The Conversation

A Missed Opportunity for Civil Disobedience

‘Scum,’ ‘Crazed Marxist’, ‘Guerilla Toff’: Trenton Oldfield has been called a host of things this weekend; a disappointment would be my pejorative of choice.

What was, in truth, a supremely successful act of civil disobedience – garnering media attention the world over – was wasted on a crap website, which was confused and slightly bonkers.

The philosophy amounted to a patchwork anarchism, with a bizarre set of instructions for other would-be revolutionaries: overthrow the state by setting off fire alarms; overcharging taxi users; not replenishing toilet paper.

The act itself, however, was an impressive example of a sadly dying means of democracy: civil disobedience.

It took strategy, skill, and nerve to disrupt the race in such a manner, dealing with a notoriously fast tide, and the possibility of having his ‘head cut off’ according to the excitable commentator. Had his website and his cause been anywhere near as artful as his act, Trenton would have deserved commendation.

But what about the poor rowers and their months of preparation? Civil disobedience always has victims, be it the white person who doesn’t get a seat on the bus, or, the elite rower who doesn’t get to win the race. So was civil disobedience, in this case, justified?

The literature agrees that there are two main factors relevant to the legitimacy of civil disobedience: its inspiration and its action. Like I have already said, the action was superb: maximum publicity, minimal harm (Dr Woods’ collapse being due to rowing, not its disruption), only mildly illegal. What I will now consider is whether Trenton had enough motivation for the civil disobedience to be considered legitimate.

Emblazoned across Trenton’s website are the words, ‘ELITISM LEADS TO TYRANNY.’ His motivation was a belief that our state is tyrannical, and tyrannical because our society is elitist.

First, is our state tyrannical? The answer, unfortunately, has to be yes. Over the last ten years, the state has: shot an innocent man 8 times in the head; violently hit another innocent citizen over the head, causing cardiac arrest and death; and shot an unarmed suspected-drug dealer to death. These are just individual cases. Much more worryingly it has also attempted to legislate for the power to imprison innocent people for up to 90 days without trial; it has been complicit internationally in the arbitrary indefinite imprisonment of its citizens, and the torture of others.

Does this attack on civil liberties show signs of abating? No, in fact the government’s recent proposal bill on surveillance purportedly contains an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, with the state given powers to monitor and pry into all aspects of its citizens lives. It is expected that the London Olympics will permanently raise security and surveillance in the capital, as well as up to 50,000 security personal being deployed this summer (with 13,500 being soldiers – more than were ever in Afghanistan).

The second point, is this tyranny due to elitism? Possibly. Political elitism is when those who create the laws are from a different class to the vast majority of those who live under them. Consequently, the law tends to increasingly represent the interests of the minority over the majority. Our politicians unarguably come from an elite class representing a tiny percentage of the population: mostly Oxbridge-educated and privately-schooled. Furthermore, their opposition, the leaders of media and business, share the same demographic. Is this a problem? Well we have an increasingly elite and tyrannical state – correlation if not causation. Would politicians be less likely to endorse 90-day imprisonment without charge, or swinging cuts to welfare, if their friends and family had a chance of being on the wrong end of such laws? Most definitely.

There is nothing wrong with elite institutions, provided they aren’t elitist; gathering together the best and brightest to study hard is unquestionably a good thing. However, that 50% of such a student-body is made up of the mere 5% of those wealthy enough to pay for private education, is not. Furthermore, 90% of Oxford undergraduates are from households that are in the upper-half of income distribution, thus state-educated by choice as opposed to necessity.

The fault is not Oxbridge’s – by 18 the damage is done, and admission tutors’ choices are limited. What Britain needs first and foremost for any semblance of fairness, is an equal education system that promotes diversity and cohesion rather than segregation: male from female; rich from poor; Muslim from Christian.

As for the act itself: there are few more fitting ways to protest against elitism than at the Varsity boat race. I do feel empathy for the rowers, but infinitely more for the victims of state oppression, who are both more numerous, and more wronged. The more attention drawn to these two facts, the better. Shame Trenton Oldfield didn’t take more time over his crappy website.



  1. Red Ed

    9th April 2012 at 19:08

    Fuck yeah, Socialism.

    Fuck, yeah.

  2. Pingback: Boat race protestor ‘missed an opportunity for civil disobedience’ | Ones to Watch

  3. jack london

    10th April 2012 at 04:06

    I’m afraid I may be missing something here. You refer to Mr. Oldfield’s message as “a disappointment,” “crap,” “confused and slightly bonkers,” and finally to sum up, “crappy” once again. You do effectively ridicule his prescriptions for possible acts of civil disobedience by others, yet you far more effectively emphasize how brilliantly he pulled off his own act. As for his description of the elitism and its consequent tyranny that we enjoy in Britain today, you go on not only to agree with it and to eloquently prove his point but also to expand upon it. Other than your few harsh adjectives, I didn’t find much proof that you actually found Mr. Oldfield’s message so objectionable.

    Personally I did not find the “ELITISMLEADSTOTYRANNY” website so terribly disappointing (other than a couple of typos, including his name), in fact I was pleasantly surprised by it. I expected far worse, such as perhaps a 20-page, ALLCAPS, rambling, conspiracy theory-laden manifesto with endless references to thoroughly discredited sources or supposed experts on “the global elite.” Maybe it did not even rise to the level of a “patchwork anarchism” but all things considered I found the descriptive part of the site to be, if not utterly convincing and informative, still something far better. I found it highly thought-provoking. It certainly seemed to provoke you into an excellent little analysis of the horrific problems of elitism and tyranny that we are all (or almost all) struggling with.

    No, I didn’t find the message such crappy crap, and nor did you, I suspect. I even have the slight suspicion that you simply felt (or actually were) obligated to issue some sort of token condemnation of Mr. Oldfield while refusing to miss this opportunity to voice your (Oxford-) educated support for the general motivation (compelling as it is) behind his act of disobedience.

    So, I say jolly well done to the both of you! Perhaps Mr. Oldfield does note possess the necessary eloquence to adequately promote his message to the public (and I honestly fear that we ask too much of nature and nurture if we expect them to produce a contemporary activist with the flair and courage to carry out such a celebrated act who also has the intellect necessary to then convince his sudden audience of the importance of the attached message) but there are others like you who will seriously discuss the issues he has shone the media spotlight on. As for the unconvincing nature of his suggestions for other acts of civil disobedience, we need only look to his act itself to be inspired to imagine far more spectacular feats than the mostly trifling ones he describes on his site.

  4. Alex

    10th April 2012 at 11:12

    Jack, thanks for the comment. I take your point, perhaps I was too harsh on the website. But I just found that apart from the title it wasn’t particularly clear what exactly he was protesting about or why, and his list of suggested civil disobedience were so easy to mock that they undermined the rest of the website. But, like you say, perhaps it’s expecting too much to expect someone to be a talented activist and a talented journalist. I know I’d be far too cowardly to jump in the Thames and swim in front of two deadly boats, and face certain arrest and prosecution as a result. Especially considering the two students who got lengthy prison spells for swinging off a cenotaph, and for throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof (18 and 32 months respectively)…

  5. jack london

    10th April 2012 at 12:56

    I do see what you mean about his list of suggestions. They did seem almost ready-made for the thorough mocking they received from a series of hastily-written editorials in major newspapers. Too bad he didn’t just leave them out altogether and allow others be spurred on to invent their own methods.

    I too would be too scared of the consequences to do what he did. My word, the sentences you mention are indeed powerful deterrents! I believe some violent crimes result in lesser punishment.

    Ah well, your sort have the brains and his sort have the brawn and hopefully all sorts will take notice and start to participate in constructive ways.

  6. Sam Griffith

    10th April 2012 at 13:20

    So, let’s get this straight: your evidence for “tyranny” comprises a number of tragic shootings that you yourself describe as “just individual cases”, plus “attempt[s]” to legislate for up to 90 days and “complicit[y]” in others’ alleged nefarious acts. Isolated cases, attempts, and complicity. Is that the highest you can put it?

    Is it possible that this list of inchoate and isolated events don’t quite meet the high bar of “tyranny”? Surely you weaken your argument by this foolish and unnecessary exaggeration?

    If this is tyranny, I don’t know what words we use for Saudi Arabia/North Korea/Turkmenistan/etc.

    Words matter.

    First, is our state tyrannical? The answer, unfortunately, has to be yes. Over the last ten years, the state has: shot an innocent man 8 times in the head; violently hit another innocent citizen over the head, causing cardiac arrest and death; and shot an unarmed suspected-drug dealer to death. These are just individual cases. Much more worryingly it has also attempted to legislate for the power to imprison innocent people for up to 90 days without trial; it has been complicit internationally in the arbitrary indefinite imprisonment of its citizens, and the torture of others.

  7. Alex

    10th April 2012 at 14:06


    Locking up someone for 90 days without charge is tyrannical, not arbitrary. So is allowing your citizens to be locked up and tortured indefinitely without protest. Laws matter. I’m sure you’d feel the same if either of those things happened to you or someone you cared about. Furthermore, there has been sustained legislative attack on the right to protest over the last ten years.

    Also, contrary to what you say, individual cases matter too. As a recent example, take the moronic Liam Stacey – jailed for being racist on twitter. Or like I say, the lengthy prison sentences given out to a one protester for swinging off a cenotaph, and another for throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof, or some of the Fortnum & Mason protestors charged for a peaceful sit in. This is also alongside the stop & search powers peace now have to use on innocent citizens, usually from ethnic minorities.

    You may not be perturbed by the state repeatedly killing (innocent) citizens, imprisoning protesters, legislating against the right to protest, and in favour of arbitrary imprisonment, and unprecedented powers to spy on its citizens, but others are.

  8. Alex

    10th April 2012 at 14:21

    additionally sam, tyranny isn’t binary: of course Saudi Arabia/North Korea/Turkmenistan are tyrannical states, and more so than the UK. But the existence of more tyrannical states does not entail that the British state is not tyrannical.

  9. Sam Griffith

    10th April 2012 at 14:25

    “Locking up someone for 90 days without charge is tyrannical, not arbitrary…. Laws matter.”

    Um, yeh, but as your piece notes the 90 days proposal was an “attempt” that failed. Is the defeat of a rights-infringing proposal by a democratically elected legislature really proof of tyranny?

    If so, your definition is pretty whacky.

  10. Alex

    10th April 2012 at 14:42

    It failed because of a huge opposition from the majority, with many Labour MPs disobeying the whip and bowing to pressure from their constituents. That is when democracy works, and the government didn’t get their way. However, as I mentioned, the government also failed to oppose the indefinite arbitrary imprisonment of many of its citizens, as well as their torture by most definitions – without any democratic consent. They also continue to put ever-increasing restrictions on the right to protest, privacy, free speech, and free association, and imprison protestors for lengthy sentences (longer than any MP was sentenced for stealing from the public, or anyone responsible of the reckless behaviour that caused the financial crisis, or any journalist for hacking phones).

  11. Sam Griffith

    10th April 2012 at 14:47

    Have governments done dodgy things? Have governments done things that neither you nor I would vote for if MPs? Absolutely.

    But their decisions, and their legislation, are democratically accountable at elections (even if you dislike the results those elections return). And their decisions, and their legislation, are legally reviewable in the courts (have you ever wondered how, for example, the government was stopped from detaining non-nationals without trial at Belmarsh?). A tyrannical society, really ?

    The policies you outline may well be offensive, them may well involve rights-violations, they may well be things that some opinion polls indicate people oppose. But, Alex, that doesn’t make them tyrannical .

  12. Sam Griffith

    10th April 2012 at 14:56

    By the way, why am I fixating on the word tyranny?

    Because the entire motivation for this article, and indeed for the silly swim in the Thames on Saturday, was a claim of “tyranny”. If that can’t be backed up, a “protester” becomes a wet swimmer with a hipster mustache.

  13. Alex

    10th April 2012 at 16:42

    Tyrannical: exercising power in a cruel or arbitrary way. All the policies I’ve outlined do just that.

    Yes, there are more tyrannical societies. But these societies are probably even more elitist than ours. Elitism leads to tyranny (Apartheid South Africa, US pre-civil rights era, ‘Democracies’ pre universal suffrage). The point of what I was saying is that if our society was less elitist, it would be less tyrannical.

    Also, on a side note, I think you overestimate the power people have at general elections: for example, at the last general election the majority of people voted for parties claiming they would not raise tuition fees, and 98% of people voted for parties who pledged not to introduce privatization to the NHS (since then each NHS hospital can now be used for up to 49% private services). Additionally 35% of the voting population are so disenfranchised that they did not vote: ironically/tragically the majority of this demographic will be the people most hurt by the policies of this government.

    Is our society elitist? Yes. Does elitism lead to tyranny? Yes. Does our government do tyrannical things? Yes.

  14. Anon

    11th April 2012 at 23:49

    I think Alex is right- democracy’s all well and good in theory, but a lot of the time, the party (and sometimes not even the party, but worse still, the INDIVIDUAL)’s ideology just takes over in legislative terms, and once they’re in office, it takes a huge hoo-hah to stop them doing whatever they want (take Osborne’s fucking ridiculous idea to buy a new yacht for the queen for example, whilst the government makes public spending cuts…sometimes I really am thankful for media hysteria). As long as we have a two party monopoly within British politics and things like “safe seats”, democracy will always remain fundamentally flawed within this country, and exposed to the forms of tyranny Alex has described.

  15. Anon

    11th April 2012 at 23:52

    Sorry, Gove/Willet’s fucking ridiculous idea. My bad.

  16. sam

    12th April 2012 at 18:14

    this is a really really crap article. To hitch on to some moron’s act of self-aggrandizement a tenuous argument about the proportions of state school/public school students at Oxbridge is incoherent at best. To argue that the United Kingdom, a liberal democracy with a free press etc, is an oppressive and tyrannical state with countless victims is almost as ludicrous as Trenton’s pledge to spite right-wing sympathisers by not replacing their toilet roll. And to align the rowers with white segregationists is not only embarrassing for an Oxford student, but also offensive. There is a vast difference between Rosa Parks and the US civil rights movement and Trenton Oldfield and his no-nothing selfishness, a self-appointed activist with a blog and an inflated sense of self-importance.

  17. Alex

    12th April 2012 at 20:01


    The proportion of state-school students at elite universities is extremely pertinent to elitism, which was the topic of the protest and this article. The protest wasn’t against the rowers, and to say that it was just shows that you’ve completely missed the point and not understood the article at all. Maybe you should re-read the article, and if you still don’t get it and have sensible objections then maybe you should read some political theory.

    I suggest Steven Lukes’ “Power”: a very short but very good book about what power actually is (a definitional book, non-political, don’t worry). You don’t seem to be able to distinguish between de jure and de facto equality/freedom/power, which is of an incredibly important thing to be able to do if you want to partake in a sensible debate about such things.

  18. Alan

    18th April 2012 at 08:36

    “Especially considering the two students who got lengthy prison spells for swinging off a cenotaph, and for throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof (18 and 32 months respectively)…” – comment 10/4/12 11:12

    Gilmour did not get a prison spell for swinging off a cenotaph. That incident no doubt provided evidence of his general conduct that day (as well as obviously a huge amount of bad PR), but the basis of the criminal charge of violent disorder was that he jumped on a car in the royal convoy.

  19. Gonzo

    26th April 2012 at 17:02

    Some amazing naivete of youth in this article and these comments.

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