Direct Action in the UK - chances, limitations and risks

Term Paper, 2004

11 Pages, Grade: A


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions: direct action and civil disobedience

3. Examples: Poll Tax and Huntingdon Life Sciences

4. Chances for the UK society

5. Limitations for direct action

6. Risks of direct action

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Since the beginning of the 1990s there is a growing direct action movement in the UK, starting with the emergence of the Earth First! (EF!) network. (Doherty: 2003, p. 671)

An actual example is the protest against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a company carrying out biotechnological research and development including in-vitro-techniques and animal testing.. (Grant: 2004, p. 414)

At the same time the support for the parliamentary democratic system seem to be declining, expressed, for instance, by the decreasing turnout in general elections.

So, what are the chances for contribution to the democratic system in the UK? Where is the concept limited and aren’t there even risks for the democratic system? Here the protests against HLS become an important example again since HLS works under considerable constraints created by the protesters, not only affecting their business, but also their employee’s private lives. (Grant: 2004, p. 414)

A term also often used in this context is “civil disobedience”. First, I will define the terms to point out the difference. As well, I add the self-definition of the direct actions activists.

2. Definitions: direct action and civil disobedience

Direct action is defined as action in which individuals or groups act directly themselves to try to bring about change to perceived political, social or environmental injustices instead of asking or expecting someone else to act on their behalf, (Randle: 2004, p. 2 and Doherty: 2003, p. 670) as for instance asking politicians to bring an issue to Parliament.

It can be violent or non-violent. In both forms it attempts to create pressure, e.g. morally, financially or physically. It can include civil disobedience such as refusing to carry out actions the activists are obliged to as for instance paying poll-taxes in Scotland in 1989. (Doherty: 2003, p. 670 and Randle: 2004, p. 23)

Civil disobedience is the principled, non-violent and open defiance of the law for political reasons. Civil means that the actions are by civil society and conducted civilly, means without violence. Sometimes these actions are not carried out openly, but need to be hidden. An example is the evacuation of 95 % of the Jewish population from Denmark in 1943 to the neutral Sweden. (Randle: 2004, p. 2 and 18)

The terms direct action and civil disobedience are quite interchangeable, because both directly try to change something. But this only applies, if both are non-violent.

Besides these definitions asking the activists themselves brings about some extra reasons.

For the activists it is also important that through acting they are doing something themselves, “taking a bit of control back to my life which has been taken away from me”. (Doherty: 2003, p. 670) Another reason, which should not be disregarded is “the ethical imperative that something is not in my name”. (Doherty: 2003, p. 676)

3. Examples: Poll Tax and Huntingdon Life Sciences

The anti-poll-tax-campaign of the early 90s and the recent Huntingdon Life Science protests can serve as good examples for direct action, although or because both are quite different.

With the poll tax the UK government wanted to simplify the tax system in that way that all incomes would be taxed by the same, but with major rebates for low incomes. However these rebates somehow came not across well, but the people believed that the dustman and duke were paying exactly the same. It was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in the rest of the country one year later. The anti-poll-tax campaign consisted mainly of a large scale civil disobedience. Many thousands of taxpayers just refused paying the tax, so that it became impossible to implement the system. Finally, after some riots in London, the tax was abolished in 1993. (BBC News: 2004) The anti-poll-tax-campaign was thus characterised by civil disobedience by a large number of people, carried out mostly non-violently and affecting just the professional sphere of politics and administration.

Another kind of direct action is practised in the Huntingdon Life Sciences case. The company, dealing among others also with in-vitro-techniques and animal experiment already for some years has to face protests. These protests consist of blockades of roads leading to their factories, visits at the home of their employees and phone calls, messages to cell phones and e-mails both to their workplace and their private homes. Protests are not only directed towards HLS, but also towards its suppliers and customers. HLS continues working, but under serious constraints caused by the protesters. The core group of them is just made up of some 15 people, so is very small in contrast to the anti-poll-tax-campaign. (Grant: 2004, p.414-416)

Also the protests do not only touch the professional sphere and are also affecting third parties, e.g. the families of the employees. Also the private e-mails etc. can maybe considered as some kind of psychical violence. Another difference of the HLS protests is that they led to several judicial disputes themselves leading to judicial limitations for the direct action.


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Direct Action in the UK - chances, limitations and risks
University of Economics, Prague
The UK political system
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Direct, Action
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Georg Schwedt (Author), 2004, Direct Action in the UK - chances, limitations and risks, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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