Protest to save our right to protest

Image by the author

On the day Priti Patel’s pretty awful 296-page Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts (PCSC) Bill was due back in Parliament, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse, a long-time Johnson collaborator and former Deputy Mayor under him, was sent out to do the morning talkies. The PCSC Bill covers many topics, but the scope of Kit’s interview with Dan Walker of the BBC, and indeed of this article, were the shocking clauses that severely curtail the right to protest. Malthouse claimed concerns about the Bill were exaggerated. They were merely doing a spot of streamlining, updating the 1986 Public Order Act and putting static protests on the same basis as processions. This was disingenuous of Mr Malthouse. As the very name of the Bill and its length suggest, this is a portmanteau bill and it seeks to do far more than merely update the 1986 Public Order Act.

He went on to say that the Bill implements the Law Commission’s recommendation to make “nuisance” a statutory offence “so that everybody has certainty”. It is true that the Law Commission has recommended that the common law offence of ‘nuisance’ be given a statutory footing. The reason for this is that the Law Commission considers the offence to be unclear and ill-defined. Over time there has been drift in the scope of nuisance from environmental impacts, such as noise, smell and obstruction, to human misbehaviour. All well and good, except this recommendation was made in 2010. Why is the government seizing on it now?

Malthouse continued: Government is “putting in place measures to protect the operation of our democracy, so people who seek to prevent the Leader of the Opposition, or indeed of the LibDems, from entering the House of Commons to vote democratically will be prevented from doing so.” Goodness. So much to unpick here. Government wants to ban assembly, a fundamental human right, in the parliamentary precinct, on the pretext that it will make it easier for parliamentarians to get into the building. How often have they been prevented from doing that?

Once – sort of. Thirty bare-breasted women padlocked themselves to Parliament’s railings in an Extinction Rebellion static protest in September, 2020. The police cordoned off the area, freed the women and arrested them — using the existing powers of the 1986 Public Order Act. It’s not like parliament only has one entrance, so even if MPs had the inconvenience of having to go to a different one, they could still come and go freely. Except they didn’t have to change their routine, because the women didn’t chain themselves to the gate. MPs reciting this as an excuse are exaggerating wildly (also known as lying).

Another bit of gaslighting heard over the two days of debate was that the police need more powers to prevent any recurrence of protestors ever blocking Westminster Bridge and stopping an ambulance from passing. I whole-heartedly agree, but that wasn’t a peaceful protest. It was far right “yellow vest” protestors, loosely associated with Tommy Robinson, a vile specimen who masquerades as a journalist and whom Tory Lords have courted. The PCSC Bill specifically refers to curbing peaceful protest. Why are MPs using that terrible *yellow vest* protest as justification to “crack down” – Patel’s verbiage, not mine – on peaceful protest, a cornerstone of democracy that ought to be an inalienable right?

What else did Malthouse have in his kitbag of feeble excuses for this assault on our rights? “Since 1986,” he warbled, “amplification technology and its availability has become much more widespread, so serious damage to people’s health and well-being can be caused by very, very loud static protests that blast noise from a particular location.” He was referring, of course, to Remain campaigner Steven Bray and the Stand of Defiance European Movement, known affectionately as SODEM, held at parliament’s official protest area, Old Palace Yard, from 2017 to 2020.

Steve Bray. Photo by Chris Hatcher

Admittedly, it could be noisy and raucous at times. Steve had that shiny, metal megaphone. It was pre-1986 technology though, with no electrical amplification, so it would surely pass the Kit Malthouse test. Besides, “peaceful” doesn’t mean a silent or even a quiet protest. That is precisely what would change under this new law. Priti and Kit would rather that protestors were seen but not heard, although if truth be told, they’re not that keen on the ‘being seen’ part either.

Placing parliament in a sort of purdah, aloof from quizzical glances, is so un-British. Indeed, it is third-world dictatorship territory. Kettling protest away from parliament’s view is essentially just another way to avoid scrutiny, one of the hallmarks of this government. It sets MPs impossible timeframes to read and analyse hundreds of pages of treaties and laws; it has shut down a vital select committee; it maintains a black list of journalists who ask probing questions; it boycotts TV channels that do the same, and now it wants to blot out dissent by the public.

Meme by the author, based on Home Office promo for the Bill

It is hard to find the words to express just how dangerous this moment is in British history. The government wants, effectively, to end protest, severely restrict judicial review (whereby those harmed by their government’s decisions can request the court to scrutinise them) and change electoral law to favour their perpetual re-election. If the government of another country were to do that, we would resoundingly condemn them and warn their citizens that they were on the path to fascism. Given that the government has already successfully removed our freedom of movement rights and alienated neighbouring countries, should these repressive measures go through — and with an 80-seat majority they are likely to, then the UK would begin to feel a lot like the USSR of old. Trapped in poverty, prevented from leaving, and forced to subordinate yourself to a crack-pot ideology that defies and denies reality.

Where words fail, example may help. That is the hope of Protest 4 Europe, a new project conceived by Polly Ernest to celebrate peaceful protest. Launched on the same day the PCSC Bill received its second reading, it is a virtual tribute to the SODEM protest. This is the protest the PCSC Bill refers to as a one-man protest, because it is most closely associated with Steven Bray, who started it. In truth, there were hundreds of protestors who travelled to Westminster from near and far to protest alongside him at one time or another. Under the PCSC Bill it would be illegal. That is unconscionable.  

Polly Ernest at Pies not Lies. Photo by Chris Hatcher

The objective of the tribute, as well as to memorialise the SODEM protest, is to inspire future generations of creative, collaborative and fearless protestors. It says to them, “This is what peaceful protest looks like.” Although begun long before Priti Patel’s Bill was published, Protest 4 Europe has certainly caught the wave. Apart from voting once every five years and writing letters or emails, people have few means to influence their MPs. Due to the quirkiness (some would say unfairness) of the first-past-the-post electoral system, some of us have never been represented in parliament. If on top of that we are to be silenced, are we still living in a democracy?  

Steve Bray, who started the protest and was there every day parliament sat, in all weathers, emboldened others to join him, amplify him and help keep it all going. At a time when Remainers felt invisible, when neither the government nor the press acknowledged their existence (unless it was to insult them), SODEM was a rallying point and a source of hope. Thanks to the ingenuity of the protestors, it attracted the attention of the photographers and reporters of the world’s press. Photos of SODEM graced newspaper articles worldwide, and SODEM protestors were interviewed by the major news channels of myriad countries.

On several occasions, MPs who were in the opposing camp, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, made comments in interviews with the press to the effect that Steve Bray and the SODEM protest were vibrant examples of British democracy. Sadly, they forgot that when it came to voting through a Bill that would make even a fascist blush to its next committee stage. They did this right across the road from Parliament Square, where larger-than-life bronze statues stand as a testament to champions of civil rights, like Millicent Fawcett, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Image by the author

These icons of freedom would  surely have protested the PCSC Bill, sections of which are little more than Priti Patel’s vengeance on protests she didn’t like: Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Steve Bray/SODEM. The bill grants the Home Secretary and the police draconian powers that can be exercised based on ill-defined, subjective tests that are open to abuse. Might a passer-by be bothered by the noise? Then the protest can be stopped. Does a one-man protest thrust an idea you don’t like into your mind? Then you can complain that it’s affecting your ability to carry out your job and get the protestor arrested, to face up to ten years in jail. Did so-and-so organise a boycott to make a political point? Then they can be jailed for a decade for causing economic harm. Government talks of “a balance of rights”, but in a way that makes it clear they intend the right to protest to be subordinate to any other right they can dream up as an excuse to stop the protest going ahead.

What happened at Clapham Common on Saturday night was an abject failure of policing and is a case study as to why the police do not require more powers. Government has tried to argue that the style of policing we witnessed at Sarah Everard’s vigil is not representative of what would happen under the PCSC Bill, since the police were acting under emergency powers granted by the Coronavirus Act 2020. This is an absurd argument. Would the policemen have knelt on those women’s backs any differently? Perhaps they would have used their other knee?

New protest laws are not needed and “go too far”. That’s not me saying that, although it’s a sentiment I share. It was Paddy Tipping, the Chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC).

“These are local matters for chief constables in consultations with PCCs, and I was concerned to see the draft clauses in the bill,” he said.

“I think politicians would be wise to leave decisions to the responsible people … they’ve got to leave people to make local decisions in local circumstances.”

Other PCCs have reminded politicians that the law would apply to all protests, not just the ones the Home Secretary personally dislikes. Increasing police powers comes at the expense of our shrinking rights. Now, more than ever, it is important to stand up for the right to peaceful protest. Without that right, how will we protect other rights that come under threat? 

Meme by the author

Although Government, spooked by public protest, has now had second thoughts and delayed the committee stage of the PCSC Bill from next week to some vague time “later in the year”, we cannot afford to be complacent. It was clear from the debates that Tory MPs cannot be relied upon to protect our right to protest. We are as determined as the Suffragettes who protested in Parliament Square for the Vote. We are as courageous as the Jarrow marchers who walked 291 miles to parliament to protest poverty and unemployment. We have right on our side like those who assembled in Parliament Square to protest against apartheid. There are too many of us for us not to prevail in this struggle for our rights too. Here’s what you can do to make sure we are heard:

  1. Write to your local MP;
  2. Write to your local newspaper;
  3. Channel your inner suffragette/marcher;
  4. Make a placard and express how you feel;
  5. Join a local, socially-distanced, covid-safe protest;
  6. Sign one of the many petitions in circulation, e.g. this one, and
  7. Talk to friends and family – make sure they are aware of what’s going on.

You may not have felt the need to exercise your right to peaceful protest, but the day may come when you feel that you have no option but to take to the streets. We need to act now to ensure that you will be able so to do.