s a long read but I think it’s important.

      Consider that all individuals in our society have a right to an opinion, and that no individual’s opinion is worth any more or any less than any other individual’s opinion – this is represented formally by the fact that we each receive one vote during elections, and each vote has the same value. It’s the foundation of a democratic society.

      Now consider that an individual’s beliefs are formed by a mix of personal experiences, random chance and an unfathomably complex mix of variables (some fixed, some not) over many years: place of birth, age, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, sexuality, natural intelligence, education, attractiveness, height, athleticism, parents marital status, parents earnings, number of siblings, age of siblings and any of the other innumerable factors that will affect the individual’s experiences through life. Every single individual in society has their personal beliefs shaped by their own incredibly complex mix of these factors, and every single person forms their opinion on any given topic through the rose tinted glasses of their particular beliefs. By the time any individual is old enough to protest they will each have an extremely unique belief system which will greatly influence all of their opinions. As they grow older they will continue to develop this belief system as they have more and more unique personal experiences, each a product of random chance and their past decisions (which were in turn influenced by their past beliefs, which were in turn influenced by their initial starting circumstances). No two individuals are the same; they each have a set of different beliefs and, whether known or unknown, will have developed a number of biases as well.

      Now suppose there are two individuals, Bob and Joe, who are identical in all respects except for their names, gender and date of birth – one is born in 1970 and one is born in 1990. It is not hard to imagine that the two individuals will develop vastly different belief systems and biases based simply on the different eras they grew up in. Now if we allow their characteristics to vary but hold their name, gender and age constant it is inevitable that they will have differing sets of beliefs and biases, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will not share many beliefs and biases, but they will have many differences also. Upon hearing about the proposed tuition fees rises both formulate an opinion based on their beliefs, but they also take into account the evidence of the argument presented before them. Of course when they assess the evidence they are inevitably influenced by their different belief systems and – more importantly – their biases.

      Bob believes all students are layabouts and so any evidence supporting them he conveniently ignores as his biases create ‘rational’ arguments for their irrelevance – he doesn’t care if he got free higher education and they won’t – it’s not his problem. To Joe this is a frankly absurd opinion, and entirely unjust. But Bob thinks the rises in tuition fees are entirely justified – cuts are just a reality of the current economic climate and students can cry him a river for all he cares. Joe goes through a similar process, but being a student himself applies more weight to certain evidence (‘It will result in lower economic growth in the long run’) and he disregards certain evidence based on other biases (‘I am not responsible for the economic mess, I should not shoulder the burden of its costs’). It’s clear then that we have two individuals with contrasting views on how justified the rises in tuition fees are, and both of them have been influenced by their set of beliefs and biases (whether they realise or not). But whatever their opinions are and however confident they are in the ‘correctness’ of these opinions, it doesn’t change the fact that each individuals opinion is worth the same amount to society. To Joe, who attends the tuition fees protest, he feels entirely justified when he is involved with the acts of civic disobedience. It is quite clear that this is a just cause and so acts of violence can be justified. Everyone Joe speaks to at the riots is equally convinced in the righteousness of their cause and, ignoring the clear selection bias, Joe becomes even more convinced that his opinion is justified.Bob sits at home and watches the protests on television, he see’s the violence and is shocked. He’s acquired a new belief about students, that they are hooligans with no respect for the law.

      Consider another of our hypothetical individuals now. He also has some set of characteristics that determine his path through life. Unfortunately, however, due to random chance and a few select characteristics this individual evolved a set of beliefs and biases that inspired incredibly strong opinions and a sense of overwhelming confidence in the correctness of these opinions. He was born a Muslim and over time developed extreme beliefs. He decides he wishes to commit an act of terrorism against the British government and people. His belief in the validity of this decision is unshakeable. To you or me it is outrageous that such an act could be justified, it’s despicable and morally reprehensible to commit such a violent crime – we are unanimous in our condemnation. And yet if we were asked not ‘whether it was justified in our own opinions’, but ‘how the man could justify it to himself’, we would all quickly conclude that it was his misguided beliefs and biases that were the cause. We can see that he has disregarded all reason and is guided by blind faith. But the fact remains that in his mind he believes absolutely in the correctness of his decision and he has no doubt in its absolute justification. From his perspective he has considered all the evidence and has no doubt that he is entirely correct. He has no concept of his own indoctrination, and all the evidence he finds that contradicts his belief is quickly rationalised away by his particularly strong biases. The difference between this man and Joe is that his beliefs and biases are so extreme and rare that we can easily see them, whereas Joe’s are more moderate and common, and so harder to spot.

      Nevertheless if we believe civil disobedience is acceptable when it is due to ‘genuinely unjust treatment’ we must realise that we are making this judgement within the framework of our own beliefs, whether we realise we are or not. We may be certain that our opinions are an objective assessment of all of the evidence, but our opinions are always distorted by our own biases. Moreover we can never be in possession of all the evidence, because much of the evidence cannot be directly observed and so we can only make assumptions based on our best guesses of what may or may not happen. Perhaps you may argue that an opinion is more valid the more people hold it. But five hundred thousand people attending a protest, each equally certain of the justification cause, does not make the justification five hundred thousand times stronger. Each protestor still represents only one opinion, only one member of society and only one vote. Our opinions, however loud we shout about them and however passionately we believe in them, are still worth no more than any other member of society.

      When you justify civil disobedience understand that you are simply making a value judgement based on your own personal opinions. The terrorist says ‘I am absolutely justified in my opinion, it is undeniable that my religion has been unfairly treated by the British government’, you say ‘I am absolutely justified in my opinion, I have genuinely been treated unfairly by the British government’. Now fortunately for us, our would-be terrorist skipped physics lessons at school, and is rubbish at making bombs. Instead he decides he’ll put a mask on, grab a metal pole and wander down to Westminster to break a few windows.

      If you think civil disobedience is justified for the cause you support then you must also accept that it is acceptable for every individual who feels justified in their cause – even this would-be terrorist. There is no grey area, you must either accept civil disobedience is always justified or you must accept it is never justified. You cannot pick and choose when it is, or is not, acceptable. By doing this you imply that you believe your opinion is worth more than the value of your single vote, or that the shared opinions of many are worth more than the sum of their parts. And furthermore you tacitly condone the marginalisation of all other members of society – something that you protest is happening to you. By doing this you void your right to criticise the democratic process as you, yourself, clearly do not abide by its rules.

      And I actually highly sympathise with the protestors. I have a great deal of respect for all of those who were willing to protest peacefully for a cause that they believe in. The saddest thing about the entire ordeal is that students, a significant contributor to the Nick Cleggs success in the election, have been betrayed by him. I think that shows an incredible lack of integrity and it’s undoubtedly a source of much anger among the student population. I imagine many student votes will return the favour at the next election, and the Lib Dems may ultimately regret such a flagrant disregard for promises made. It’s certainly understandable that the government took so much flack during the protests but, as I’ve already explained, I don’t think it can ever justify civil disobedience. It’s important to remember that intimidating the government with violence will never force them to alter their decisions, to do so is a kind of submission from the Government – to admit that violent protest can be beneficial for a cause. Moreover shouts for revolution and wide-scale revolt will not help the UK’s on-going recovery from the recession. The UK will not benefit from international speculation about its stability due to lots of violent protests or constant threats of political upheavel.

      • avatar

        John: You completely fail take into account the yawning chasm that separates violent and non-violent protest. There is then another yawning chasm between violent protest directed at the cause of the protest and terrorism aimed at those who are innocent of any involvement. You have tried to make this issue so clear cut that you have lumped suicide bombing in with those who break shop windows.

        Your second failing is the failure to take into account the possibility of absolute injustice in democratically supported governments. In cases such as Apartheid, Nazi Germany, Taliban rule etc., far from feeling an obligation to obey the state we should feel positively obliged to disobey the state. The issue is no doubt confounded in the confines of a state that is fundamentally just but even then should we be compelled to uphold what we see as an injustice? I would like to add that I am speaking hypothetically here about any act of civil disobedience here not specifically about the student protests. Consider the African American civil rights movement: It could be argued that apart from the treatment of blacks the US was an otherwise just state so should the civil rights movement have refrained from civil disobedience? We could consider that the treatment of blacks taints the entire of the US with injustice and therefore no such claim could be made but then why could the students not make the same claim? They feel that they are being deprived of their right to education and that this is an injustice so could they claim that the state is unjust until this wrong has been rectified? If they are correct then them being a minority has no effect on whether the proposals are just or not. You have stated that civil disobedience is in conflict with democracy but a constitutional democracy is only legitimate as long as it is just. We could not consider the Apartheid regime a just one therefore we cannot consider it legitimate even if is democratically sound.

        You have advocated the categorical imperative where you state that “There is no grey area, you must either accept civil disobedience is always justified or you must accept it is never justified”. This is a stance that I will absolutely repudiate. Henry has already posted a good critique of this position but I would like to add that the claim that a moral principle must be universally applicable is an absurd one – trespassing is wrong but if I see somebody in danger in their house then I will trespass to help them; stealing is wrong but were I severely impoverished I would steal from the wealthy to feed my children; killing is wrong but I would kill a murderer to save the life of an innocent; sticking needles in children is wrong but a doctor who does so to vaccinate a baby is ethically bulletproof as far as I can tell. Failure to take into account mitigating factors, moral grey areas and loop holes results in an untenable ethical stance. Kant’s defence of this position led to him stating that should an axe wielding maniac turn up on his door asking where he was, he should expect hid butler to honestly answer the maniac and disclose Kant’s location as lying was not universally morally good. If this makes sense to you then truly – the best of luck in your white-lie-free existence, you will need it.

        Just a couple of points regarding the end of your quite amusingly long comment: “The saddest thing about the entire ordeal is that students, a significant contributor to the Nick Cleggs success in the election, have been betrayed by him.” – The numbskulls who voted for him should have thought for a second or two about how political parties who think that they have no chance always have and always will make claims that they could never uphold if they got into power. The Lib Dems would have offered free Jacuzzis if they thought it would have got them into power, yes they’re scum for lying but you’re suckers for believing it.

        “The UK will not benefit from international speculation about its stability due to lots of violent protests or constant threats of political upheavel.” As far as I am aware the only criticism we have had from abroad has been from Iran. I can only assume that is supposed to be some warped and disturbing joke they are making about the fact that their last protests ended up in torture, executions and highly publicised murder.

  6. avatar

    John: some great points, some of which I agree with, but I take issue with your penultimate paragraph. There is most definitely a grey area.

    Morality doesn’t have to be consistent, and often isn’t. I am perfectly entitled to have my own ethical code which permits me to justify my own civil disobedience, and at the same time reprimand others for their ethical code that permits them to do the same. We are all moral hypocrites in that sense, and rightfully so.

    Of course I can pick and choose when civil disobedience is or isn’t acceptable. I would find it completely acceptable had the riots been over a proposed Ugandan-style anti-homoesxuality bill, yet not if they were over an increase of the higher tax band from 40-45%. I don’t have to support the latter purely because I support the former.

    Our ethical codes of practice are often much more mutually exclusive than you suggest. I wouldn’t sanction the personal justification of a suicide bomber blowing himself up in public, whether one person holds that opinion, or the rest of the nation, and no-one has to agree on the ridiculous (in this instance) idea of a moral principle of equitable entitlement. We all condone the marginalisation of other areas of society – that’s what politics is about. It’s an unfortunate truth in some instances, and a blessing in others.

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      I don’t disagree with what you’ve written. All I’m saying is that if you believe that you are entitled to break the law in order to make your opinions heard, then you also have to accept that other people are allowed to break the law in order to have their opinions heard. It’s not about how valid you personally view their cause or even how moral or noble it is in any objective sense, it’s about hypocrisy and fairness. Students say ‘I believe civil disobedience is justified in my case’, another member of society says ‘I believe civil disobedience is justified in my case’. The key point is that the only clear, defining factor consistent across anyones argument, and that has absolutely no basis on opinion, is that civil disobedience is illegal. The rule of law must be absolute.

      There are protests that have been permitted by the Metropolitan police every day in London. What happens if every single protest decides their cause justifies civil disobedience? We just end up with central London becoming a war zone.

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        Were enough people to decide that they had been treated so unfairly as to warrant breaking the law as to bring London into a state of war then it would be time to seriously consider that the state was irredeemably unjust. This is, however, not the case – you are again dealing in absolutes.

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          What if half of these protests were in support of anti-immigration policy and half were against anti-immigration policy? You’re assuming protests don’t contradict eachother. What if the EDL decide to protest that immigrants are ruining the country? If they cause enough trouble should the government deport all muslims? What if pro-sharia law protestors burn down the Houses of Parliament? Should the government pass legislation allowing stonings? What about the fact that Police unions are considering protesting in London about proposed job cuts? How would you feel if they started breaking windows, vandalising buildings and occupying government buildings? Would they be justified also?

          The government can’t please all the people, all of the time otherwise we’d just end up with chaos. It has to do what’s best for the entire country, not just for the vocal minority. If five hundred thousand protestors march on London it still means more than 99.2% of the population were either indifferent or in disagreement with the protests.

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            Your first point is actually helpful to my argument that there is in fact a grey area (the protesters within each group would say that the two groups are mutually exclusive and would presumably support the prevention of the other’s protest), but regardless, we could sit here all day and list examples that support our opinions. My example was to highlight my point that there IS a grey area, it’s not simply black and white (if only more things were), and I don’t have to accept other people breaking the law even when I do. It all depends on the context, it definitely depends on how valid you view their personal cause, and it definitely depends on how moral and noble it is in any objective sense, as you say.

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            how did u manage to equate suicide bombing to largely peaceful protest? god you’re an idiot @ jon

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            You seem to be under the impression that we have no way of distinguishing just causes from malignant ones; causes such as the EDLs, a racists mob headed up by a convicted paedophile demanding expulsion of ethnic minorities, are so CLEARLY opposed to the values of a constitutional democracy that they can march and chant until they are blue in the face but that does not mean that we should pay them a moments notice. The example of pro-shariah law protesters is equally ludicrous, it is fundamentally unjust and in conflict with the value of the United Kingdom to not have the same rule of law for all.

            The student protesters whether you agree with them or not, you may believe that the practical concerns outweigh the students need for cheap education, have a legitimate beef – it is not unjust or at odds with the values of the state for them to desire same education as the generations before them. The idea that if we listen to one protester we would have to listen to them all is an absurdity and is missing the point of civil disobedience.

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            ‘The student protesters whether you agree with them or not… have a legitimate beef’. But that doesn’t make smashing the place up and attacking police officers a valid response.

            We have the right to peaceful protest, and we have the right to vote. Soon we’ll have a referendum on election reform and I expect it will be passed. At the next election the Lib Dems and Conservatives will lose the student vote, and they’ll suffer from it. These are our methods of getting our voices heard. We are not being oppressed, this is not 1984. The government decision was not corrupt, it was hypocritical. No human rights have been breached. People are getting arsey because they’re not being given free shit anymore. It really is as simple as that.

            When you’re born into this world you have nothing. You get it all given to you. An NHS midwife delivers you, your parents water and feed you, your basic education – a compulsory 11 years – is given to you for free. If you ever get ill or injured you get immediate medical care. If you ever become a victim of crime the Police will protect you. You get benefits if your poor, you get benefits if your unemployed, you get benefits if your disabled. You get it all. And after 18 years of this you want more, it isn’t enough. You want your life gifted to you. This isn’t North Korea, this isn’t Stalinist Russia, this isn’t anything other than an amazing privilege we are extremely lucky to have. I think people sometimes forget that.

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