Illegal Beagles

In the name of preventing violence, the government is being asked to ban peaceful protest

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th January 2001

The great shareholding democracy has two defining characteristics. The first is that some people have more votes than others. The second, we have been widely instructed this week, is that those votes should be exercised only in favour of the corporations.

Like the defenders of the tottering research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, I believe that certain forms of animal experimentation are morally justified. Like them, I deplore the intimidation and violence that some animal rights protesters have deployed. But occasional acts of barbarity, abhorrent as they are, do not explain HLS’s threatened closure.

The protests outside its laboratories began in 1997, as a result of an investigation by the undercover reporter Zoe Broughton. The film she made showed that beagles used for drugs testing by the company were treated with gross and unnecessary cruelty, and that results were being fabricated by some technicians. The Home Office launched an investigation, which found that HLS’s main lab “was not appropriately staffed and that animals were not at all times provided with adequate care”. Two employees were subsequently convicted under the Protection of Animals Act. As soon as Ms Broughton’s film was broadcast, the company’s share price fell from 121 pence to 54 pence. HLS has been lurching from crisis to crisis ever since. It may be convenient for the company to blame its problems on violent protest, but it brought this calamity upon itself.

The banks and the big institutional shareholders – the ones whose votes, in the great shareholding democracy, count – began pulling out not because their directors were frightened that they would be murdered in their beds, but because they were frightened that they would lose their money. The bad publicity surrounding HLS was undermining market confidence. This is is how the market works. We may not like it, we are told by the free marketeers, but we have to live with it. But when they don’t like it, they call for a change in the law.

Though their cause has been damaged by the people who firebombed five HLS cars, the great majority of those protesting against the company remain resolutely peaceful. They stand on the pavements in beagle costumes, hand out leaflets, collect money in buckets and shout slogans. I might disagree with their ends, but it’s hard to construe their means as a threat to civilisation.

But there were two objections voiced this week by commentators as diverse as the Research Defence Society, Lord Sainsbury and the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. The first was that some of the protesters resorted to violence. The second was that the campaign against HLS appears to have succeeded. New laws are required, these defenders of the public realm maintain, to prevent such successes from being repeated. In yesterday’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee lamented the government’s failure to introduce “a law against secondary demonstrations, like secondary strikes, restricting protest to the company itself.”

Just how much more legislation does Britain need? We already possess laws criminalising intimidation and harrassment, antisocial behaviour, most forms of industrial action, obstruction, aggravated trespass, breach of the peace, damage to property and every conceivable species of violence. British corporations are scarcely lacking in legal protection.

Many of these laws penalise peaceful protesters exercising what the guardians of liberal democracy, Polly Toynbee among them, would doubtless regard as their democratic right to register dissent. While a law criminalising “secondary demonstrations” would punish non-violent activists leafletting banks, it offers no new protection for little old ladies who might have ammonia sprayed in their faces. If the very serious offence of GBH does not prevent such atrocities, it’s hard to see why the lesser crime of secondary demonstrating should do so.

Indeed, such illiberal laws almost certainly encourage violence. If violent protest is justifiable only in situations of political closure, then the more effectively we ban peaceful dissent, the more permissable violent means will appear. And when the public hand raised in objection is treated as if it were raised in attack, some protesters will conclude that they may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.

To defend a company whose employees were caught cooking the books, the government is being asked to criminalise one of the few remaining legal means of peaceful protest. Hardly a great liberal cause, Polly.