Aftermath of Bristol 'Kill the Bill' protests (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The hypocrisy of the new-found freedom lovers

Commentators who have spent the last 20 years undermining key principles of democracy are crawling out from the woodwork to protect the right to protest

In the world of politics, you learn to accept that principles are often hard to come by. And yet, over the last two weeks since the Met went in heavy at Sarah Everard’s vigil on Clapham Common, many UK commentators have suddenly discovered that a principled belief in the freedom to protest might be worth defending.

Using the sprawling Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (which covers everything from police officer’s wellbeing to tougher sentencing for statue bothering) Patel’s move to empower police to restrict “noise” and “disruption” when it comes to protest is chilling. As many politicos have pointed out on Twitter, it’s one thing to find the cowbells and street-blocking theatrics of groups like Extinction Rebellion irritating, it’s quite another to pass a law preventing all protest that might upset the neighbours in Westminster.

Protest is meant to be noisy, unruly, and ungovernable

But what is perhaps more dispiriting than Patel’s one-woman crusade to rehabilitate a Thatcherite disdain for popular protest is the surprise among commentators who have spent the last 20 years undermining key principles of democracy, tolerance and freedom of speech. Anna Soubry, perhaps the most democratically deficient politician in the country, had the audacity to tweet Labour MP David Lammy’s speech defending the right to protest. Not only has Soubry spent the last six years arguing against the idea that ordinary people should have a say in politics, she also ticked off the police for not “doing their job” when protesting oiks called her a Nazi outside Westminster in 2019. Soubry said it was wrong for MPs to “have to accept this as part of the democratic process”. But what’s the point of placards or chants if you can’t aim them at the people in power?

Never mind police preventing noisy or rude protesters, half the shocked and outraged commentators railing against Patel and the Tories have spent much of their column inches calling for coppers to fine, arrest and outlaw those who say mean things on social media. The government’s confidence in putting forward a bill that could effectively ban any protest rowdier than a knitting circle hasn’t sprung from nowhere — Patel and other Tory MPs are acting in a political climate in which the principle of freedom of expression, online and on the streets, has been systematically undermined.

You can’t pick and choose what type of political protest you think should be allowed

Labour MP Nadia Whittome might have spoken passionately this week about how the Police bill was “illiberal and draconian” and an “assault” on the right to protest, but her defence of freedom has been sorely lacking in the past. Arguing against the right for gender-critical feminists to voice their opinions in the ever-contentious trans debate, Whittome tweeted: “We must not fetishize ‘debate’ as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act.” Whittome is not alone in denigrating debate — she is a member of a party whose leader has long felt nauseous about the prospect of disruptive crowds engaging in politics. Keir Starmer’s reluctance to come out swinging against the Tories’ attack on freedom of protest might be because he feels awkward about his past. Back in 2012 in his role as director of public prosecutions, Starmer released guidelines allowing police to prosecute protesters more easily. “Significant disruption” to the “public and businesses” was part of his forbidden list — perhaps him and Patel have been hanging out at the Commons bar together.

Protest is meant to be noisy, unruly, ungovernable. Say what you like about self-indulgent protesters in Bristol burning out old police vans and waving their ACAB signs, the fact that publics don’t always play by the rules is a welcome reminder at a time when forms, health and safety reports, and endless guidance often stifles public debate. For years, trade unions and campaign groups have played their part in the disintegration of healthy protest — conceding to demands for one-day rolling strikes or silent protests to make their voices heard and threatening to make absolutely no difference to anything in the process.

I remember when I was a student at the time of the huge fees protests in Westminster in 2010; the NUS and UCU spent most of their time organising a “candlelit vigil” made of glow sticks. The rest of us with guts emboldened by a naive hope that causing enough fuss outside parliament might force the government’s hand got blisters and sore throats tramping up and down Whitehall. You can’t pick and choose what type of political protest you think should be allowed — those who cried outrage at the four arrests in Clapham Common for Everard’s vigil were conspicuously silent in January when 16 people were arrested on an anti-lockdown demo in the exact same spot.

Those who are just waking up to the danger of governments meddling in citizen’s rights to make their voices heard, what took you so long? From calls to police Twitter and Facebook for “hate speech” to demands that misogyny be criminalised, student societies be vetted or debate be censored for fear of hurt feelings, the principle of free speech has taken a real knocking. As so many have said over the past two weeks, the right to protest is at the heart of any free society. Perhaps these new-found freedom lovers can prove their worth by repenting for the part they’ve played in the undermining of that right.

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