A week after a Black Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Public order and liberal doublethink

Disruption is enabled and peaceful activism banned

Last Tuesday the liberal establishment erupted in some glee when it was announced that the House of Lords — increasingly a rest home for the successful left-of-centre bourgeoisie — had savaged the government’s Public Order Bill and inflicted two defeats on the government. This Bill is the promised measure aimed, among other things, at making it easier to suppress disruptive protests. Notably it creates new specific offences of “locking-on”, tunnelling and deliberate interference with main roads, airports, newspaper printing works and other infrastructure, when done with the aim of causing serious disruption. 

The first defeat came when the Lords narrowed the “serious disruption” element of the new offences so as to restrict it to such limited matters as distribution of perishable foods and denial of access to places such as schools and hospitals. The second followed shortly after. As a matter of clarification, the government itself had moved an amendment making clear that “locking-on” in order to cause disruption was illegal even if done as part of a protest or demonstration (something one would have thought should be obvious) — again this failed, though only narrowly.

These were thinly-disguised wrecking measures

Whatever way you spin them, the changes the peers backed were simply perverse. However fanatical a free-speecher you are, there is something absurd about the idea that anyone should have a moral or political right deliberately to undermine somebody else’s land or paralyse a country’s transport system to make a political point, provided only that they avoid blocking food, education or urgent medical supplies. However widely you interpret legitimate expression of opinion, very few would say that it should cover the act of forcibly glueing or handcuffing yourself to somebody else’s railings or plate-glass windows. 

It is fairly obvious that these were thinly-disguised wrecking measures. Although their supporters are unlikely to admit it, they were designed not as constructive suggestions, but to embarrass the government and make sure that the new law has no more than a superficial effect on the rights of protesters to force their views on you and me, by deliberately and physically preventing us going about our business.

Having striven to emasculate beneficial parts of the Bill that did not appreciably curb anyone’s right to free speech, it’s worth noting that the House of Lords left intact two much less savoury provisions that did exactly that. One was Clause 9, criminalising on pain of up to two years anyone who, within 150 metres of an abortion clinic, seeks to influence anyone for or against termination, says anything about abortion or indeed expresses any opinion whatever on the subject. Although a slight mitigation did pass, protecting people’s right to say what they liked in private houses and churches within the cordon sanitaire, a more pertinent suggestion from Lord Farmer, which would have called for a rethink of this entire exercise in steel-toed authoritarianism, was summarily dismissed.

The other was Clause 20. Under this, anyone who on any two occasions in the last five years has “caused or contributed to the carrying out by any other person of activities related to a protest that resulted in, or were likely to result in, serious disruption to two or more individuals, or to an organisation”, even if never convicted, can be ordered by a court not to do anything on the internet that might encourage such activities for up to two years. This incredibly open-ended provision, essentially allowing someone’s internet postings to be controlled on the basis of previous entirely lawful activity, was not even the subject of any debated amendment.

It remains to be seen what the Commons will do with the Bill when it returns there. Whatever happens, however, these movements say a great deal about changing attitudes towards free expression. 

Much of our ruling class no longer cares for freedom of speech

Until about thirty years ago, Britons had a fairly clear idea about free speech and the limits of protest, largely (though not invariably) respected by the state. Within reason, subject to matters such as libel and direct incitement of crime, you could express whatever opinions you liked even if they seriously offended people. On the other hand, however moderate your position, you could not force it on others by directly interfering with their lives or property in order to draw attention to it. This might have been seen by some activists as arbitrary and sometimes anomalous. It had the advantage of being workable and also egalitarian, in that it respected everybody’s old-fashioned freedom to ignore views they disagreed with, and it was accepted by most liberals and conservatives. 

Unfortunately the recent proceedings show how much all this is anathema to the new liberals. That the Lords, supposedly jealous of freedom, were happy with the silencing of troublemakers and with the abortion buffer zone provision, despite the direct interference with the content of speech, shows how willing we have now become to suppress speech because of its perceived malignant effects or the desire of others not to hear it. This has become a general tendency: witness proposals for draconian extensions of hate speech laws, and last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that a similarly draconian buffer zone provision in Northern Ireland was entirely reasonable and consistent with the human right to free speech. 

So too with the converse: the acquiescence in a right of demonstrators to force their views on the community by “locking-on” and other direct action against other people, their activities, and their freedom and property. Eighteen months ago the Supreme Court worryingly held that human rights law could require the toleration of otherwise illegal acts aimed at physically inconveniencing the public by obstructing roads, whilst in Strasbourg a year earlier the same had been said about writing graffiti on someone else’s property. In a genteel way it condones the imposition of views on an unwilling audience and gives an advantage to those prepared to use force rather than persuasion to do it. 

The liberals’ line on what happened last week in the House of Lords is predictable: the peers were merely making their views known on a Bill that was the desperate act of a discredited and authoritarian government, out to stifle legitimate criticism of it and the society it represented. That is disingenuous. Much of our ruling class no longer cares for liberty or freedom of speech, at least not where it gets in the way of its increasingly statist and illiberal agenda. You have been warned.

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