Former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik’s claims that “the anarchists would love it” if the audience voted in favour of breaking bad laws were not enough to convince Oxford students to reject civil disobedience at last week’s Union debate.
In a close result, the audience, who had filled the Union chamber for the first debate of term, took the side of Fathers 4 Justice founder Matt O’Connor and founder of activist group Climate Rush Tamsin Omond in declaring that ‘this house believes a bad law deserves to be broken.’
On the same day four members of his group received court summonses for handcuffing themselves to Buckingham Palace, ice cream man/’terrorist’ O’Connor predicted that many of those in the room would follow him in joining the nation’s “long and honourable tradition of lawbreaking”. Omond’s statements earlier in the debate appeared to support O’Connor’s claim, with the climate change activist taking pride in the fact that despite graduating from Trinity College Cambridge she had been arrested at least ten times.
Omond hit the opposition, which included freelance journalist Joshua Rozenberg, joint head of Blackstone Chambers Tony Peto QC and Labour shadow minister of justice Wayne David, with what one audience member laughingly called “a bit of a low blow” by suggesting that the problems she protested about were not of interest to the opposition because they were things that would have an impact on her generation, not theirs.
However, while their arguments may have edged out those of the opposition in the end, the crowd was certainly more entertained by Opik. After thanking the 13,000 Tory voters in Montgomeryshire (the constituency seat he lost in the last election) for giving him the free time to come, he proceeded to tear in to the proposing side, mockingly suggesting that Jesus College’s Mark Greaves probably needed a hug, and calling Ben Woolgar, who opened the debate, a “larking anarchist hippy” who “only looks like a loveable toff.” Opik had the crowd so on side he had them hissing at the proposition side for thinking they can “break any law they bloody well want” in running over their allotted ten minutes speaking time.
Despite the jokes, however, he also attempted to make serious points about the futility of lawbreaking, arguing that it is more courageous to try to change flawed systems from within, a sentiment echoed by most of the opposition.
After the debate, one second-year historian said that he thought the opposition “had some good points, but the argument kind of fell apart when they tried to talk about anything in the past or outside Britain.”
Another attendee added: “It was all very interesting, but I do wish they could have spent less time talking about Rosa Parks.”