From the Peasants’ Revolt to the People’s Vote, the journey through British history is waymarked with examples of people objecting to official decisions they consider are not being made for the good of the country. Many demonstrations pass unnoticed and have little impact other than locally. Some – such as the Suffragette Movement – change the course of history.
The legal right to peaceful protest is considered one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. But what constitutes a ‘peaceful’ protest? Most demonstrations are well-behaved, but the most illiberal and authoritarian government the UK has seen – certainly since the end of World War 2 and possibly since the days of the Civil War – is now threatening the right of anyone with a cause to champion to campaign for it.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
While attention was distracted by events in the English Channel recently, Priti Patel introduced some amendments to the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill now going through Parliament. The Bill had already provoked protests when details were first revealed in March this year. These suggested that the Government was engaged in a witch-hunt against those such as Steve ‘Mr Stop Brexit’ Bray or Extinction Rebellion, because of the disruption and embarrassment they cause.
But the new amendments immediately sparked an outcry from law professionals, not just about their content but the way they were introduced. Charlie (Lord) Falconer, Shadow Attorney General was one of many to point out on Twitter – and condemn – the fact that the Home Secretary had “Introduced 18 pages of new law, after Commons stages and second reading in Lords complete [my emphasis]. Whole Lords committee stage debate on new clauses crammed into one late night. Commons excluded, Lords marginalised, Parliament neutralised.”
This sidelining of the British Parliament, which likes to think of itself as a model for democracies across the world, is part of a pattern of behaviour – usually seen from autocrats and dictators – from the Johnson government to rule without scrutiny.
We should all be alarmed
When the Bill first appeared, many were startled by the powers it gave police officers to ban protests if they caused ‘impact’ such as ‘noise’, ‘serious unease’, ‘serious disruption’ (which the Home Secretary could define), and if the police considered the conditions under which the protest could go ahead were breached.
Draconian sentences of up to ten years in jail were to be introduced for ‘causing a public nuisance’. The new amendments introduce new offences that take this assault on our right to protest much further.
‘Locking On’ (not clearly defined, but it could mean anything from linking arms to supergluing oneself to a road); ‘equipped for locking on’ (again not clearly defined – you might innocently be padlocking your bicycle to a fence near to a demonstration but it could mean you are ‘equipped for locking on’ under this proposal); and ‘Obstructing major transport works’.
Protestors can be fined in each case if found guilty or be jailed (in the case of the first two) for up to a year.
Stop and Search powers have been expanded. The police can now carry out stop and search if they ‘reasonably believe’ a demonstrator is equipped to cause disruption and seize what they find.
The wording talks of objects that are “made, adapted, or intended for use in the course of or in connection with” a protest. Banners, placards, and even fliers could be included – no one seems sure. A police officer above the rank of inspector can authorise a stop and search if they reasonably believe people are so equipped.
Moreover, if someone obstructs such a search, another new offence (‘obstructing suspicion-less stop and search’) has been created. Punishment could be a fine, up to a year in jail or both; and serial protestors can be served with ASBO-type banning orders (Serious Disruption Prevention Orders) for up to 5 years, with punitive restrictions on their personal liberty.
The One-Party state is (almost) here
There will be some who equate these moves by the government with the M25 protests by Insulate Britain and think, “about time too.” But while those stories have grabbed the headlines, these amendments apply across the board.
Want to protest because of pollution levels near your child’s school? Tough – you’re in the frame. Opposed to an insensitive development in your village? Tough – you will be covered. Want to picket or lobby a place of work in support of employee rights? Tough – you could end up in prison. Don’t like the amount of sewage polluting your local river? Tough – there’s nothing you can do.
The whole point of protest is to make a nuisance of yourself, to get attention, to make your case. Women would likely not have the vote if the Suffragettes hadn’t misbehaved. This Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill is another underhand attack on civil rights.
As George Monbiot argues, it moves the UK closer to being a one-party police state. If you think it can’t happen here, you may get a very nasty surprise in the New Year.
You can read much more about these amendments and their impact on the right to protest in this excellent summary from Liberty.