As if lockdown laws, the Coronavirus Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Bill weren’t enough, the Government wants to create yet more restrictions on our civil liberties and our ability to protest. Through an amendment tabled to their own legislation, the Government will create lower thresholds at which the state can restrict or shut down demonstrations.
Rishi Sunak isn’t wrong when he says that the right to protest is a qualified right. That is why a vast web of laws already establishes where limits on this right lie. At present, the police may intervene and restrict a protest where it causes “serious disruption”.
This in itself is already very broad criteria: for example, in November 2004 small groups of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters in Manchester demonstrated in close proximity to a retailer with whom one side had a grievance. Both sides exercised their democratic rights peacefully and neither engaged in the sort of tactics used by the likes of Just Stop Oil today.
But concerns over the likelihood that these groups might cause “serious disruption” to Christmas shoppers meant both sides were ordered to cease their activities on the site and move to a different location. As a result, the demonstrations ended and a court found the police’s actions to have been lawful.
If the phrase “serious disruption” can be invoked to justify the removal of small groups of peaceful protesters for the sake of a few Christmas shoppers, why does the Government need to broaden this definition even further?
In many respects, Sunak and his Home Secretary Suella Braverman are reopening debates held in Parliament less than a year ago. Back then, the Government already sought to add bells and whistles onto what constitutes “serious disruption” via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act by including mention of the level of noise generated by any given protest as a factor to be considered. This debate reached a new level of absurdity when ministers debated with MPs as to whether the new “noise trigger” could be invoked if buildings in a locality have double or single glazing. “Serious disruption” is broad enough and the state needs no further powers to restrict our right to protest.
We should be deeply proud of our democracy here in the UK. The British traditions of peaceful dissent, freedom of expression and the impact that democratic precedents set in our country have had around the world are all admirable. We undermine all of this at our peril. When broad police powers to restrict our liberties are introduced, the consequence is that they will capture far more than just the activities of groups like Just Stop Oil. Further, when governments introduce powers to restrict our civil liberties, through legislation like the Public Order Bill, they create levers for all sorts of nefarious future administrations to pull.
We are now in a fourth calendar year of legislation which creates further restrictions on our right to protest, despite it being manifestly clear that the state has enough powers in this domain already. At what point will it stop?