Violence against MPs is unforgivable – but history shows it is not a result of protests

<span>Demonstrators wave Palestinian flags as they protest in Parliament Square, London on 21 February.</span><span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Demonstrators wave Palestinian flags as they protest in Parliament Square, London on 21 February.Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

A spectre is haunting Westminster – the spectre of collective violence against MPs. Large crowds chant noisily outside parliament during debates on Palestine; protesters surround Tobias Ellwood’s house; Jo Stevens’ constituency office is vandalised – and all this against the backdrop of the murders of David Amess and Jo Cox. The parties are united in seeking to exorcise this spectre. It has already led to parliamentary procedure being changed in a way that made a mockery of the debate over violence in Gaza. It has also led to calls for new police powers to curb protests outside parliament. But is collective violence the problem here, and is the introduction of yet more curbs on protest the answer?

Certainly, acts of vandalism and of violence against MPs cast a chill over our democracy and have no justification. But over the past months, a few individual acts have become conflated with the collective protests – and in turn, protest has been equated with violence, or the threat of it.

All this is exemplified by the language of “the mob”. The prime minister has decried “aggressive mobs” as the root of the problem. He is echoed by the home secretary and by the government’s adviser on political violence, John Woodcock, who slams the “aggressive intimidation of MPs” by “mobs”. Referring to crowds as mobs plays into a long tradition that presupposes it is in their nature to be volatile, destructive and violent.

Such negative views of crowds have been around since time immemorial. But they became systematised with industrialisation and the formation of a mass society during the 19th century. The elite feared that the urban masses would, in huge numbers, reject existing hierarchies. Moreover, if the masses were an imminent threat to the social order, the crowd was the mass in action – the sum of all fears.

As the challenge grew, so crowds came to be viewed in more and more negative terms. This was particularly true in France, rocked by defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, by the Paris Commune and by the rising tide of discontent against the Third Republic, which grew from its ashes. In the 1870s there was an average of 80 strikes a year. By the early 1890s that figure grew to more than 400 a year, peaking at 634 in 1893, just before the publication in 1895 of Gustave Le Bon’s book The Crowd – arguably the most influential psychology text ever written.

Le Bon’s account is a litany of loss. In crowds people lose their identity, they lose their rationality, they lose their morality. People “descend several rungs on the ladder of civilisation” on entering the crowd. They become “only powerful for destruction”. Even the most reasonable people lose control of themselves and become bestial in the mass. In a phrase, all crowds are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

There is just one problem with all this. While some crowds clearly can be violent, crowd violence is actually extremely rare. Of the some 2,700 strikes in the period when Le Bon was writing, only 3.6% led to violent acts. In only one – the Decazeville strike of 1886 – was anyone killed. And yet Decazeville haunted Le Bon and his fellow crowd psychologists of the time. For them it was emblematic of all crowds. The exception became the rule.

The same is true today. In recent years, the US has been obsessed by Black Lives Matter protests. It is estimated that between 15 and 26 million people participated in demonstrations in the weeks after George Floyd’s death. There has been much controversy over these events, with many claims of violence and intimidation. But careful analysis by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project showed 93% of events to be peaceful.

In this country, we have generally been more obsessed by the violence of sporting crowds – particularly football hooliganism, the so-called “English disease”. It wasn’t just big in the 1970s and 80s. It might seem that it hasn’t gone away. A couple of years back, the headlines screamed that “football-related arrests rocket amid rise in violent disorder”. But looking more closely at this nightmare image of football crowds, there were 2,198 arrests at football grounds in the 2021-22 season, of which 20% were for violent disorder (a little over 400). In 2022-23 the figures were much the same. There were 2,264 arrests, of which 21% were for violent disorder – and this out of a total of 45 million attendances at games. In other words, there was a one in 100,000 chance of someone attending a game being arrested for being violent – hardly compatible with the idea that crowds are “mobs” in which people are inherently violent.

There is one further twist to this tale. Even where crowd events are violent, the great majority of the violence tends to be inflicted by the authorities, not by crowd members. In England, during the 18th and 19th centuries, more than 600 people died in popular disturbances – all but a handful killed by the yeomanry, cavalry or other such forces. During the US urban riots of the 1960s, the vast majority of those who died were shot by state or federal forces: 14 of the 17 who died in the 1967 Newark riot were shot by officials, while in Detroit in the same year, the figure was 19 out of 29.

Overall, then, the language (and the idea) of the mob paints a false picture of crowds, of crowd violence and of violence in society more generally. The gathering of people in protest does not indicate the imminent outbreak of violence and excess. It cannot, in and of itself, be taken as evidence of intimidation. It is not a threat to our democracy.

On the contrary, crowds and protests are an essential dimension of our democracy. The mark of a healthy society is when everyone feels safe to participate in protest. The more you instil fear of the crowd and the more you place curbs on crowds, the more you narrow participation to those who are prepared to countenance conflict. Moreover, it is precisely when people consider that the authorities are illegitimately blocking their democratic rights to peaceful protest that they are willing to act violently.

The message is clear. You will understand and deal with crowds far better if, as enshrined in international human rights law, you start from the presumption that they are peaceful rather than violent. It is by ignoring this message that our MPs make themselves less safe. Should they seek to make collective protest more difficult, it will increase rather than decrease the dangers they face, and undermine rather than safeguard our democracy. It is high time that we lay the spectre of the “mob” to rest.

  • Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy

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