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Defending Democracy: why we must prevent the protest bill

Natasha Voase examines the 2021 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and its sinister implications.

2020 was a bad year for democracy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, 70% of countries around the world reported a decline in their levels of democracy. The factors to blame are rushed legislation, suspended civil liberties and weariness with the whole damned thing. Thanks to the bill currently being discussed in Parliament, 2021 might be a whole lot worse.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a threat to our democracy. It’s come under fire for several problems, including its attacks on already marginalised groups and the lack of focus on gender-based violence. The attacks on the right to protest have become a focal point for civil liberties campaigners everywhere as it will remove a critical avenue of democratic expression. Section three, however, has demonstrated the government’s worrying attitude towards democracy.

The measures contained in the bill constitute a clear attack on the right to peacefully protest, which will increase the already extensive powers of the police to restrict protests. The new measures will give the Home Secretary the power to define and give examples of “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of the protest,” regardless of whether or not this is a static protest of one person or a large procession (54, 2, ab, i, p. 45). In addition, the police will be able to impose strict start and end times, as well as a noise limit on a static protest which is, practically speaking, concerning. What’s to stop them from abusing this power by curtailing a protest they do not personally agree with? In short, the government is launching a severe attack on civil liberties. 

The bill is both absurd and unaccountable. It grants the Home Secretary sweeping powers to determine what constitutes a “nuisance.” This sets a worrying precedent. What’s to stop the government from telling a protest that it can only be one hour long and no louder than the sound of a library? Add to that the fact that it will permit the Home Secretary to add to the existing legislation without parliament, and also to  “define any aspect” of “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of the procession/assembly/one-person protest.” By removing the necessity to consult Parliament on additional legislation, this removes any semblance of accountability as MPs – who are elected to scrutinise legislation – would be powerless to prevent new legislation from being added. Accountability of power is key in a democracy and this legislation is a direct attack on this principle.

For a government that has so frequently lambasted “woke cancel culture,” it’s remarkable that they’ve decided to employ similar tactics in their very own culture war. Is seeking to diminish the voices of those who dissent while amplifying the voices of those who agree with you not an example of cancel culture? The bill demonstrates a worrying mindset – that liberty only applies to those with whom one agrees.

While protests such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion have been lambasted as threats to democracy, in reality, they are a cornerstone of it. That the bill has been motivated by a personal dislike of these movements – particularly of Extinction Rebellion – demonstrates the worrying mindset behind it. According to the Home Secretary, Black Lives Matter is “dreadful” and Extinction Rebellion are “eco-crusaders turned criminals.” While not all Conservatives share this opinion, with Theresa May urging the government to rethink the Bill, this demonstrates a worrying attitude towards free speech in the British democracy. The legislation isn’t about protecting society from overzealous protestors; it’s about silencing them. It’s true that democracy isn’t always easy. While you have the right to voice your opinion, someone else has the right to criticise it. Just as you have the right to protest, someone else has the right to oppose it. It’s a two-way street but one which has never before been subject to such a direct attack by a piece of legislation. That’s the price of a free society. Who would want it any other way?

It’s often said that you don’t realise what you have until it’s about to be taken away and that’s certainly the case with this legislation. While civil liberties have no doubt been altered during the pandemic, the current situation is temporary. This legislation will not be. So, to the government which so frequently invokes the “Blitz Spirit” and “fighting Britons”, we ask: what did all those brave people fight for? That’s right: liberty. The kind of liberty that will protect us long after this pandemic.

At the time of writing, protests have successfully delayed the government’s attempt to sprint the Bill through Westminster, demonstrating just how difficult it is to ignore the will of the people. This petition has already gathered enough support that if the government ignore the people’s mandate, they will be breaking their own rules. What we can do is hold them accountable for this. Signing the petition, being vocal on social media, writing to MPs (find out how here), and generally scrutinising the government will all ensure that nothing is swept past our eyes.

Image credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr & Creative Commons. 

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