In light of recent debates around the Catalan crisis and unjust laws that discriminate against women and minorities, Guy Ingerson, co-convener of the Aberdeen Greens, argues consent should be an essential part of any socialist's political vocabulary. When does legality trump consent?
Twitter isn’t known for its productive, thoughtful discussions. Whose mind is ever changed by a headache and increased blood pressure? Recently, however I experienced just that. My mind wasn’t changed per se, but it was illuminated. On a Sunday afternoon, and after a bit of back and forth with liberal journalist Sunny Hundal in relation to the Catalan crisis, I was reminded of a key point. Whether it’s national self-determination, #MeToo or the abortion debate in Ireland, one of our key crises currently is that of consent.
It’s hardly a news flash that collective and individual choices are constrained by the powerful, largely male dominated, political, religious and business elites. The left is not immune from these pressures and parties of the centre-left tend to be selective when it comes to consent. Individual freedom? They’ve often been at the vanguard. Collective? A sudden jolt of paternalism kicks in. For example, trade unions remain dominated by middle aged father figures of the left. That’s not to diminish their historical or current successes but it does lead to issues where popular consent is ignored.
Faslane, home of the UK’s nuclear base, is a prime example. The jobs they cry! Has anyone asked the people of Scotland what matters more to them? Jobs or a target on our back? Feudalism, colonialism or capitalism – whichever system we operate under, those of us whose consent is ignored, get the same result. Rich, superior, titans of capital can and will do as they please.
You brag about grabbing a woman’s genitals? Welcome to the Oval Office. Dare to vote? Your granny gets a truncheon to the face. Need an abortion? Get the next ferry. This crisis of consent, crisis of choice, is actively promoted & nurtured by the political right. Only when it’s convenient do they jettison it like the spare lifeboats of the Titanic. They and the system must survive.
We, on any spectrum of the progressive left, must always have our eyes wide open. Freedom of choice and the ability to consent must never be expendable. It must always be at the heart of our politics if we are to put forward a vision for a better world.
And so, the issue of consent is a vital one in our interactions. Linking back to my first point, Sunny Hundal is a man I respect. He’s courageous in the face of religious bigotry and has put a spotlight to its connections to the far right. But when I put to him that “democracy shouldn’t be static - it’s about consent” in relation to supporting the Catalan’s right to vote on their future, he said the following: “Sure I agree with that, but you also have to do things legally. Or is that irrelevant?”
Legality is both comforting and strangling depending on the circumstances, and it’s prompted me to consider an issue closer to home. As a gay man, my very existence is illegal in approximately 74 nations across the planet. In some places, it’s a death sentence. Legal might does not make it right.
Denial of basic human rights, individual or collective, should never be defended by the ‘legality’ of their denial. When the law is fundamentally wrong, it’s our duty to challenge it and change it. Many don’t feel they have the power to do that. LGBT people, woman and people living on the bread line often feel they must ignore the legality of their situation just to survive. It’s worth remembering that nations like Belgium and the USA were born out of illegal action.
The solutions may seem obvious – all of them however require a fundamental shift – an education in consent. You aren’t just a consumer on JP Morgans spreadsheets. You can campaign, vote and help to build a better world. A world where the principle of governance by popular consent isn’t just a slogan trotted out by right-wing Brexiteers dreaming of lost empire after after a night of subsidised booze at a Westminster bar. You can translate this principle into power. You can stand by your friends, lovers and sisters when they tell you of the man who took away their right to choose. You can lead by example.
Mine is not a cry of mob rule. It’s a cry for respect, a cry for equality and a cry for justice. To those women who have endured sexual assault and to those voters beaten up by those charged to protect them, justice can seem some a distance away. We must protect those left behind by capitalism, of the ‘isms’ of the past and we must nourish their (and our) right to choose. The system we live in isn’t fit for purpose, but designed to contain us and restrict our ability to consent.
The political right will claim our current system is a great liberator. When you look around you don’t see people liberated. You see people whose right to choose is put in a straitjacket of economic, gendered and cultural circumstance. Beneath the surface of our society this crisis has bubbled. We must ask ourselves often and loudly: when does legality trump consent?