Clarkson and petitions: some lessons from history
An on-line petition asking the BBC to reinstate Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson is reported to have reached up to a million signatures. It is reasonable to assume that a fair proportion were genuine. The audience for Top Gear is around 5.5 million, so we could argue that the petitioners represent only a minority though.
The reality is we don’t really know why those who signed did so- some may be genuine Clarkson fans, others may just like the programme- and we can’t assume anything about those who haven’t signed, except that they haven’t.
The Clarkson petition is what might be called a ‘no skin in the game’ affair. It takes only a minute or two to do it and there is no obvious downside to doing so.
Whatever the reality that the petition was delivered to the BBC at Broadcasting House via one of those tanks that can be hired for stunts in central London and duly got coverage, presumably from journalists who don’t understand how such things(the hiring of tanks) work.
As we now know, the petition didn’t work.
There are those who argue that people will sign pretty much any petition but that is far too cynical a view. Signing a petition may be a relatively low level of commitment but it does present a basic level of support.
With the rise of the interweb indeed the petition as a political campaigning tool has made something of a comeback. The Government’s e-petition system where you can, with sufficient support, provoke a Parliamentary debate, doesn’t seem to have had a huge positive impact on changing things. The sharply focused and targeted work of groups like 38 Degrees certainly does have.
Historically it underlines a point made by EP Thompson that nothing in our history is ever quite dead and can, in the right context, make a surprising comeback, as the petitioning tool certainly has.
The British Constitution being partly unwritten, there is no right to petition as such. Rather it has been defined in the negative,
The 1661 Tumultuous Petitioning Act sought to curb the practice of bringing petitions to the King or to Parliament accompanied by demonstrations. The law remained on the Statute Book until it was repealed by the 1986 Public Order Act.
The form of words for a petition to the Crown or Parliament remains strictly set except these days on-line where it is not the form of words used that it is vetted but the suitability of the subject matter for a petition.
We can begin to understand why the petition for the right to vote was such a central part of Chartist politics in this context. The petition was not illegal and nor to some extent was a demonstration when it was presented. How big this should be before it became ‘tumultuous’ was not defined but left up to the authorities.
Hence the attempt to hold a mass protest to Parliament on 10th April 1848 to present a petition was judged by the Metropolitan Police to be too challenging and prevented from crossing the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge.
It might be argued that historically, hence the 1661 Act, it was really the demonstration not the petition as such that had the real impact.
These days matters are more complex. Campaigning groups like 38 Degrees have underlined that sharply worded and focused petitions can both publicise causes and make a political impact.
Perhaps the issue here is, what kind of impact is it that is made, not on politicians but on those supporting it. After all adding a signature on-line, in terms of a collective act, is not in the same league as marching on a demonstration.
Perhaps if instead of a tank, a large demonstration had accompanied the Clarkson petition to New Broadcasting House things might have looked different.
As it was there was a large protest outside the BBC shortly afterwards, on March 21st. It was to mark UN anti-racism day. I doubt many of those who signed the Clarkson petition were there. But I might be wrong…