The freedom to gather and protest peacefully, against legislation or government action and without the threat of prosecution, is a vital component of a liberal democracy.
Although some conservatives would characterise British history as one of piecemeal, evolutionary change without revolution or conflict, rallies have been a consistent feature of our history. Contrary to popular belief, Britain does have the same revolutionary flair as our French neighbours – and this is a good thing.
Throughout history, just causes have been brutally supressed by the repressive arm of the state. But these protests and campaigns brought change to our country. They gave us the vote, and challenged injustice.
Take the Peterloo massacre of 1819, for example – an infamous event in the history of the working-class movement. Thousands of mill workers in Lancashire hit the streets to petition for male-hood suffrage only to be cut down by a cavalry charge which killed 18. Or Suffragette movement, again greeted by the force of the state.
More recently, we’ve witnessed Leavers protest against Theresa May’s attempt to deliver a “Brexit in name only,” and the Black Lives Matter movement protest against what they see as structural racism. Regardless of whether you personally support these causes, the right for anyone, on either side of a political divide or culture war, to peacefully express their grievances is sacrosanct.
While most will agree that violent mobs pulling down statues or vandalising public monuments are crossing a line and should face the consequences, the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a recently updated piece of government legislation that will give Police Chiefs the power to put more conditions on protests, goes just as far in an authoritarian direction.
The Bill wishes to introduce powers to deal with demonstrations involving just one person and would put noise limits on protests. If it is decided that a demonstration causes “serious disruption” or if it has a “relevant impact on” people nearby, protests could be deemed illegal and dispersed.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has rightly warned that the legislation could undermine freedom of expression.
The very essence of a protest is to provide people with a voice when the state or other actors may be ignoring their calls for change. To put noise limits on them would practically mean the exercise is pointless. Already, protest organisers must give the police notice of their planned demonstrations if it includes a march and must hand over the names and addresses of those responsible. Further restrictions represent a sinister consolidation of control over a fundamental democratic right.
It is alarming that police powers are being emboldened whilst citizens right to freedom of expression is being subverted – and not just for libertarians. Further, this is a trend we see throughout our lives in the current climate.
In time of emergency, the state seized extraordinary powers to protect us from Covid. Now, we face a struggle to wrestle those powers back. In health policy, nanny statists, whose zeal has only been strengthened during the pandemic, are seeking to ban outdoor smoking and junk food adverts. Unprecedented economic support to compensate businesses for lockdown restrictions will be continued in the form of more interventionist measures in the economy.
The government needs to listen to the concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Legislation which prevents the mindless vandalism of the summer of 2020 may be justified, but blanket restrictions on the right to protest must be resisted.