I think on balance I would prefer people to demonstrate their opposition to political developments — Brexit, the forthcoming state visit of Donald Trump and so on — by setting fire to themselves in the manner of outraged Buddhist monks, rather than simply by clicking ‘sign’ on some internet petition. I think the self-immolation thing carries more force.
It is true that a mass conflagration of a million and a half people in Trafalgar Square would, in the short term, greatly exacerbate the appalling smog afflicting London as a consequence of wood-burning stoves. But as most of the signatories of the petition against Trump coming probably own all of those stoves, we would be killing two birds with one stone. A forceful protest, which would make us sit up and take notice, and within a few days an end to the polluting effects of the liberal middle classes.
We have still not got to grips with click democracy, how we should weigh its import and who is it who is doing all of the relentless and asinine clicking. Seventeen million people vote for Brexit, but we are somehow expected to review that democratic decision when a million or so sign a petition saying it’s a bad idea, not in my name etc. Why? So it is with President Trump’s visit. The protests in the USA and the petition and demonstrations over here should count for nothing when placed against the fact that Mr Trump won his election fair and square. And I say that even though Gary Lineker was present at the anti-Trump demo in London. Normally, of course, when this intellectual colossus delivers himself of an opinion, we should ponder his words and take heed. But not on this occasion, I think.
My guess, supported by the geographical breakdown of where the petitioners live, is that the same people who decided that the democratic decision taken to leave the European Union was mistaken and must be overturned are precisely the same people who don’t want the Donald to meet the Queen. And in both cases probably signed multiple times. They almost certainly include all of the people who clicked on a link to join the Labour party and elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I would put their number at somewhere between 600,000 and a million — at most, 1.5 per cent of the population. They are at it every day on Change.org and 38 Degrees, demanding stuff, eternally ‘involved’. They would call themselves activists, as if pressing your mouse every day could be considered activity. A minority among them actually take to the streets every so often to shout ‘Tory scum!’ and hold up placards, narcissistically signalling their virtue to the world.
I saw a conversation between some of them on a social media site, talking about what a brilliant day they’d had, and what sandwiches they’d eaten on the anti-Trump march. A few moans about the weather, which had been changeable. This isn’t really activism, it’s virtue-signalling as a social occasion, a kind of Glyndebourne except you get to shout at the filth more and don’t have to listen to classical music. Yes, some of those people took hampers.
It’s also dumb, and hypocritical. The petition to stop Trump’s state visit was signed by many in response to Trump’s temporary ban upon entry to the USA for residents of seven countries identified as being breeding grounds for terrorists. Trump’s critics, including the unblushingly parti-pris BBC, said this ban was being directed at Muslims.
Well, there are 57 Islamic states, so that charge makes no real sense: it is a non sequitur. And Trump’s decree was not much more punitive than the one introduced by the Nobel peace prize winner Barack Obama six years ago. Further, Trump said during his campaign that this is what he intended to do. And the American people voted for it. The liberal left is now in the interesting position of attacking a politician for keeping his promise.
Then there’s the hypocrisy, as I say. The argument is that the Queen would be ‘embarrassed’ by Trump’s visit, and I suppose we should be grateful for their sudden concern for our monarch. But in the last decade Brenda has been forced to entertain India’s Narendra Modi, whose attitude towards Muslims is, I would argue, slightly to the right of Donald’s. Oh, and also leaders from Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey and Russia, those bastions of democracy and human rights. Do you remember petitions on those occasions? Why didn’t the autocrats from those homophobic, oppressive, sectarian Arab slave states face the righteous wrath of the wood-burning stove people? Do you remember huge demonstrations and the BBC working itself up into a liberal lather? Nope, me neither. Indeed, I don’t remember very much of a fuss when Big Bob Mugabe, bless him, arrived here for a state visit in 1994. The petition against Trump’s visit is simply an explosion of pique, or annoyance, or fury even, from people who have had their way for far too long and cannot believe that they are now being gainsaid.
The answer to my original question — what weight should be given to these sorts of petitions? — is very simple. None whatsoever. It is the same people signing every one of them. People with too much time on their hands, people who think they know everything and that the rest of us are both vile and wrong. (Except for my friend James Delingpole’s petition to have Islington renamed ‘Trumpville’, which has not yet got a million signatories, although we are hopeful.)
Just wait until Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are elected. They’ll be back on those little buttons, tapping away so furiously they’ll all get mouseburn. We thought the internet would broaden democracy — but it hasn’t; it’s narrowed it down to an affluent clique who cannot leave it alone. Virtue porn.
So ignore petitions. Let the protestors set themselves on fire instead. Then we will listen, albeit with many caveats.
Harry Mount and Michael Segalov debate the merits of protesting: