Home Secretary Priti Patel has hardly been subtle in her views on recent national protests. In an interview with LBC, she described last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations as “dreadful” and proudly stated that she would not “take the knee” for George Floyd now, nor would she have done so at the time.
“There are other ways in which people can express their opinions. Protesting in the way which people did last summer was not the right way at all.” - Priti Patel
If peacefully exercising your human right to protest is ‘not the right way at all’, it of course begs the question: how exactly would Priti Patel prefer us to express our discontent? Silently, in our heads? Only to those close to us? It appears that, given her way, the Home Secretary would have us stay silent on important issues, and the Home Office’s new bill on police, crime, sentencing and courts looks set to fulfil her borderline Orwellian wishes.
Understanding the bill
According to gov.uk, the bill seeks to make it easier for police to manage “highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public”, but the doubt lies in the grey area between a peaceful protest and a disruptive one. Previously, demonstrations could only be restricted if they were causing “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious damage to the life of the community.” Now there is a new addition to the list - noise.
If protesters are making enough noise to seriously disrupt the activities of an organisation, or to have a “relevant impact” on passers-by in the surrounding area, police can step in. But, what is the point of a public demonstration if not to make their cause heard, and to have an impact on those around them? When this legislation becomes law, it will be devastating to political movements whose successes are dependent upon public support, as they can’t possibly hope to spread their ideas to those around them if doing so is considered grounds for arrest.
The wording of the bill is also problematic; one police officer’s perception of ‘serious disruption’ could differ greatly from another’s. And, if the protest is critical of police behaviour - much like how BLM focused largely on police brutality - then what is to stop them from taking advantage of the gaping loopholes in this proposal, and shutting down a march simply because they don’t agree with its motivations? It’s vague, and deliberately so.
How have people reacted?
The response from people online has been, for the most part, negative. Concerns are being raised about the possibility of this bill being the start of a much more serious, much more sinister descent into fascism. On Twitter, #ToryDictatorship trended nationwide on 16th March with some users pointing out the irony in a female politician proposing laws which, had they been around in the early 20th century, would have suppressed Suffragettes, like Emmeline Pankhurst, whose work was instrumental in securing the vote for women in this country.
More than 150 organisations have opposed the new law, cautioning ministers against approving legislation which will “attack (…) fundamental rights of citizens,” according to The Guardian. Extinction Rebellion local groups were among the signatories, and this isn’t the first time they’ve butted heads with the Home Secretary. Last September, Priti Patel branded the organisation “criminals” and said that she would not “allow that kind of anarchy on our streets”. It appears that this bill is her way of staying true to her word.
On 14th March, following the vigil in memory of Sarah Everard the night before which turned into chaos upon the arrival of the police, more than a thousand protesters gathered in Parliament Square to confront the Metropolitan Police and their tactics. Demonstrators also expressed anger towards the dangers women face on a day-to-day basis, declaring that no woman should have to fear for her life while simply walking home at night. Among the chants were furious profanities aimed at Priti Patel in response to the proposal.
Protesters aren’t the only ones who have spoken out against this. Labour and Conservative MPs alike have expressed worry about what these new restrictions will mean for the future of democracy in this country.
Labour MP Clive Lewis said in the House of Commons on Tuesday: “Democracy is being swept away in a calculated programme to leave the public muted and powerless.”
Lewis, along with leader of the opposition Keir Starmer and many more progressive MPs, have vowed to vote against what they believe to be a gross misuse of power by the Conservative Party. In fact, even some members of Patel’s own party are urging the Conservatives to reconsider; former Prime Minister, Theresa May, emphasised that “our freedoms depend on it”.
Unfortunately, the opposition from within the Conservative Party and beyond was not enough. On Tuesday evening, the debate came to a close, having concluded with a vote on whether the bill’s second reading be approved. 359 MPs - all Conservative - voted in agreement. The opposition was made up of 263 left-wing MPs, so the bill will progress to the committee stage with a majority of 96.
What’s next for protest in Britain?
It’s difficult to say. Protests have played an instrumental role in this history of this country, from trade union strikes, to advocating for animal rights, and everything in between. Seeing Article 11 of the Human Rights Act be compromised in this way colours the state of our democracy in deep shame and embarrassment. What we do know is that when the bill becomes law, it will broaden the circumstances under which police can impose suffocating restrictions on protests, such as time restraints, or shut them down entirely. But protest is useless without “impact”, the very thing that would be outlawed.
What this will mean for the future of public demonstrations in this country is much murkier. Public opinion is clear: many online have likened recent Tory activity to the Nazi regime, with one Twitter user jokingly photoshopping swastikas onto pictures of Downing Street’s new £2.6 million studio. Labour sentiment isn’t far behind, as concerns about the Conservatives’ tight grip on the nation’s activities grow. The word ‘draconian’ has been used throughout debates on the matter, both inside Parliament and out. It is glaringly obvious that this bill has not, and will not, come without resistance of its own, but the long-term effects that these tensions will have on Britain are yet to come.