The discussion at Occupy LSX last night was about the role of law in seeking to change the way we understand the society in which we find ourselves.
Interestingly there was far less cynicism about law that there would have been twenty years ago. The excellent David Allen Green produced an anthem to law-adherence which was applauded rather than booed down (as it might have been not so long ago). David was right to remind us that lawlessness is something the rich and powerful are more adept at and able to do with greater impunity, so that we need to be very careful before we write off the rule of law – it remains as David said (quoting the great radical historian E P Thompson) ‘an unqualified public good’.
Why did the rule of law get such an easy ride?
I’d say this is because of the transformation we have seen in the English judiciary in the past two decades, moving from the blind defenders of the status quo that I recall when I first starting teaching civil liberties (in the Thatcher era) to the more nuanced, thoughtful people you encounter on the Bench at the present time.
An example of this was the Occupy LSX appeal in the Court of Appeal (decision on the case due on Wednesday) – it went very well from the occupiers’ point of view:
- They were treated with respect
- Their lawyer (John Cooper QC) was warmly congratulated for having taken on the case
- The human rights issues were given time to be developed
- The individual litigants themselves had the chance of a ‘day in court’ that felt meaningful to them and was not just a charade.
This is all excellent news. But it does not mean that the appeal will succeed. I would still say the odds are stacked against.
And of course the judges might change again, losing the humanity which has marked recent appointments and reverting to hard-nosed type (historically the norm).
As we await the Court’s ruling in the St Paul’s case….
How do we define success?
Already the brave and extraordinary discipline shown by Occupy LSX, the organisational strength of the movement and its intelligent engagement with the issues have marked it out as a triumph. The case – taken against them of course and not by them – has been turned into a public soapbox, giving them a chance to explain their point of view and counter the demonization to be found elsewhere, in some of the Tabloid media, among the more hard-nosed City types and even – saddest of all – in St Paul’s itself where a noisy commitment to social justice has been shown to be risibly skin-deep.
Last night’s event was full of hope – hope that society can be transformed; hope that our culture can find the levels of solidarity that it so desperately needs; hope that equality can be achieved rather than merely spoken about.
But this hope never collapsed into utopian illusion.
Nor did it threaten at any time to morph into a cynical aggressiveness towards a public who refuse to share the dream.
There was an intelligent awareness of the time dreams take to be realised, of the hard work that utopia demands and of the need to be there for the long haul. Minds are not changed by singular actions, however singular. They are changed when society comes to regard these singular actions as the rule rather than the exception, when common sense shifts onto the side of the erstwhile heretic. This can take a long time or happen very quickly indeed. But it can always happen. No situation is so bad that dreams – with courage, determination and patience – cannot be realised.
I was proud to be involved last night and honoured to have been asked to speak.