Andrew Roberts: We Shouldn't Be Alarmed by "Batman's" Invasion of the Palace

Roundup: Historians' Take

Andrew Roberts, in the Guardian (Sept. 17, 2004):

... How predictable and absurd has been the knee-jerk outrage expressed over Ferry's schoolboyish prank. Once linked to the rather less stylish Fathers4Justice stunt at Buckingham Palace, the media, police and politicians have vied with one another to shed any sense of proportion in their analysis of what is really going on. "The most serious attack on the Houses of Parliament in living memory," intoned Sky TV, overlooking the Luftwaffe's direct hit on the Commons chamber in May 1941. As for charging the young toffs with burglary and "uttering a forged instrument" - whatever that may be - one might as well charge Bertie Wooster with theft for pinching a policeman's helmet after dinner at the Drones Club on Boat Race Night. Yet Peter Hain has thundered about the house's "antiquated" security arrangements and shadow home secretary David Davis has portentously informed the nation, via the Today programme, that: "What we have witnessed is something which puts a large number of people at risk, not just in the House of Commons."

I might as well declare my interest right away; I was sacked from my minor public school 20 years ago after a series of pranks so juvenile as to defy satire. Statue painting, chapel roof climbing, rearranging the furniture in the quad, you name it: I thought it was the very acme of sophisticated wit. Because I always, always got caught, the authorities finally chucked me out after no fewer than four rustications. Just as my Cambridge college couldn't have cared less about these stupid pranks, so today's police and media and Home Office spokesmen ought not to hyperventilate about what are - even at Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons - inherently harmless pranks. (Of course the scenes outside the Palace of Westminster are a different matter entirely.)

The people who invaded parliament, or "the very heart of our democracy" as it was put in endless po-faced editorials, were instantly recognisable as a bunch of hoorays, polo players, auctioneers, stud owners, chefs and point-to-point jockeys .... Their caper had precisely zero implications for the vulnerability of parliament to a genuine terrorist attack. Which of Osama bin Laden's chums has the wit or brio to invent the "All Party Electrical and Skills Group" - or don an ill-fitting Batman suit, for that matter? (One can almost see the copper yawning as he waved through the group headed for an assignation as dull as that.)

Rather, we ought to see both these pro-hunting hoorays and the (far less appealing) Fathers 4Justice as part of that long British protest tradition that seeks to push their single issues up the political agenda by using humour and high jinks instead of weapons. Whether you approve of their messages - as I do - or disapprove - as I imagine most Guardian readers do - it is important not to judge them by different standards than other protesters over the centuries.

The Suffragettes who handcuffed themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace, the anti-Vietnam demonstrators who chanted witty anti-LBJ jibes in the 60s, the feminists who publicly burned their bras, the anti-globalisation campaigners who gave Winston Churchill's statue a mohican haircut on May Day 2000 (much to my disgust) - all used eye-catching, provoking, sometimes highly amusing stunts to grab the attention of an often bemused public. The phrase "However, we will not be able to provide your team with safety wear" is just the latest part of a very long - and for the most part honourable - British tradition....

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