Let the left have their tantrum

The Million Mask march in London shows the activist, anti-austerity Left in all their incoherent, intellectually contradictory glory. But if these pseudo-anarchists want to put on silly costumes and whine for more big government once a year, nobody should stand in their way

Ever wanted to watch under-occupied and over-privileged young people railing against austerity while calling for anarchy, ranting about evil government while simultaneously demanding lots more of it – all while dressed in a costume popularised by a big Hollywood movie?

Ever wanted to watch pumped-up social justice warriors demonstrate their enlightened, compassionate credentials by tearing around central London setting off fireworks at police horses and smashing up cars and property without a thought for the consequences of their actions?

Then November 5th is your lucky day, last year, this year and apparently every year for the foreseeable future. The fifth of November is now all about the annual worldwide Million Mask march organised by that self-appointed moral minority, Anonymous.

The Guardian’s coverage of the directionless protest that was the London march includes some amusing vignettes from the mouths of the protesters themselves:

One protester, a musician who gave her name as Lola, said she had travelled from Hull to the capital to speak up for others. She said: “There are people who aren’t represented, they should be here. I am the people.”

L’etat, c’est Lola. Apparently. Meanwhile, David Cameron – whom Lola was furiously protesting – has to settle for his rather more tangible mandate of having just won a parliamentary majority in the May general election. But sure, it’s purple-haired Lola who have their finger on the pulse of British society.

And then Russell Brand made one of his messianic appearances to the multitude, for reasons that remain unclear:

There was a mixed reaction among protesters to the appearance of Brand in Parliament Square, where he was quickly surrounded by both marchers and the media.

He told the massed reporters that he wanted to see a “loving, peaceful protest”, adding a message to activists: “Stay cool, stay cool. I think you should be careful. Don’t get beaten up and arrested tonight.”

Some people would have all of this forcibly prevented from happening again by the state. Dan Hodges is right when he equates the fun-seeking, virtue-signalling masked Anonymous protesters with the crowds who besieged the recent Conservative Party Conference, blinded by their anti-Tory hatred. But he goes too far in calling for the British government to deny Anonymous their right to assemble and protest:

The obvious problem: without a well-functioning pre-crime detection unit it is difficult for the state to know which protesters are most likely to cause violence without violating citizen privacy and making today’s draconian surveillance state seem like a libertarian paradise. Neither does he suggest where the tipping point between raucous free speech and something that warrants a ban should be. What ratio of peaceful to potentially violent protesters should prompt the state to overrule our right to freedom of assembly?

Hodges speaks of “they” and “their” as though it would be simple for the state to quickly and easily distinguish between those protests which are worthy and those which are simply a front for violent troublemakers. But real life is never so simple.

Legitimate and worthy causes are sprinkled with thugs and idiots no less than wacky or offensive campaigns, so would it be right for any future protest to be banned simply because it was infiltrated by a few violent people?

As soon as you accept that the right of the people to assemble and exercise free speech should be limited based on some assessment of the “worthiness” of the protest in question – or of the protesters themselves – you grant enormous power to the person or people who have to make that judgement.

Allowing Anonymous to hold their annual anti-capitalist temper tantrum is an expression of our liberty, not an assault upon it. Our liberties can only ever be assaulted if we actually do what Dan Hodges clamours for us to do, and begin arbitrarily granting or denying the right of people to assemble and protest based on a sniffy assessment of whether or not we approve of them.

The key thing missing from the argument of those who would ban the Million Mask march is the all-important question “or what?” Say that a public group wants to organise a large demonstration, but the state exercises its power to ban the gathering. What should be done with those who say “or what? To hell with your police state” and turn up anyway, in violation of the government’s edict?

Do we start throwing people in jail? Dragging them through the courts, fining them and handing out criminal records? Slapping them with ASBOs or Control Orders, limiting their future freedom of speech and movement on pain of imprisonment?

If idle, self-regarding young people want to combine their childish left wing politics with equally childish dress up games in central London or anywhere else in Britain, that is their choice and their inalienable right. Their freedom to assemble and speak is not contingent on having anything smart or worthwhile to say – which is just as well, in the case of Anonymous – and so their anti-capitalist shindig should not be banned simply for being eye-rollingly unoriginal. Besides, what problem would banning solve?

Any exhausted parent of toddlers knows that sometimes, when their small child has a meltdown, the only thing to do is let it run its course. So it is right now with the British political Left. If they really want to play fancy dress once a year and prance around Westminster pretending to be profound thinkers or voices for the dispossessed, let them.

Talking to such activists rationally will not make much of a dent, except in the bruised heads of those unfortunate people who try. Therefore the only remaining option is to let the tantrum run its course, and hope that a calmer, more rational Left quietly emerges from their bedroom after time out is over.

The tricky thing about free speech is that its importance trumps nearly everything else. It has to, otherwise we cannot say that we even aspire to live in a free society. That means that the young anarchist’s right to wear a silly costume and shout about the evils of “austerity” trumps our right not to be offended by the delicious irony of a young, digitally-savvy student availing themselves of the fruits of capitalism to protest against…capitalism.

It means that their right to hold up anarchist signs and look vaguely menacing in Trafalgar Square trumps our right to walk un-accosted through the streets of the world’s capital city on one day every year. It has to, otherwise what right do we have to take to the street in outrage at some future event, when we have denied it to those who are outraged today?

Only by defending the rights of the infantile Anonymous protesters – and others far worse than them, like neo-nazis, anti-Semites and Islamist terror apologists – do we preserve the principle of free speech and freedom of assembly for ourselves.

Samuel Hooper is a journalist and blogger. He is passionate about politics, free markets and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter here.

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty