Meanwhile, the UK grabs new anti-protest powers
Today's Police Bill debate looks set to allow the Government to forcibly evacuate protestors
Last week, Justin Trudeau ended his use of Canada’s Emergencies Act, but only after he had forcibly repressed one of his nation’s largest contemporary protests and frozen the bank accounts of those opposing his policies. The emergency powers gave authorities the power to evacuate protesters from certain areas and target their assets. Use of military assistance was sanctioned but not used. Powers of this kind had previously only been invoked on three occasions by Canada’s Government, including during the two World Wars.
So why didn’t the UK Government condemn this assault on democracy? One reason is that we’re in midst of a crackdown of our own.
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The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will be back in the House of Commons today, possibly for the last time. Like the emergency powers invoked in Canada, under the bill police will be able to stop protests from taking place in certain locations — only here they will be given new powers to take action when a protest is deemed to be too noisy. Like the attempts to force the dispersal of demonstrators in Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, the Policing Bill includes a crackdown on protests in Westminster’s own Parliament Square. The legislation also awards police extraordinary new powers to curtail static assemblies — but you wouldn’t even need a whole convoy of truckers to cause a protest crackdown. The Policing Bill creates entirely disproportionate new restrictions on “one-person protests”.
Another little-noticed clause in the Bill will give the police the power to arrest protesters who “risk” causing others to suffer “disease”. For anyone concerned by infringements on our civil liberties over the last few years and the repression of protests during the UK’s Coronavirus lockdowns, this is chilling. Where protests are concerned, the state of emergency is here to stay.
All of this constitutes a vast expansion of police powers and will empower the state at the expense of the citizenry. Perhaps this enormous state expansion seems inoffensive to Conservative MPs right now but in presiding over these changes, they are strengthening the hands of governments of all stripes to suppress dissent in the future. The growing tendency of leaders in liberal democracies to reach for authoritarian levers will only cause populations to mobilise on the streets more frequently and so the cycle of crackdowns and arrests will continue.
MPs have a chance to protect our protest rights later today. If they want to avoid Canadian-style protest crackdowns in the near future, they must take it.
Let’s play a little game of ‘what-if’.
What if I decide that, as I don’t own a car, then neither should you?
So I camp out at the bottom of your drive, or on the road next to your car. Basically, I make it impossible for you to use your car without hitting me. You plead with me to move, and I ignore you. You cannot lay a finger on me, because that would be assault, and I would be more than happy to press charges. So you cannot compel me to move.
The only thing that will persuade me to abandon my protest is when I see you sell your car.
Now, is my protest fair to you? If you think so (Mark Johnson certainly does), then fair enough. If you think not, then we need the measure the government is proposing.
We already have well established principles in place to guarantee public order without impinging on citizens’ rights to protest. The expansion of police powers in that context should be worrying, without the need to play little straw man games of this nature.
Whenever a government grabs new powers, you always need to ask: how could these powers be abused? What if the next government is rogue?
Some Tories are in favour of the Bill because they think it will be used to crack down on people they disagree with and disapprove of. That’s short-sighted. If you’re a Tory ask yourself: what if a Labour government had these powers and used them in a partisan way against my tribe? It’s not just the obvious Covid-related stuff as described in the main article. How could this be used against anti-immigration protests? Brexiters?
(Labour and Lib Dem voters are already looking at the prospect of these powers being in the hands of a hostile government, which is why I’m addressing this advice to Tories; if Labour was in power it would be the other way round.)
Giving government more powers is always dangerous because once the powers exist they will be used. Ignore all protests to the contrary. Remember how Labour promised their anti-terrorist laws would only ever be used against very bad people and then actually ended up using it against everyone from Icelandic banks to a little old lady who heckled the Labour Party conference? Giving government the powers in the PSCS bill is beyond dangerous. They are too broad, they are practically begging to be abused, and they represent a large step down the road to dictatorship.
I am making serious plans to emigrate within the next 2 years. You may wish to do the same.
While agreeing entirely with the sentiment of your comment (and voting accordingly), after the last two years I rather am curious as to where you are planning to go.
That is a very tricky question but I’m currently leaning toward Sweden as the only country whose constitution actually functioned to defend citizens’ rights against government overreach.
A good choice no doubt. All the best with it!
The Tories will just bludgeon this bill through without thoiught of future consequence because the major UK political parties don’t think very much beyond the next General Election. Starmer will speak against it but will go into the “Aye’s” lobby (or do a Blair and remember he has important business elsewhere, come the day) so that he can use the powers as soon as he returns from the Palace.
While I share the disquiet around such a Bill I am also reassured by the ongoing ineptness of the Police in applying the laws that already exist.
There are plenty who think that a new law will automatically result in changes in peoples’ behaviours (including many politicians). But – a truism – only the law abiding will abide by the law. And most people will suddenly find ‘reasons’ to ignore the law when it inconveniences them.
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