Without the right to protest, would we have ever had universal suffrage, would the Berlin wall ever have come down, would apartheid in South Africa have come to an end, would civil rights legislation have happened in America, would people have been able to mark their opposition to the Iraq war or to Brexit, would inequality or climate change be such ubiquitous and necessary talking points?
Not every peaceful protest marks a change in the law. But without peaceful protest, genuine expressions of public concern are repressed and debate is curtailed.
The police response witnessed at the weekend in Clapham in which women came together outside to respectfully and peacefully hold a candle-lit vigil for a woman murdered was shocking and unacceptable.
These scenes were shocking and unacceptable to us in the UK, but also to many people around the world. At a time when we have become sadly accustomed to seeing heavy-handed police tactics from places like Hong Kong and Myanmar, we were not expecting them to be so close to home.
The police behaviour was possible under current legislation and because of the public health measures in place. The Home Secretary had, in the view of the police, made all public gatherings illegal on the grounds of public health. But the forceful arrests were unnecessarily brutal and have resulted in resentment and division. It did not have to be this way.
Yet this authoritarianism will be further enshrined in law if the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 comes into force.
This is a Bill which seriously threatens civil liberties. If passed, it will take effect long after the coronavirus legislation has lapsed, but that is when its effects will start to be obvious. Perhaps that is part of the strategy: as with Brexit, so with civil liberties: use Covid as the cover to force through legislation which will damage and destroy the freedoms that we previously enjoyed, while the population is more accustomed to limitations on their liberties.
Of course, no freedom comes without limitations. Under existing legislation (The Public Order Act 1986), any demonstration which risks “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community” is already subject to potential limitations – the police can impose restrictions on its location and its size, for example. These measures are regularly used when the balance between the right to demonstrate is deemed seriously disruptive of community life.
Under the proposed legislation, the right to peaceful protest and to free assembly is curtailed much further: the threshold of serious disruption, damage or disorder is no longer necessary. Restrictions and limitations can be imposed if the noise of the demonstration could disrupt the activities of an organisation (such as a nearby office), or if it could have an impact on persons in the vicinity, or even if in their view, it could cause serious unease, alarm or distress to anyone nearby. The threshold is very low, and the precise meaning of these words is not defined: it is up to the Home Secretary to decide what they mean through statutory instruments, in other words without parliamentary scrutiny.
Public processions to Parliament will no longer be possible if this legislation is passed. Organised speeches in Parliament square will fall foul of the new legislation. While previously, organisers worked with the police to ensure that these events were peaceful and passed without incident, in future the police will have much greater powers to control and impose restrictions on such marches, however heartfelt, however non-violent. Under the terms of the new legislation, they will not be able to come together outside Parliament. The whole symbolic force of taking an issue to protest at Parliament is thereby denied. Even one-person demonstrations such as those entirely peaceful, if slightly noisy, demonstrations by the famous Mr Steve ‘Stop Brexit’ Bray are prevented by this Bill.
Demonstrations anywhere which create noise or may disrupt, however peaceful their aims, are under threat. For if a demonstration makes no noise or has no impact then that takes away the whole point.
As Yvette Cooper pointed out in last night’s debate:
“When people protested outside the Iranian embassy for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the embassy could well have argued that the protests were disruptive to their activities, but none of us would have wanted those protests to be stopped.”
The Home Secretary has made clear her views about Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. These are just two of the progressive causes which it is clearly the government’s intention to silence. And from ministerial pronouncements there is every reason to fear that the law will be implemented asymmetrically – hitting progressive causes while the right-wing forces who have the government’s ear are left unscathed.
The rights which are threatened are rights currently protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, as defined by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). So we could be forgiven for wondering whether departure from that convention, which has in the past been threatened by Tory governments, is an imminent threat. We will no doubt be told yet again that the ECHR will be replaced by a ‘better’ or ‘fit for purpose’ British Convention. Don’t believe a word of it. That British equivalent may well turn out to be one with which Mr Putin would be comfortable.
It does not of course end there. As has been widely reported the provisions of the Bill include many other Draconian clauses, for example criminalising the Gypsy and Traveller communities and famously imposing prison sentences of 10 years for defacing statues. As Labour has pointed out, this means in all likelihood that there will be heavier penalties for violence against statues than for violence against people. What does that tell us about the government’s priorities?
The government strategy appears to be to throw a massive number of disparate proposals together, so that they can paint anybody who opposes the bill as an enemy of law and order, and then to rush it through with little time for reflection and debate, wrong-footing the opposition and even its own MPs. In the debate last night only two Tory MPs stood up against this Bill (Theresa May MP and Fiona Bruce MP). It is revealing of how extreme these measures are, that the architect of the hostile environment, Theresa May, no stranger to authoritarian measures of control, is critical of aspects of the Bill which impact our right to free assembly and to free speech, saying:
“Freedom of speech is an important right in our democracy, however annoying and uncomfortable that may sometimes be… There is a fine line between popular and populist – but our freedom depends on it.”
Ed: A constituent’s letter to his Tory MP
Dear Dr Murrison,
Priti Patel’s Policing Bill
It is most alarming that the present government looks set to be the most anti-democratic for many decades, if not centuries.
The latest proposals to crack down on peaceful protest, to change drastically the parameters under which such protest can happen is deeply worrying.
What is most concerning is that the government are so naive that they don’t realise that shutting down peaceful protest blocks an essential safety valve; a safety valve that prevents potentially violent protest, throwing otherwise peaceful people into direct conflict with the police.
Allied to this are significant changes to libel law, to effectively attempt to stifle criticism of companies and their actions. The government is already attempting to prevent judicial reviews with PPE contracts by using exorbitant cost claims to restrict transparency.
All this deliberately blocks accountability, the primary building keystone of our democracy.
Remember lose an general election and these powers could be used on your supporters, or your legitimate protests. Or is Priti Patel planning a one party state?
Please stand up for our Democracy, it is much more important than political party loyalty.
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