As the world looks on in horror as protesters in Russia are imprisoned en masse, MPs are unified in their condemnation of Putin’s attack on civil liberties.
Yet, at the very same time, ministers prepare to tighten the noose around our own right to protest at home, the irony of which seems to be lost on them.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill drags us away from the liberal democracy we are so proud to be and takes us one step closer to a Putin-esk police state.
In Russia, the erosion of the right to protest was a result of piecemeal legislation which slowly imposed greater and greater restrictions. The UK is following suit: most notably through the introduction of noise limits and the reduced threshold for criminality.
Under this bill protests can be banned for being too noisy. What’s next? Protests only allowed if no one notices them?
Protests are supposed to be disruptive. They are supposed to make people listen, and if the politicians can’t hear them, they can’t change policy. Not only is the principle illiberal, but this condition doesn’t work in practice.
Supposedly, police officers at the scene will make decisions based on a number of factors, including whether the surrounding windows are double-glazed. Clearly the police don’t have access to this kind of information and will therefore have to make a subjective on the spot decision.
Not only does this threaten the right to protest but it will also erode trust in the police who criticised this bill for ‘undoing years of good work reinstituting police legitimacy in the eyes of the public’. This arbitrary metric for banning protests feels like the start of a downward spiral that ends with protests only being allowed in certain locations, at certain times, by certain people and for certain issues, as is the case in Russia.
The bill reduces the threshold for criminality, meaning a protestor can be arrested if they ‘know or ought to have known’ that a condition has been breached. Does this require each protester to have a working understanding of protest law so they know what classifies as a breach of a condition? The broad interpretation of this threshold will discourage people from spontaneously joining protests for fear that they ‘ought to have known’ that the actions broke a condition.
The bill is so vague that protesters have to rely on the reasonableness of those in authority. Once it becomes law, there is no stopping police officers and politicians from exploiting their new found power to erode a cornerstone of our democracy.
A Putin-esk interpretation of this bill would reduce the appropriate noise level to the extent that any legal protest was barely audible and would arrest all those involved, claiming they ‘ought to have known’. While I don’t expect the actions of the government or police to quite reflect Putin’s, we are relying on the restraint of authority figures to respect our right to protest, rather than the law.
Theresa May summed up a lot of the fear people have about this bill when saying: “it is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving power to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable”.
Even if we assume that all those in authority positions respect the rights of protesters and act reasonably, the lack of clarity is likely to change the way that people behave. If protesters perceive a chance they could be arrested, they are far less likely to exercise this right. This is particularly true for those in more vulnerable positions in society for whom a fine or conviction is especially detrimental. If we allow this bill to come to fruition we will become a more passive nation as a result.
We are praising the Russians for acting bravely in using their right to protest. I just hope it doesn’t come to the point where UK citizens have to be brave to protest.