Thursday, 29 August 2013


We have all been watching with sadness (if nothing else) as Egypt's military grapples with a near civil war.  But the big question has never been answered.  The military decided to oust the elected Government when it started to go against the wishes of the people.  Was this then democratic or was it a grave offence against what we call 'democracy'?

Basically, there are 2 positions:  If a Government acts the way a minority doesn't want them to, should they just accept that the Government is democratically elected and therefore fully justified in doing what is necessary?  Or, when it begins to act contrary to its election promises, may we get rid of them by any means and start again?  Of course there are also the secondary, more fraught, conundrums of whether it is justifiable to demonstrate violently, just because you disagree with the powers that be, and whether they are justified in return to use all necessary force to subdue you.

We don't have problems with Presidents for life in the West and are generally accustomed to removing governments by democratic means, so perhaps these questions aren't relevant to us.  Moreover, in Egypt, as so often happens where there is conflict, outside forces, with less concern about democracy than the rest of us, insinuate themselves into the action and muddy the waters.

But closer to home democracy seems to be under strain too.

First it was the anti-frackers. Drilling at a shale site in southern England has been suspended because of the size of the group of protesters.  There seem to be at least seven known organisations involved in preventing the drilling, some of them what I call professional protesters.  There have also been  
attempts to incite people to break into the works site and to court arrest.  Meanwhile, another group demonstrated outside the offices of the company involved and there were again attempts to break into the offices.

I have mixed feelings about fracking.  On the one hand, there are worrying scare stories about the effects of the drilling operations, on the other, I am not convinced that covering the hills with wind farms and the valleys with solar panels will actually solve our energy problems.  Protesters criticisms range from the usual Nimbyism to opposition to gas exploitation per se in favour of renewable sources of power.  Apart from the debatable comparison of the effects on the environment, the argument seems to be that renewable energy sources are cheaper.  Since a whole hill of windmills seems only to produce enough power to charge a couple of mobile phones, I'm not sure about that argument.  And I'm not aware that anyone in an area significantly using renewable energy sources has had their energy bills reduced.

But the point is that what the energy company is doing is perfectly legal.  They have rented the land from the land owner; they have obtained a drilling licence; and the elected Government has decided that its energy policy will include gas extracted by fracking.  What the protesters are doing, on the other hand, is illegal.  Preventing a company going about its business, trespassing on the site and into the company's offices, and erecting a massive camp site on the side of the road without permits, are all offences.  Yet the protesters are allowed to stay and the company has had to suspend its operations.  No matter how much they dress their actions up by calling them 'civil disobedience' or 'positive action', they are a minority acting illegally against the wishes of the Government elected by the majority of us.

I am also puzzled by the words of one of the protesters interviewed on television - it is important to oppose this action 'especially with the Government trying to offer financial sweeteners to the community . . .'  er . . .

Next we had a 'National Day of Protest', led by a couple of feminist groups, against 'lad mags', the magazines that have pictures of pin-ups in bikinis or less (with the naughty bits covered by text boxes or photoshopped blobs). Campaigners have successfully encouraged supermarkets to sell such magazines in sealed bags, on the top shelves of the publications section, and only to customers with a proven age of more than 18.  Now though the aim is to stop high street shops selling such magazines, threatening legal action under the Equality Act 2010. They say that scantily-clad women are not appropriate when you’re shopping - a statement I certainly can't comment on.  But, more importantly, they claim that displaying these publications in workplaces, and requiring staff to handle them in the course of their jobs, may amount to sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

This is an interesting twist in the law, commensurate with the removal of sexy calendars from office walls and one with which I can sympathise.  The only problem is that, again, the companies publishing the mags and the companies selling them are doing nothing illegal.  I guess that, if mags with pictures of girls are only sold via a tag, as with razors or cigarettes, and only handled by male check-out staff, then the Equality Act legislation is not offended.  But, subject to that test of the law, the only illegal action at the moment would be preventing the sale of these publications.

There is also the slight problem that not all women agree with this action.  At least, I assume that none of the ladies in the photographs wish to have their publicity material hidden or (worse) banned.  And I guess there aren't many lads who support the action either.  Personally, I find a photograph of a pretty girl brightens my visit to the supermarket.  But then I don't get very excited by baskets of broccoli and packets of corn flakes.  I find that the magazines purporting to be about health and sports are often just as titillating as the ones blatantly about sex.  I am also constantly surprised by the pictures, ads and articles in my wife's women's magazines.  So where to draw the line?

I think there is also a bit too much PC illiberal action being taken these days.  Even I have to accept that attitudes have changed considerably since my youth.  Pictures of naked ladies appear regularly in daily newspapers and prime time television frequently contains plot lines, if not suggestive action, that would have offended 20 years ago.  We also not have the problem (for the protesting feminists anyway) of magazines with pics of men, gay magazines, and of course photography and art magazines.  The lad mags are easily identified, but does their existence represent a greater inequality or a greater offence than the other mags?  It doesn't seem unnatural either to younger members of society to post risqué 'selfies' on websites.  And don't get me started on music videos or stage performances by female singers.  The point is that the protesters, whilst I often appreciate the feminist view, are in the minority here.  Forcing supermarkets to comply with their demands through aggressive demonstrations, whatever you might feel about the magazines concerned, is not the democratic way.

I suppose defenders of positive action might point to the Suffragette example, which would bear debate.  But, whilst I agree wholeheartedly that the attitude to women in these lad mags is often insulting and demeaning, discreditable even, I would hesitate to advocate censorship as the solution.  There is no suggestion that the existence or propagation of these magazines promotes crime or encourages violence against women, in the way that porn or the Internet has been said to, nor do they in fact actually impinge on other female customers, but I can imagine a dangerous environment in which perfectly legal magazines are removed from general circulation.

Finally, we now have animal rights protesters taking to the woods to try to stop the badger cull.  Campaigners urge their supporters to stand in the way of marksmen carrying out the shooting, in other words to risk death (and the trauma of the shooter) in pursuit of their views.
The cull of badgers in the test zones of Somerset and Gloucestershire has already begun.  It is a controversial policy.  People are much swayed by the sad death of the cuddly, frolicsome, iconic badger and are thus prepared not too be convinced that the cull is necessary.  Protesters justify their actions with the claim that it has not been proven that the badger is to blame for the spread of TB in cattle.  But again, the only illegal, and frankly dangerous, activity here is that by the protesters.  The Government has decided that a cull is necessary and a number of designated persons have been given licences to carry out the shooting.  The protesters may not like it, but the shooting is a legal, approved action.

I am less sure about the science for this cull.  TB is a problem with our cattle.   We have done much to eradicate the disease in cattle herds and to prevent the movement around the country of potentially infected animals.  But the disease is still a problem and thousands of cattle have had to slaughtered.  And badgers have the disease and carry it wherever they go and presumably infect those they come into contact with.  The cull is not a total eradication of the species, just an attempt to bring the disease under control.  However much you might question the science or the methods, that at least is an admirable aim.  I was finally persuaded by the farmers' argument that at the moment we are essentially culling and containing one group of animals whilst allowing the other to breed, remain infected and roam freely.  Put like that, our previous policy is clearly destined to failure.

But of course badgers are lovely.  I have never seen a live one, but I've seen plenty of delightful wildlife films.  However, on balance, I'd rather see lovely badgers slaughtered and my dinner kept disease free.  Protesters' actions have so far made the problem worse by letting cattle out of their field.  One even died, I think in a collision with a vehicle.  I don't see how that helps either the badger or the cattle or the eradication of bovine TB.  I hope the minority who disagree with me will keep to the democratic method of reversing this policy and will not put lives at greater risk than they already are for the sake of their views.

All those action groups against fracking, against pin-ups, and against badger culls can soon have the opportunity to vote for another government in an election.  There's no guarantee of course that a new government will bow to the wishes of the minority, but voting is a great way to express your views without offending someone else or putting others' livelihoods or health at risk.  Democracy, after all, in the original Greek, means 'people power'.


  1. I am into pornography as much as the next guy. But I also understand the argument that it degrades women as objects of lust rather than thinking, equal beings. A dichotomy we must all try to resolve, I guess.

    1. Not sure the lad mags in question were, strictly speaking, pornography, Jeff. But the Larry Flynt judgements on freedom of speech are important here. Forcing British supermarkets to stop selling the (currently) perfectly legal mags remains potentially illegal.