2015 appears to be a year of commemorations. In the UK we enjoy nothing more than a touch of pomp and circumstance, and if monarchs or military leaders are at the centre of these, well so much the better. This year marks the centenary of one of the most tragic episodes of the First World War, which saw many soldiers lose their lives in the ill-conceived Gallipoli Campaign. The year has also presented an opportunity to revisit the events of the Battle of Waterloo and the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte two hundred years ago.
Important as these historic events undoubtedly were, it was another occasion being commemorated this year that was in my mind as I watched the late news on television yesterday. On 15 June 1215 , in a field in Runnymede alongside the River Thames in Surrey, King John under duress from English Barons and in the presence of several Bishops, signed Magna Carta (The Great Charter). This document is often seen as having played a significant part in the development of British democracy, removing many of the powers of the King, and granting rights to the ordinary Englishman. An oft quoted passage from this great document, which can be seen today in the British Library in London reads:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”.
It is often suggested that the British Parliament and its procedures owe much to this single act of 800 years ago, and those who have campaigned on rights issues have often referenced this magnificent document (even though I suspect few have read it!)
It was not so much the historical events surrounding the signing of Magna Carta, or the recent celebrations surrounding its birthday, that were at the forefront of my mind yesterday, but rather the rights that are enshrined in this and other democratic legislation, that enable individuals or groups of people to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the state. Visitors to London may well have experienced protestors, who from time to time gather on the lawns of Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament, to voice their concerns about any one of a range of issues. This is generally recognised as their democratic right, and so long as the protestors remain non-violent, their right to be heard is generally respected.
I must say that in the past, I too have joined such demonstrations, to show my disapproval of the South African policy of apartheid, and to voice my concerns over nuclear proliferation, and I would hope that this basic right of protest is recognised as fundamental to the democratic process. However, a relatively small group of protesters made the headlines yesterday, as they expressed their opposition to government policies which they believe will have a detrimental effect upon their lives. Furthermore, whilst most demonstrations remain firmly at arm’s length from the Houses of Parliament and those who make policy decisions, these determined protesters took their message right to the doors of the House of Commons, behind which members of Parliament were engaged in debate.
Having visited the Houses of Parliament on several occasions, I am aware of the length of time that it takes to get through security and to satisfy the gatekeepers of the legitimacy of my business. Clearly these protestors had a cunning plan and operated this almost to perfection.
Why you may ask, should this protest have particularly held my attention? The answer to this is to be found in both the cause of the demonstration and the people who were there to protest. Television pictures beamed across the globe last night showed a number of people with disabilities (with typical media imprecision this is variously reported as anywhere between 20 and 40), many of them wheelchair users, protesting in the lobby of Parliament within a very short distance of the sitting Members of Parliament. Video footage shows policemen frantically attempting to control this phalanx of citizens, many on their radios calling for back-up to help them manage the situation.
The cause of this protest is the Government’s announcement that they intend to abolish the Independent Living Fund (ILF), established in 1988 to help severely disabled people live independently. This fund has been a source of significant support for many people with disabilities, enabling them to ensure the assistance they need in order to remain in their homes, and to live as normal a life as possible. At present around 20,000 individual access this fund and it has made a major difference to their lives. As part of its current austerity approach to economic management, the government has seen this as an easy target for saving money. They cannot have imagined the tenacity of those whose lives will be most effected.
One of the protesters, Mrs Peters, accompanying one of the disabled people said that they:
“feel they have got no other choice but to take this kind of action” because “this government is refusing to listen to what disabled people have to say on this issue”. She continued : “The only option we have left before the fund closes is to take this form of action, this peaceful, non-violent direct action”.
If the purpose of protest is to bring attention to a perceived injustice, these demonstrators have certainly achieved their aim. It is a sign of desperation when people with disabilities feel the necessity to take such action, and is equally a sign of deterioration in a caring society when elected representative see an easy target and take aim. It is to be hoped that those politicians and policy makers who can ensure the future security and independence of vulnerable people take note.
Today’s Student Research Conference
If you want to hear the keynote address at today’s PhD student conference through a live connection, please click on the link below at 9.45 am. UK time
Please click here:
Day 1 – Afternoon sessions 5-9: