WWhat a miracle that the House of Lords rose up and revolted this week against the government’s assault on the protests. Labor had no idea how many peers on the crossover benches, let alone Tory benches, or even among their own frail and rapidly aging cohort, would be there to vote against draconian new laws more reminiscent of Hong Kong than to Great Britain. If the House of Lords is the ultimate backstop against the arbitrary powers of an elective dictatorship, it relies on the thin safety net of enough members’ sense of individual justice in that 800-member chamber to motivate them to show up and stay. late to vote. And this time, they did.
This week, women’s rights campaigners Reclaim These Streets are in high court arguing that the Metropolitan Police violated human rights by banning a vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, who was murdered by a Met police officer. The group also alleges that Met police officers used force while threatening protesters with £10,000 fines for breaching lockdown rules.
The spectacle of the police lashing out at the spontaneous outburst of anger and grief that night should have been shocking enough to stop the government from trying to ban virtually all effective protest. But not. In a parliamentary coup, after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed through the House of Commons, the government bypassed MPs by adding 18 pages of new anti-protest legislation to the Lords. It was this scandalous procedure, as well as the laws themselves, that provoked the Lord’s rebellion. In a clear attempt by the government to crack down on protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, the new clauses would have made it an offense to disrupt infrastructure, including (right-wing) newspaper printing works, with harsher sentences for blocking a road. The police would also have had the right to stop and frisk anyone at a protest without cause for suspicion, looking for people who may be planning to “block” the objects, a vital part of the protest. Perhaps most surprisingly, the courts could ban anyone “with a history of causing serious disturbance” from attending specific protests, even if they have committed no crime.
Ignoring the result of the vote, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab says it will bring controversy measures to restrict noise in the protests – which were defeated in the Lords – back to the Commons on a new bill. He told the BBC’s Today program that noisy protests “cannot interfere with the lives of the law-abiding majority.”
These freedom-loving libertarian conservatives vent a lot about escaping the illiberal powers of the state to force them to wear masks or seat belts, or prevent them from smoking indoors, or any other imagined restriction on their personal “freedom” that rankles Telegraph readers. , Daily Mail and Spectator: reckless public welfare. However, they do not complain about the silencing of protest that is the cornerstone of freedom.
What is the point of the protest? Anyone who has ever marched, sat in, or blocked has wondered that. In fact, few marches change a law, though specific, local ones can: Conservative voters stopped fracking in Balcombe in the heart of Conservative land. A million marching against the Iraq war didn’t stop it. But as with chartists, the mass protest changes the way history looks back on events. Would Iraq be seen as such an unequivocal and illegal disaster without the spectacle of a government ignoring the largest opposition rally in history? A giant Countryside Alliance protest seemed to spook New Labour.
I went to the first march for nuclear disarmament as a kid with my dad (that time, it stopped at the Bunch of Grapes in Knightsbridge and we didn’t go any further). I continued to protest into my teens, marching four days every Easter with friends to the atomic weapons research station in Aldermaston. That marked my teenage calendar just like rock festivals are rites of passage for teenagers now. Yet despite the years of Greenham Common, the bomb remains unbanned, and this government plans to increase its nuclear arsenal. The suffragettes won, the story goes, though the more moderate suffragists Suffragettes argued that violence against property delayed that success.
So which protest works? There is surprisingly little research, says David Mead, professor of human rights law at the University of East Anglia: “There is no easy way to measure a causal link.” Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, says that the myth of the Jarrow Hunger Marchers is exaggerated: they did not change anything. “The poll tax riots didn’t end Margaret Thatcher, the grumbling in middle England in the Conservative seats did.”
Nothing works without capturing the attention of the public – the press – and that requires ingenuity, imagination, street closures, criminal damage or riots. The Led By Donkeys satirical collective is brilliantly subversive and effective, both online – like in his current Line of Duty spoof – and with his billboards and messages projected onto buildings.
In the austerity years after 2010, I took part in the Uncut protests in the UK that cleverly juxtaposed public cuts with private companies that the group claimed to avoid paying fair taxes: I joined the occupation of a Barclays branch to set up a “library”, a Boots to establish a “medical center”, a Pret a Manger and a Top Shop protest, enabling a symbolic “swimming pool” (a children’s pool) and a “nursery” inside the premises of the evaders of taxes, as emblems of all the losses they caused. Unfortunately, UK Uncut disappeared. Those groups rise and fall, refreshing new ways to make a mark.
Does it do any good? The action solidifies opposition, encourages solidarity rather than despair among isolated objectors who watch the climate reach boiling point. The pro-EU marches reminded us how close that vote was, how many were not consumed by the lies of Brexit, sending a loving message to Europe. Joining a march may seem pointless, but doing nothing feels worse. The protests can be annoyingly captured by the large number of banners from the small Socialist Workers Party, with images of “usual suspects” damaging the impact.
But here we are with an effective protest destined to be banned, allowing only serious, quiet, police-backed marches, whose monotony guarantees no press coverage. This is true cancel culture, where toppling a statue could net you a 10-year sentence. It took a jury’s rebellion against bad laws to save the Colston Four. Perhaps the many noisy protests across the country against the bill fueled this week’s Lords rebellion. But that is just a stay of execution, while the government presses on. As with all current politics, don’t expect any new leader selected by this generation of conservatives to turn liberal. They have their own perverse interpretation of freedom.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism