The Right to Protest

MPs have given a second reading to a bill intended to increase the ability of the police to, well, police demonstrations. It includes greater powers to rein in demonstrations that cause, amongst other things, “serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity”. It is of course intended to please the right wing and so give the Home Secretary a better chance of the highest office should Boris one day cease to be our glorious leader. it is also an attempt by the Home Secretary to play to her image as a hard-liner on crime and punishment, and probably compensation for the psychological harm caused to her in her school days by being named ‘Pretti’. 

But it is worth noting that the official reasoning for the introduction of these powers is that existing powers had not proved sufficient to control new ways of demonstrating, as exemplified by Extinction Rebellion. It pioneered forms of protest causing mass inconvenience to the public in ways the police found it difficult to handle under existing legislation. Their actions were and are much resented by the populace at large. The Metropolitan Police commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, observed: “Ever since the first large-scale Extinction Rebellion protest ... I have been talking publicly and with the government about the potential for change to powers and to legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests ... specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly, but, as in this instance, had an intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt.” A fairly obvious instance of ‘annoyance, inconvenience or loss of amenity’.

In 2019, Extinction Rebellion successfully challenged the police’s reliance on section 14 of the Public Order Act, the judges deeming it unlawful as a legal basis on which to bring to an end the week-long London-wide demonstrations in April of that year. Hence these provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which introduce the new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”. Many on the left decry this as a means of denying the right to public assembly guaranteed under the Human Rights Act, although this rights is qualified by the need also to protect the rights of those whose freedoms might be threatened by disorder. Absolute human rights are rightly very rare and, as we see with the American right to ‘bear arms’, can lead to massive wrongs. 

The Extinction Rebellion demonstrations have not been physically threatening, but the group’s main strategist and co-founder, Roger Hallam, declared: “We are going to force the governments to act. And if they don’t, we will bring them down and create a democracy fit for purpose. And, yes, some may die in the process.” The movement as a whole is imbued with intolerance, of which Hallam is a good example. It also showed its true anti-democratic colours by its attempt to shut down the printing presses of the country’s newspaper groups, as a punishment for (in its view) their not putting out the correct message on the risks of climate change.

As we know, Kill the Bill demonstrations in Bristol degenerated into violence - including missile-throwing and the setting-alight of police vehicles and injury to police officers. As a result they will have strengthened popular support for the Bill’s measures. One could not wish for a clearer example of the futility of street demonstrations - at least if their purpose is to achieve political victory for the cause in question. Obviously, if the intention of the participants is to draw attention to themselves, to make a lot of noise or to meet like-minded people with the possibility of dating them later, such events can be very satisfying. For the small minority who enjoy baiting or injuring police officers, they also present an exciting opportunity.

But do the really think that they will by these means persuade those in power and so alter the course of politics? The Ban the Bomb marches of the 1960s didn’t persuade the British governments of the day to adopt unilateral nuclear disarmament; the vast Countryside Alliance demonstrations of 2002 didn’t persuade the Blair administration to drop its bill to outlaw hunting with hounds. Most recently the even vaster rallies designed to force the holding of a second referendum on EU membership failed completely to produce an opportunity to avoid Brexit.

It is equally unlikely that actions by Extinction Rebellion will have any more success. As we have seen, it is already sowing the seeds of a future incapacity to act because there will now be a change in the law specifically to prevent this. It may have been different if its central demand made any sense. They want the government to make illegal all carbon emissions in the UK by 2025 – in four year’s time - an impossibility, without causing massive collateral damage. it would involve, amongst other things, hundreds of thousands of people freezing to death in winter for lack of home heating, despite the knitting of many scarves and jumpers. it is not a platform on which any political party could hope to gain a mandate.

It is because its proposals are unrealisable unless we became subject to an ecological dictatorship, that Extinction Rebellion, which took part in the Kill the Bill demonstrations, relies entirely on direct action rather than persuasion – and still less on winning the argument at an election. They don’t even want to engage in argument. They are right, no question. During the April 2019 blockade of London’s streets, XR’s Robin Boardman-Pattison responded to questioning of its tactics by Sky’s Adam Boulton by saying: “I won’t stand for people who won’t stand up for what it means to live on this planet, and I won’t stand for anything else”. He then walked out of the interview.

We are all too aware of what is happening around the globe with protests and demonstrations, whether in Burma, Hong Kong, Poland or Russia. But we are not comparing like with like when we look at what should be happening in countries which have genuine, albeit imperfect, democratic institutions. In 2017, Micah White, the co-founder and former leader of the Occupy Wall Street campaign, which hit the streets in 2011 and 2012, declared that “protest is broken”. He criticised “protest spectacles - such as large-scale marches - that are bound to fail” and the “dominant activist theory that if enough people get angry in the streets, then change will inevitably have to happen. That approach is not working and will not work, because it fails to acknowledge the now obvious fact that democratically elected governments are not required to heed the wishes of protesters, regardless of crowd size.” This is because they have the democratic legitimacy that the marchers don’t. He suggests instead that activists should think in terms of working for change over time-spans of centuries rather than days. Or perhaps, as I would think of it, use normal democratic means of persuasion to achieve change.

Obviously we need to be watchful over the loss of any of our civil liberties, in case we fall foul of a government determined to move in the direction of dictatorship. We also need, however, to learn from the experience of others, whether political friends or enemies, as to what works and what is a waste of effort in achieving change.

As we have discussed before, the Votes for Women movement did not win because of the extreme actions engaged in by some, but because of rational debate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, ultimately, the first world war, which changed the way that the role and status of women was looked at. Even now details have emerged of the role of middle-class Georgian children, convinced by antislavery pamphlets to give up ‘treats’ involving ‘slavery sugar’, who then went on to have influence in government, with some becoming anti-slavery MPs. Ukip didn’t arrange big street protests and only gained two parliamentary seats in its entire 28 year existence. But the threat of defections to it from Conservative voters was what induced David Cameron to promise the referendum that was Ukip’s sole purpose. What counts for government is not the hundreds of thousands in the biggest march ever, but the much greater numbers of people, the tens of millions, who turn out to vote. And they do so with a pencil and an X on a voting slip, rather than with a banner. The greater the force used by protestors to impose their will, the more obvious that it is not democracy at work.

Paul Buckingham

31 March 2021

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