Words – however impassioned – are, however, just words. As I sat down to write this article in the cold grey days of January I am reflecting on ‘deeds and words’ – on discussion, debate and talk versus calls to action. All around us the tone, tenor and content of political discourse is in decline. Insults have given way to harassment and hostility – we seem to have lost our leaders, our statesmen and woman in favour of factions, side taking and name calling.
The dichotomy between action and words was famously summed up by the phrase Deeds not Words, coined by Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – better known as the Suffragettes. It was a rallying cry that lead to extraordinary acts of political subversion and violence (and, in some cases, extreme physical violence). The Suffragettes engaged in a sustained, well planned and often potentially life-threatening campaign of disruption which ranged from smashing windows, letter bombs, arson attacks in churches, physical attacks on MPs (Winston Churchill was attacked with a horse whip and Asquith had an axe thrown at him – it missed but cut the Irish MP John Redmond on the ear!). This aspect of Suffragette history is controversial. Forcing us to view these often aristocratic, straight-laced Victorian women in a whole new light. Not just placard bearing, hat wearing ‘ladies’ dressed in long white dresses and petticoats with sashes, but bomb throwing radicals – some would say terrorists. It’s not comfortable.
The Suffragettes were on the receiving end of state sponsored violence in return. The harsh regime of force feeding, involving holding down a woman against her will and forcing a feeding tube up her nose, led to illness and, in some cases, hastened an early death. Some received multiple prison sentences and multiple force feedings.
This violence split the suffrage movement and some historians have argued it actively delayed the granting of the vote. It is interesting that the only female statue in Parliament Square – erected this year and funded in part by the Centenary Action Group – is of Millicent Fawcett, leader of the peaceful Suffragists who campaigned without violence for the vote. Ironically her banner bears the famous phrase “Courage calls to Courage everywhere” a quote taken from a speech in 1920 marking the violent death of Emily Davidson, a committed suffragette, killed by the King’s horse at 1914 Epson Derby. So, while we all remember the Suffragettes, our public commemoration is of a Suffragist.
Would women have got the vote without the Suffragettes? Probably – eventually. But the wider question is “Is there ever a justification for civil disobedience in the name of a pressing cause?” A current parallel in my mind is the formation and actions of Extinction Rebellion, a new global climate action movement dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience in order to bring the climate crisis to the fore and to put pressure on government to take action. The founders are committed, mild mannered, passionate academics who are totally convinced that the only way to change views is to protest in a way that causes maximum disruption without endangering life. The campaign is housed by Rising Up which describes itself as ‘a new organisation aiming to be a social movement’.
What intrigues me about both Extinction Rebellion and the Suffragettes is the link between direct action and change. Over the Channel the Gilets Jaunes are calling for change with violence and destruction and (in another ironic twist) protesting against fuel duty increases designed to reduce carbon emissions. Here the Extinction Rebellion protestors sit down on bridges singing. Breaking the law – yes, being violent – no. The day I joined the protest the arrests were conducted with courtesy and civility on both sides: those I spoke to young and old, students, pensioners, farmers, academics all felt a little nervous but no less determined that their actions were essential to raising the profile of the campaign. Fortunately, they were not facing the prospect of force feeding, just a slightly uncomfortable night in a cell. The only problem was the police ran out of vans and officers, so the arrests dried up long before the protestors determination gave out.
These acts of peaceful resistance and Millicent Fawcetts memorable words are a far cry from the aggression and intolerance we see all around us as the Brexit debate and process in all its forms spirals out of control. Perhaps now it is time to take stock.
Courage calls to Courage and we need to take peaceful, non-direct action to call out the bigotry, the intolerance and the anger that is souring our politics. Now is the time for Deeds not Words and for us all to use our individual and collective skills, knowledge, experience, influence and energies in whatever way we can to prevent global catastrophe on an unprecedented scale in humankind’s existence. If IPCC scientists are to be believed, we really are running out of time to save the planet. As 2019 dawns I know one of my new year resolutions will be to take action and I promise to keep you updated on my progress!
A version of this article first appeared in The Messenger ( Manchester Law Bulletin)