I think that everyone, from whatever political perspective, will agree that the events of Saturday night in Clapham were regrettable. The image broadcast to the world was of a large gathering of women protesting male violence and mourning the death of a young woman with her whole life ahead of her. For this vigil to end in police forcing their way through peaceful crowds, trampling placards, and then forcing women to the ground was disgraceful.
It was also entirely avoidable. Had the Metropolitan police and Home Office engaged in proper dialogue with the organizers a safe and socially distanced event could have gone ahead without incident. This was an opportunity for the Police to demonstrate that they do exist to serve the whole community, not just a select part of it.
In the past few years we’ve seen a number of public protests – pro and anti-Brexit, BLM, anti-Trump, anti-Lockdown/vaccination, and of course Extinction Rebellion (ER). It is the latter that has prompted Pritti Patel (as Home Secretary) and Cressida Dick (the embattled Met Police Commissioner) to press for more powers for preventing or policing protest. Emergency legislation passed as a temporary measure to deal with protesting in a pandemic is now about to be made permanent in the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (2021).
Referencing the ER protests that brought London to a halt in recent years Commissioner Dick declared that these powers were needed:
‘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 and were prepared to use the methods we all know they did to do that.’
This bill proposes powers to restrict protests that are ‘noisy’ and ‘disruptive’, and which restrict ‘vehicular access to the parliamentary estate’. On one level this all sounds very reasonable, after all none of like being inconvenienced or having to put up with a rowdy party next door.
But – as the bill’s authors acknowledge – ‘Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are vital rights that the United Kingdom fully supports. The rights of an individual to express their opinion and protest are a cornerstone our democratic society’. And if a protest is not causing some inconvenience, and if protestors are not making a noise, will anyone notice?
I would much rather that government listened to people who protest their or others actions (on environmental issues, gay rights, the protection of women, racism, war, nuclear weapons, trade policy, and many other things) and not simply hide behind a ‘democratic’ system which effectively discounts the views (and votes) of two thirds of the nation. Only 67% of those eligible to vote in 2019 did so, of them only 44% voted for the Conservatives. Johnson’s government won 43.6% of the votes but gained 56.2% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Lim Dems won nearly 12% of votes but gained less than 2% of seats.
This is not a democracy in anything but name.
So there are bound to be protests, as there have been in this country for centuries. And no amount of police and public order legislation will prevent this from happening. Because, and here’s the rub, there are more of ‘the people’ in this country than there are of the police.
As the Met discovered during ER’s attempt to shut down London in 2019 they can’t simply arrest everyone. Nor can the courts cope if they do. We simply don’t have enough prisons to hold everyone, let alone the prison officers to keep them safe and secure. Let’s be honest here, the police and courts can’t protect ‘ordinary’ and ‘honest’ citizens from murder, assault, kidnap, and rape as it is; they can hardly maintain a constant presence on the streets to stop ‘noisy’ protest.
Unless, that is, they want to move towards a method of policing that we see in other parts of the world. Maybe Ms Patel has glanced across at what is happening in Hong Kong and learned a different sort of lesson. Maybe Mr Johnson sees how some states are prepared to use force – up to and including lethal force – against those that disagree with it and has thought ‘ok, we might have to do that’.
After all Johnson did order delivery of water cannon when he was Mayor of London following the 2011 riots (which, of course, were prompted by heavy handed policing in Tottenham). Such weapons of control were illegal under law in England and Wales (but not NI where the government has always liked to experiment with pushing the boundaries of what is ‘reasonable force’). So Johnson – having spending £320k of taxpayers’ money on refurbishing them – was unable to use them. They were eventually sold, for scrap, in 2018. We recouped £11,000, another example (should we need it) of the current PM’s causal disregard for ‘value for money’ when it isn’t his money.
Let’s hope this administration – one of the most powerful in recent years due to the undemocratic state of our ‘democracy’ – doesn’t compound its failure to deal with a global pandemic and to negotiate a good deal for the country with its nearest neighbours, by going down in history as the government that fundamentally undermined the British right to protest.
Because it won’t achieve its purpose; protest will still happen and it will be both noisy and disruptive. But people will get hurt, on all sides. That’s what happens when the police try to stop protest – people get hurt and people die. And images like those from Saturday night in Clapham will be beamed round the world, just like those staggering images from Hong Kong and Myanmar have been.
Is that what you want Mr Prime Minister, for Great Britain to be mentioned in the same breath as China, Myanmar, Putin’s Russia and other oppressive regimes in the 21stcentury world?
Because that is what this legislation could lead to. No longer a nation which proudly boasts that ‘virtually every advance from free speech to democracy has come from this country’, as Johnson did just six short months ago but instead a shabby little police state whose under resourced police ‘service’ plays whack-a-mole with every group of protesters that dares to challenge the status quo or demands its rights be protected. This feels like a crucial moment, not just for democracy and our rights and freedoms, but for the Conservative Party and its own values and future.
Let’s see what happens.