Kill the Bill: How did we get here, and how do we reclaim our right to protest?

Alex Howe explores how the notorious Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill came about and how it may come to effect our freedom of expression.

The right to protest is fundamental to any democratic society, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that recently passed through the Commons could come to place stark restrictions on this right.

The Bill, which allows police chiefs in the UK to impose regulations on the timing, noise level and location of protests, is one of the most draconian pieces of proposed legislation seen for many years, and could drastically change the way in which we are allowed to use our freedom of expression.

Given the current government’s track record on U-turns, the Bill could be nonexistent within a week. Nevertheless, it has already attracted enormous criticism, both from the Opposition and the public. The Bill has led to widespread protests, one of which was alleged to have turned violent, across the UK’s major cities. 

The passing of the Bill undoubtedly represents a watershed moment in the limiting of free expression, but it is certainly not an anomaly when it comes to recent trends in legislation. To examine exactly how this bill came about, we must address the slide into authoritarianism from the elites on both sides of the political spectrum that has come about in the last few years.

To critics of the Conservative government, the Bill is emblematic of wider Tory policy, seeking to impose their power on those less fortunate in society. To Conservative supporters, it is merely an efficient way of dealing with nuisance lefty protestors such as Extinction Rebellion. However, both sides neglect to examine the developments that have allowed the Bill to come to pass. 

Firstly, in the last year we have experienced levels of micromanagement by the state as have never been seen before. Of course, restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus are done in the name of public health. But indirectly, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to this bill. The police, having been given emergency powers to intervene in public gatherings to stop the spread of the virus, have been accused throughout the pandemic of being too heavy-handed. Many commentators saw that the signs were already there. However, it was only recently when police forcefully dispersed the peaceful vigil for the late Sarah Everard, that much of the public, who had previously been in support of any means necessary to tackle coronavirus, began to become critical. 

Arguably, the Bill may not have been passed had it not been for the collective acceptance of very tight restrictions in the last year. Having been encouraged by the government to report neighbours who are found to be flouting the regulations, with the promise of up to ten years in prison for offenders, those who have consistently advocated for harsher rules have enabled the normalisation of police heavy-handedness. 

Furthermore, it is worth examining the Labour Party, whose criticism of government policy has thus far extended to calling for them to lock down harder and for longer, and consider how consistent they themselves are when it comes to the right to protest. Would Keir Starmer et al have rejected the Bill, had it come about shortly after an anti-lockdown protest and not a vigil to a murdered girl? After all, Labour supported the Conservatives last year when they voted to allow police to restrict protest rights during the lockdown. Yes, there is a difference between emergency measures taken during a pandemic and permanent restrictions on the right to protest, but as we have seen recently, temporary measures (for example, relaxations on remote voting in parliament) have frequently given way to permanent changes. 

Another crucial point is that, away from COVID-19, in the last few years we have seen signs of growing authoritarianism surrounding freedom of speech. A recent example is the well-intentioned but misguided criminalisation of “hate speech” by the SNP, by virtue of which Scottish citizens may be fined or even arrested for saying something that is deemed hateful even within their own homes. Then of course in England, we have recently seen expansions in what constitutes a hate crime; again, well-intentioned, but often highly subjective – particularly true in the case of Chelsea Russell in 2018 – and based on the interpretation of the alleged victim. 

How, then, is all of this connected to the Bill? Simply, the right to peaceful demonstration is directly linked to the right to free speech. If a culture is created in which it is acceptable for the government to place boundaries on civilians’ freedom of expression, it becomes far easier to pass a law which states that protests can be punished for causing a disturbance; which, as we very well know, is the purpose of protest. 

What many have pointed out, therefore, is that neither on the left nor the right can powerful parties be trusted not to curtail basic democratic freedom. Nor can they be trusted to rally against big tech companies, who have already begun censoring remarks that they judge to be unacceptable. A slide into right-wing fascism it is not, but it represents a Conservative government whose large majority and significant emergency powers has seen them grow used to the notion of evading accountability. 

In that case, without accountability through protest, the Conservatives will inevitably face the consequences at the next election. The merits of the Bill, such as higher sentencing for child murderers and crackdowns on the threat of sexual offence, could win over voters who want the government to be tougher on crime. Yet the significance and social impact of these pale in comparison to the legislation surrounding protest, which may very well lose the Tories a significant chunk of their liberal support base. 

Moreover, if the government had hoped that the Bill would frighten citizens into submission, they will have had a rude awakening in the past couple of days. Compare the protests in London and in Bristol; the former relatively peaceful, the latter, a few days later, anarchic and destructive. Violence, of course, should not be condoned. But when people are seething against injustice, as we saw over the past year with various protests around the world, we will continue to witness righteous displays of anger hijacked by opportunistic thuggery.

Therefore, it falls to us to consider how we may reclaim the right to a peaceful protest, on our own terms; not those of the police. From a glance through news outlets on all sides of the political spectrum, there seems not to be a single noise of approval for the Bill. It is unlike the Brexit wars, on which the country was split down the middle. This time, it is arguably the people against the government. Are the Met capable of withstanding the ire of what appears to be an entire country?

More protests will occur, in greater numbers, until the Bill is repealed or amended significantly. A government which has been repeatedly labelled as incompetent and spineless throughout the pandemic is extremely likely to capitulate to a resistance that is united behind the principle of the protests, even if not behind the rioters. 

If the Bill is to be withdrawn, it will not be due to the efforts of Labour, the Liberal Democrats or any opposition party; it will be as a result of ordinary citizens, who firmly believe in the democratic power of protest, accountability and free speech.

Header image credit: The Guardian