Protests are a notoriously fine and difficult line to tread. Police must ensure public safety while not impeding on the all-important freedoms of assembly and speech. They have a duty to protect us. Protesters, on the other hand, are entitled to make their voices heard about whatever change they want to see in our democracy. They are citizens of this country, and protesting is one way of fulfilling their duty of responsible citizenship.
How then, are we supposed to police protests? The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has generated huge controversy; it seeks to hand the police greater powers to disrupt protesting while also proposing new measures to tackle a variety of other crimes.
Critics of the bill involve pretty much every public voice not part of the Conservative Party. The reasons for this are easy to understand. The bill effectively gives police the freedom to decree the law on the spot regarding how protests are to be held, and if they can be held at all. It has been branded as draconian, Putin-esque authoritarianism. Keir Starmer intends to whip his MPs into voting against the bill, a sharp turn from his previous policy of abstention.
One could easily make the case that us Britons are inherently very democratic. No way would we use laws to crack down on our much-cherished democratic freedoms. While I don’t accuse Priti Patel (or anyone else in government) of nurturing any autocratic sentiments, Theresa May made the crucial and salient point that “future home secretaries may not be so reasonable.” What matters is not our trust in those charged with implementing the laws, but what the laws allow and forbid. Erosions to democracy have been all too common in recent years. It takes one politician to stretch the law for our democracy to be under assault.
Trawling the internet, looking for information to use in writing this article, one question was itching away at me: did the Conservatives really think this through properly? I always choose to err on the side of caution when joining the dissenting side. I like to give the benefit of the doubt. Crying wolf too often only serves to devalue every subsequent criticism.
That said, two reasons make me question the Conservative government for proposing this bill.
The first is the consideration (or lack of) given to the context surrounding it. It comes at a time when a vigil was held in memory of Sarah Everard and her tragic death. Videos of police acting violently have flooded social media, to the detriment of their reputation (justified or not). There is an urgent need for the government to take action on women’s safety in British society from sexual misconduct and harassment on the streets, in the workplace, and at home (and everywhere else for that matter).
Protests are symptomatic of societal issues people are wanting to address. Making the symptoms go away will only leave the cause to fester, inflame passions and create more protests, as has been shown in Bristol with police vans being set on fire, and numerous officers ending up injured and in hospital. This bill is an insensitive and worryingly autocratic approach to a symptom, not a cause, and demonstrates that Home Secretary Priti Patel has not ordered her priorities appropriately.
The second reason is how the bill overlooks the necessity of protests in a democracy. Not only are they essential to it, but protests getting out of hand is normal in a democracy. Often, organisers of large protests will negotiate with police to establish where and when they will take place. This should be encouraged to allow the people to voice their concerns in the safest of manners. But sometimes, the point is to cause great disturbance. Those who choose to disrupt everyday life to make a political statement (Extinction Rebellion for example) accept that this comes at the cost of attention from the police.
Human rights clash regularly, and we will frequently have to make choices striking the right balance between the freedoms of speech and assembly, and our rights to security and to go about our daily business unhindered.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a step too far towards authoritarianism, in that it gives police the power to arbitrarily decide what protests can and cannot be held lawfully. It emulates executive aggrandizement (the erosion of democracy, often through legal means) seen in other weak democracies. For as long as I withstand the temptation of strong and effective autocratic regimes, I’m afraid the cry of the mob wins today.
Illustration by Verity Laycock