Remember when the Home Secretary banned public demonstrations in November of last year? I’ll happily forgive you for having forgotten, or even not having known in the first place. It is a bit weird that we, as the British public, collectively decided that it wasn’t a big deal and just went on with our lives (or maybe we just followed the rules and didn’t go and publicly protest the ban). Regardless, the Home Office affirmed that, despite the measures, “The right to peaceful protest is one of the cornerstones of our democracy” and, due to the circumstances, “it is vital we all play our part in controlling the virus.” (1) Why then, is the HMICFRS saying that “The right to gather and express our views is fundamental […] But this is not an absolute right.”? The Home Secretary is attempting to normalise her draconian anti-protest measures by rushing into law a bill that threatens the human rights of every single person in this country. (And as much as I wish that was a bit of an exaggerative flourish, the right to protest is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, and I’m sure in several other places.)
So what’s actually going on? What’s changing? The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is currently being rushed through Parliament by the Home Office. Quoting from the bill’s protest powers factsheet; “The measures in the Bill will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public.” To achieve this, the bill will:
“Widen the range of conditions that the police can impose on static protests […] such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels; The Home Secretary will have the power, through secondary legislation, to define and give examples of ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’ and ‘serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of the procession/assembly/one-person protest’; Amend the offence relation to the breaching of conditions […] so that it is committed where a person ‘knows or ought to have known’ that the condition has been imposed; introduce a statutory offence of public nuisance, and repeal the existing common law offence; Ensure vehicular entrances to the Parliament Estate remain unobstructed”. (2)
That’s a lot of technical, legal stuff that I don’t have the space or technical knowledge to explain in this article (or whatever this stream of consciousness qualifies as), but the key point that should concern every British citizen is that the Home Secretary will have far more power to impose her will upon protests than she has previously had. The most significant point differentiating this bill from what she did in November is that these measures aren’t going away with the lockdown restrictions – these are here to stay. This is a degree of power that I am uncomfortable with anyone possessing, but Patel has consistently demonstrated that she is a person who we should be especially concerned about having this power. From her disregard of the lives of refugees to her disdain for the “dreadful” Black Lives Matter protests over summer and her opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, the Home Secretary has demonstrated a consistent opposition to progressive causes, and there’s little reason to think that she wouldn’t use the new power she’s granting herself to crack down on these causes. Just look at the police response to the candlelit vigils on Saturday night – that response is light compared to the future responses that Patel will have the power to wield under this bill. Indeed, the bill itself was, at least in part, inspired by the Extinction Rebellion protests last April. As the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick explained; “Ever since the first large-scale Extinction Rebellion protest in April last year I have been talking publicly and with the government about the potential for change to powers and to legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests in general […] But specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt”. (3)
We hear a lot about free speech these days, most often from conservative circles and individuals who are concerned with what they see as an attack on their free speech by the (apparently homogenous) left, or even the “woke mob” as Calvin Robinson claimed on Good Morning Britain on Thursday morning. We hear a lot about that because conservative voices ironically have far easier access to platforms and soapboxes in this country than anyone else, however it’s important to acknowledge the reality of the situation, that progressive voices are continuously attacked or silenced in this country. Whether we’re talking about the media circus over rampant and inexcusable anti-semitism in Corbyn’s Labour which magically went away when Starmer’s anti-leftist, flag-shagging appeasement policies took over, or the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right individual yelling “Britain first”, the disgusting normalisation of transphobia in the British press, or even the visceral, spitting anger that I’ve had targeted at me when discussing whether statues of Britain’s colonial past should remain standing, there seems to be an endless attempt to prevent progressive causes from taking hold in this country. It’s even seeped into the education system – I’ve been vocal in the past about the need to decolonise the curriculum, and this is yet another movement that has been pushed back against by the establishment and press at every step. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s most recent designation of anti-capitalist texts as “extremist”, and therefore on par with texts supporting terrorism and inciting violence shows how ridiculously far this suppression of free speech is going. (4) This regressive wave is shameless, and it’s supported by the distinctly un-free press in this country, which either utterly fails to inform the general public of these things or diverts the attention away to elsewhere, like bullying Meghan Markle some more, for instance.
“Demonstrations are not just any kind of free speech. They are the free speech of the unheard. They are the last medium of communication and influence available to people who are frozen out of the formal political system, either in the media or in parliament. And those are the people Patel is trying to silence.” (5)
Why am I bringing this up? This is relevant to the right to protest because, if there’s one thing that everyone in this country can agree on regardless of mainstream political views, it’s the importance of free speech. I’m oversimplifying a bit obviously – there are plenty of disagreements related to what is entailed by free speech, where the limits are and what an individual is actually entitled to, but we all agree that the spirit of free speech is a fair and democratic goal to strive towards. Youtuber Mia Mulder uploaded an excellent video recently, in which she discusses that both the left and the right have concerns over free speech, but they use different language to communicate what it is that they’re worried about. (6) This is a common issue but an issue that certainly can be overcome because, as she explains, “we’re talking about the exact same thing: the spirit of fairness.” In this way, one could sit and wait for the free speech warriors all across the country to speak up, to use their platforms to denounce the unjust and suppressive bill that the Home Office is rushing through Parliament right now. For those on the right, who have been vocally fighting for free speech for years, it would only be consistent for them to speak out against this. But will they? As we’ve seen, the free speech warriors in this country always seem to have a platform, despite the suppression they claim to face. They’re rarely out on the streets protesting – because they’re conservative. Conservative causes don’t need protests because the attitudes are so deeply ingrained in our society that we default to them. The only protests by the right that come to mind in recent years are the anti-lockdown protests and the protests in defense of statues and BLM – they were protesting progressive protests. (I know conservatism is reactionary but that’s still really funny). At any rate, I’m not hopeful, but I would love to be proved wrong. It would certainly be the right thing to do, and I respect anyone who stands up for civil liberties. Conservatives in this country just don’t have a great track record of doing that though, so forgive my pessimism when I say that I don’t expect them to start now.
We’re on our own then. The establishment want to suppress progressive protests. Once they’ve succeeded in that, they’ll probably move on to suppressing progressive movements and organisations themselves. But that hinges on whether we let them succeed. Draconian measures like this call for discourse and mobilisation. Email your MP – demand that they represent your interests by voting against the bill. Labour has already reversed its decision to abstain on this bill and has committed to opposing it, purely because of the push by a mass movement of individuals. Get involved in any grassroots campaigns in your constituency. Share petitions and resources on your social media. Inform your friends, convince strangers. Talk about this. Don’t let the media divert attention away, don’t let them distract you. Progressivism is only growing, and we can each make a difference. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s been fought before. Remember that we are many, and they are few. Solidarity to all those fighting the good fight.
(1) Kit Malthouse, Minister of State, Home Department, 18 November 2020. https://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2020-11-13.91956.h&s=police
(2) Policy Paper, “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: protest powers factsheet”, accessed 13 March 2021. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021-factsheets/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021-protest-powers-factsheet
(4) Guidance, Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum: Choosing resources, accessed 13 March 2021. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/plan-your-relationships-sex-and-health-curriculum#choosing-resources
(5) Ian Dunt, “Silencing Black Lives Matter: Priti Patel’s anti-protest law”, posted 11 March 2021. https://www.politics.co.uk/comment/2021/03/11/silencing-black-lives-matter-priti-patels-anti-protest-law/?cmpredirect
(6) Mia Mulder, “Free Speech And PragerU | Mia Mulder”, uploaded 01 March 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrrD98x4u6c&ab_channel=MiaMulder