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The battle of St Mary Bourne — and a history of taking the law into your own hands

31 May 2015

4:31 PM

31 May 2015

4:31 PM

It’s tough being a vigilante, as Michael Widen in St Mary Bourne village has discovered to his cost. Mr Widen has been monitoring drivers with his own speed camera, and then reporting them to police. People in the local pub have started calling him a speed Nazi and there are mutterings in the village that he should have taken up bridge like other pensioners, rather than become a grass roots traffic officer.

The Spectator has quite often taken the side of people who take the law into their own hands, especially in the early ‘90s, when the police didn’t seem to be able to do much about crime. Paul Johnson argued in 1992 that the public had had enough.

The media, useless as always, expresses indignation at miscarriages of justice where the innocent — or supposedly innocent — are convicted. But the public cares nothing about that. What arouses its wrath are the infinitely larger number of cases where the criminally guilty go free, or are never prosecuted at all, or, if convicted, get derisory sentences. Juries are beginning at last to rouse themselves and, quite rightly, to endorse the attempts of injured citizens to administer natural law themselves when the, state has manifestly failed in its duty. In Anglesey, an entire village rose up recently to expel an incorrigible youth whom lawful authority could not or would not curb. How far must the public go before the state begins to do its job again? Must we create a vigilante society?

When he was Home Secretary Michael Howard encouraged the Neighbourhood Watch. Madsen Pirie, the president of the Adam Smith Institute, applauded him and pointed out that more than three quarters of people thought it was sometimes justified to take the law into their own hands.

Pious civic leaders, Labour politicians and social commentators will wring hands in despair, and police leaders will treat the proposal with watchful delicacy; but the public will embrace the idea. They know what responsible law enforcement officers will not admit: that justice has fallen below tolerance levels, and that it is long past the time for law-abiding people to fight back…

Those who urge respect for due process are in effect urging respect for no process…Our surrender to society of the right to justice is part of an implicit contract. We give up the private right to make good wrongs done to us in the belief that it is more likely to be exercised fairly by a dispassionate third party…There are two parties to that agreement. Society in its turn undertakes to exercise that right on our behalf. Where it fails to do so, it reneges on the contract and the right reverts to the individual. People who have been the victims of muggings or theft and have seen no justice can only regard the official authorities as a defaulting party to that contract.

The way to reduce vigilantism is to reduce the frustration which engenders it. By putting citizens on the streets armed with no more than portable telephones, they will multiply the eyes and ears of the police many times over. It could be that, after years of Home Office talk about curbing crime against a background of rising crime, they have finally hit upon an idea which could work. The danger is not that the patrols will go too far, but that they will not go far enough.


Auberon Waugh said in 1995 that we might as well accept that the police were no longer capable of enforcing the law.

Where the criminal underclass and the defence of private property are concerned, they no longer have the stomach for the fight. The police are more of a nuisance than an assistance in our dealings with the new criminal underclass. We cannot afford to keep one tenth of the population under 35 in prison, even if the police and courts were prepared to send them there, and it would do them no good to be sent. Huge sums could be saved on police and prisons, and it would cost no money at all, if we demanded a simple law removing all legal protection from criminals engaged in violent crime, violent crime to include forced entry. Householders would be permitted to keep ‘defensive’ weapons in their homes and all citizens without previous criminal convictions would be allowed to carry a weighted stick when out of doors. Production of a knife or gun would be sufficient excuse for everybody else present to indulge in a little stick practice.

Setting upon hoodlums with a stick has a certain dignity to it, but, as Michael Widen, the St Mary Bourne speed gunner, has found out, if you’re just helping the police out with a little intel, it’s harder to get people on your side. You may think of yourself as a heroic crusader, a lone wolf standing up for justice and peace in the community; your neighbours will just see a collaborator. Nigel Burke wrote in 1990 that we were turning into a nation of snitches.

The ‘Drink Driver Disclosure’ telephone services, or nark-lines, as they are known, are a valuable facility in personal grudges and acrimonious divorce…The service is a freephone number, so it costs nothing to shop a neighbour …The innocent have nothing to fear but disgruntled employees, pathological liars and mere recreational liars.

Naturally, there are plenty of occasions when narking is quite the only thing to do…There is a line to be drawn, and I need not tell you where it is because you already know, assuming a developed, undamaged personality and ordinary educational opportunities.

The problem, he said, was that a raft of laws had been brought in to hold people responsible for other people’s crimes, making it more or less compulsory to grass on your neighbours, business associates or customers.

The practice of narking and establishing narking bureaucracies appeals to a large constituency of scaremongers, governmental action-simulators, career crackdown brokers, securicrats, and a body of public servants who are not averse to control. None of these people publicly advocates random strip-searches. Narking offends people with something to hide, people who are innocent but cannot necessarily prove it, and people with a sense of privacy, dignity and rightful independence. Such people are always prepared to consider sacrificing some of their independence for the public good, but only for a good public, not for a squeaking nation of narks.

The scheme in St Mary Bourne was a rather gentle form of narking; if you were caught on his camera, you’d get a letter but no fine or anything. Three letters and the police would pay you a visit. Those who’ve received letters seem to be cross mainly because a private citizen has presumed to criticise their driving, rather than because he’s shopped them to the police.

The scheme’s been discontinued because Mr Widen and his volunteers were getting so much abuse. It’s sad that being a bit bossy has taken such a toll on Mr Widen, who says half the village has ostracised him. Lynch mobs are what gave vigilantism a bad name in the first place, and these indignant bossiness vigilantes sound rather more corrosive than the speed camera vigilantes.


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