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The military response to direct action, General Kitson's manual

In 1971 a counter-insurgency manual set out an operational response to non-violent direct action protest movements as well as military insurgencies like the Provision IRA in Northern Ireland, drawing on the UK's colonial experience. Today, it holds a surprise for a new reader.

General Frank Kitson's 1971 counter-insurgency manual Low Intensity Operations has long been of interest to students of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Within months of its publication, its author was commanding 39 Brigade in Belfast where he pioneered the use of the Parachute Regiment as shock troops, and of plain-clothes 'counter-gangs' to combat paramilitary groups.

However, what struck me most when I obtained a copy recently was not the book's obvious significance for such controversial episodes, but its striking relevance to events in Britain in recent weeks.

That's because Kitson gives considerable attention to the question of how a government can combat a campaign of non-violent direct action. He devotes a whole chapter to the subject, despite showing considerable scepticism about the value of direct action as a tactic:

It is rare to find large numbers of people who are so interested in a political cause that they are prepared to abandon their work and sacrifice their recreational time merely to stand around in a group being troublesome to the government on the off chance that it will make concessions in some direction which will probably bring them little personal benefit or satisfaction. In fact only the hard core organizers are likely to be sufficiently dedicated to behave in this way, and such people are normally viewed with suspicion by the normal working man or housewife and even by the majority of the student population.

Kitson argued that to overcome this problem, the hard core organizers need to mobilise an intermediate group of 'politically conscious idealists' in sufficient numbers to goad the authorities into discrediting themselves by some violent action.

Kitson wrote primarily on the basis of his experiences in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus, dealing with highly centralised communist or nationalist movements, in situations where direct action was ultimately replaced by outright insurgency.

He did recognise that the students involved in the then recent events of May 1968 in France were resistant to centralised control, but he regarded this as illustrating a general weakness of direct action, its dependence on mobilising large numbers of ordinary people.

For Kitson, the workers and students of 1968 had been bought off with concessions on wages and universities, frustrating the larger socialist ambitions of the organisers. His practical recommendations are a generalisation of this model:

In practical terms the most promising line of approach lies in separating the mass of those engaged in the campaign from the leadership by the judicious promise of concessions, at the same time imposing a period of calm by the use of government forces backed up by statements to the effect that most of the concessions can only be implemented once the life of the country returns to normal. Although with an eye to world opinion, and to the need to retain the allegiance of the people, no more force than is necessary for containing the situation should be used, conditions can be made reasonably uncomfortable for the population as a whole, in order to provide an incentive for a return to normal life and to act as a deterrent towards a resumption of the campaign.

Having once succeeded in providing a breathing space by these means, it is most important to do three further things quickly. The first is to implement the promised concessions quickly so as to avoid allegations of bad faith which may enable the subversive element to regain control over certain sections of the people.  The second is to discover and neutralise the subversive element. The third is to associate as many prominent members of the population, especially those who have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government. This last technique is known in America as co-optation..

Given these techniques, Kitson regards dealing with direct action as a relatively straightforward problem.

So what are the implications of his model for the recent wave of direct action against the coalition's programme of cuts, which many expect to see expanding in the new year?

The first lesson is that the various tuition fees, EMA and tax protesters have already succeeded in crossing a fairly high 'direct action threshold.'

One wonders whether kettling isn't a tactic designed to push the protests below that threshold by making conditions 'reasonably uncomfortable' for Kitson's intermediate group of 'politically conscious idealists'.

There is little sign as yet of Kitson's recommended concessions. He assumes that such measures must always be conceded to a majority by the minority, otherwise they would have been achieved by parliamentary action. It is perhaps the peculiar genius of the UK Uncut campaign, that it challenges this assumption when it comes to taxation.

Without meaningful concessions it becomes in turn more difficult to practise co-optation. If anything the Government's actions have only helped to marginalise the obvious candidates - the NUS leadership.

That leaves Kitson's third technique, neutralizing the 'subversive element'. The Telegraph's profile of ULU President Clare Solomon was a textbook example of an attempt to play on the faultline that Kitson identifies:

Whilst her public image has been as a protester driven by concern over student fees and education cuts, her agenda goes much wider: to bring down capitalism and replace it with a socialist society where the ruling class is expropriated and wealth is spread equally.

Supporters of the coalition have been keen to hint at various left parties or blocs as hidden hands behind the protest. Such centralised direction would make the protests a much a easier target, in terms both of intelligence and of propaganda.

The reality may not fit that model, however. One doesn't have to be a techno-utopian to question whether any amount of forward intelligence would enable the police to predict the movements of the twitter-enabled smart-mobs that have characterised the protests.

The demands thrown up by the nascent democracies of the student occupations, are not those of a vanguardist elite. Indeed, Tony Curzon Price has remarked on their conservatism. In terms of legitimising direct action, at least, that may be a strength rather than a weakness.

That is not to say that direct action cannot challenge the status quo. Again, UK Uncut looks like a good example of how to create real pressure while evading attempts to alienate the public from the campaign by imposing a 'subversive' label.

Nevertheless, the defensive nature of the campaigns may be one reason why the direct action threshold has been breached so decisively.

Kitson's model has arguably been inverted. He saw direct action as the strategy of an ideological hard core seeking to opportunistically impose an essentially unpopular programme by manipulating naive liberals unaware of the real nature of their revolutionary goals.

In 2010, that doesn't sound like a description of the protesters. It sounds like a description of the government.

About the author

Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

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