The Public Order Bill is an unacceptable restriction on liberty
Liz Truss has been described as a “classical liberal”, which should mean a great emphasis on protecting freedoms. Yet the big state authoritarianism that has become all too common in the past 12 years of Tory government already seems to be a feature of her administration.
When Truss’s new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, stood up to address the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday, her speech had all the hardline hallmarks of her predecessor, Priti Patel, and the previous government as a whole.
Not only did she casually trash the UN Refugee Convention, which the UK played a central role in drafting in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II; she came down against protest rights, invoking numerous fifth columnist bogeymen to justify expanding the reach of the state.
Reeling off a litany of existing criminal acts such as vandalism and rioting, the Home Secretary concluded that it is vital that authorities are given more powers to clamp down on protests. Yet despite citing “the mob”, rioters and vandals, Braverman’s new legislation goes far beyond existing law and targets entirely innocent individuals.
The draconian Public Order Bill empowers the state to place “protest banning orders” on innocent people through civil courts, and forces them to obey extraordinary conditions, ranging from house arrest to constant surveillance through GPS ankle tagging. You only need to be judged as “disruptive” in the vicinity of demonstrations. One Conservative MP has even described these measures as “terror control orders” for protesters, a warped expansion of the Blair-era civil liberties crackdowns we saw throughout the mid-2000s.
The idea that any free and innocent British citizen should be stripped of their right to protest is chilling. Protest banning orders may sound like the wild fantasies of despots, seeking to put away political dissidents, but in just a few short months they could become UK law.
Civil liberties defenders will hope that this is not a case of history repeating itself. Despite many dubbing 10 Downing Street’s previous incumbent as a “libertarian”, Boris Johnson presided over one of the most restrictive governments in living memory. In just two and a half years we saw the tangible removal of our freedoms through coercive lockdowns, intrusive vaccine passports, protest crackdowns and the introduction of the censorious Online Safety Bill.
Johnson’s authoritarianism will cast a long shadow, but some libertarian-minded Conservatives are pushing back. Led by long-term defender of civil liberties Charles Walker MP, a group of backbench Conservatives will seek to rid the Public Order Bill of GPS ankle tagging for innocent campaigners when it returns to Parliament this month, and resist a further expansion of overbearing state power.
Protecting liberty under the law is integral to the political philosophy of true conservatives. Indeed, that is why a vast web of rules already dictates the limitations of our rights and freedoms. As they follow in the footsteps of a government that for years was hooked on a doctrine of incursion into our lives and repression of our liberties, Truss and Braverman have an opportunity to prove to us that conservatism is not becoming synonymous with authoritarianism. They can start by pulling draconian protest banning orders from their Public Order Bill.