A few weeks ago, five people who were selling papers outside Hyde Park
were arrested by the police for obstruction. When taken before the
magistartes, they were all found guilty, four of them being bound over
for six months and the other sentenced to forty shillings fine or a
month's imprisonments. He preferred to serve his term.
The papers these people were selling were PEACE NEWS, FORWARD and
FREEDOM, besides other kindred literature. PEACE NEWS is the organ of the
Peace Pledge Union, FREEDOM (till recently called WAR COMMENTARY) is that
of the Anarchists; as for FORWARD, its politics defy definition, but at
any rate it is violently Left. The magistrate, in passing sentence,
stated that he was not influenced by the nature of the literature that
was being sold; he was concerned merely with the fact of obstruction, and
that this offence had technically been committed.
This raises several important points. To begin with, how does the law
stand on the subject? As far as I can discover, selling newspapers in the
street is technically an obstruction, at any rate if you fail to move
when the police tell you to. So it would be legally possible for any
policeman who felt like it to arrest any newsboy for selling the EVENING
NEWS. Obviously this doesn't happen, so that the enforcement of the law
depends on the discretion of the police.
And what makes the police decide to arrest one man rather than another?
However it may be with the magistrate, I find it hard to believe that in
this case the police were not influenced by political considerations. It
is a bit too much of a coincidence that they should have picked on people
selling just those papers.
If they had also arrested someone selling TRUTH, or the TABLET, or the
SPECTATOR, or even the CHURCH TIMES, their impartiality would be easier
to believe in.
The British police are not like the continental GENDARMERIE or Gestapo,
but I do not think [sic] one maligns them in saying that, in the past,
they have been unfriendly to Left-wing activities. They have generally
shown a tendency to side with those whom they regarded as the defenders
of private property. Till quite recently "red" and "illegal" were almost
synonymous, and it was always the seller of, say the DAILY WORKER, never
the seller of say, the DAILY TELEGRAPH, who was moved on and generally
harassed. Apparently it can be the same, at any rate at moments, under a
A thing I would like to know--it is a thing we hear very little about--
is what changes are made in the administrative personnel when there has
been a change of government.. Does a police officer who has a vague
notion that "Socialism" means something against the law carry on just the
same when the government itself is Socialist?
When a Labour government takes over, I wonder what happens to Scotland
Yard Special Branch? To Military Intelligence? We are not told, but such
symptoms as there are do not suggest that any very extensive shuffling is
However, the main point of this episode is that the sellers of newspapers
and pamphlets should be interfered with at all. Which particular minority
is singled out--whether Pacifists, Communists, Anarchists, Jehovah's
Witness of the Legion of Christian Reformers who recently declared Hitler
to be Jesus Christ--is a secondary matter. It is of symptomatic
importance that these people should have been arrested at that particular
spot. You are not allowed to sell literature inside Hyde Park, but for
many years past it has been usual for the paper-sellers to station
themselves outside the gates and distribute literature connected with the
open air meetings a hundred yards away. Every kind of publication has
been sold there without interference.
The degree of freedom of the press existing in this country is often
over-rated. Technically there is great freedom, but the fact that most of
the press is owned by a few people operates in much the same way as State
censorship. On the other hand, freedom of speech is real. On a platform,
or in certain recognised open air spaces like Hyde Park, you can say
almost anything, and, what is perhaps more significant, no one is
frightened to utter his true opinions in pubs, on the tops of busses, and
The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public
opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether
they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general
temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in
freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law
forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will
be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them. The decline in the
desire for individual liberty has not been so sharp as I would have
predicted six years ago, when the war was starting, but still there has
been a decline. The notion that certain opinions cannot safely be allowed
a hearing is growing. It is given currency by intellectuals who confuse
the issue by not distinguishing between democratic opposition and open
rebellion, and it is reflected in our growing indifference to tyranny and
injustice abroad. And even those who declare themselves to be in favour
of freedom of opinion generally drop their claim when it is their own
adversaries who are being prosecutued.
I am not suggesting that the arrest of five people for selling harmless
newspapers is a major calamity. When you see what is happening in the
world today, it hardly seems worth squeeling about such a tiny incident.
All the same, it is not a good syptom that such things should happen when
the war is well over, and I should feel happier if this and the long
series of similar episodes that have preceded it, were capable of raising
a genuine popular clamour, and not merely a mild flutter in sections of
the minority press.