Restoring the right to protest is intrinsic to any positive agenda of government

Past protests have led to powerful steps forward and shaped British history for the better.

Anti austerity

Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy which campaigns for real democracy in the UK, protected by a written constitution.

The right to protest is fundamental to any democracy.  As historian and author Howard Zinn said, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

Past protests have led to powerful steps forward and shaped British history for the better.

The Suffragette movement demonstrated how civil disobedience can usher in meaningful, long-lasting societal change, with their direct action forcing the government to grant women the right to vote.

This right to protest derives from two basic human rights: freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Until recently, it seemed unthinkable that any government would try to drastically curtail this elemental right. Yet, this Government is hell-bent on shutting down the ways that the public can hold them to account.

The Public Order Act 2023 became law last month, despite significant pushback from civil society and the House of Lords. This came just a year after the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act in 2022.

Together, these Acts amount to a full scale assault on our right to protest.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act weakened this right by giving police officers the power to limit any protest deemed ‘a nuisance’ or ‘noisy.’ Protest, by design, is noisy and annoying.

The Public Order Act expanded stop and search powers, allowing police officers to stop and search individuals without suspicion of a crime taking place. Ethnic minority groups are already disproportionately subject to stop and search powers, and these new powers to search individuals are bound to exacerbate this discrimination.

The Act also created the new criminal offence of ‘being equipped for locking-on’. This means protesters, but also innocent bystanders, risk being criminalised for possessing objects such as bicycle locks or glue.

The Police did not request all of these extra powers. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said that the new protest banning orders “would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent.”

It is clear that this anti-protest legislation will result in a chilling effect. Individuals will be discouraged from taking part in a peaceful demonstration, if they are at risk of being arrested, or having their property confiscated.

The stifling effect of these new laws was shown during King Charles III’s coronation when anti-monarchy protesters were prevented from peacefully expressing their opposition to the monarchy. Members of Republic, who had been liaising with the police, were arrested and detained after being accused of ‘being equipped for locking on’ when they were unloading their placards from a van.

These wide-ranging police powers also resulted in the arrest of a woman who was not protesting, but was in London to see the King’s procession. She was detained for 13 hours after police officers “grabbed her from the crowd” because she was standing next to Just Stop Oil protesters. The forces of law and order detaining a citizen, just because there is a protest nearby, is something we expect in Belarus or China, not Bayswater or Charing Cross.

Now more than ever, it is important that the United Kingdom sets a good example to the world by championing the right to protest. Doing so strengthens our ability to condemn the Russian government for imprisoning peaceful protestors who oppose Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, or the junta in Myanmar for yet another crackdown on their opponents.

The UK Government should seek to right its wrongs by passing legislation to repeal its intrusions on the right to protest.

And if it refuses, if Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party form the next government, they must do the job for them.

On his phone-in show in May, David Lammy MP, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, said that repealing the legislation “would take up so much parliamentary time. We need a positive agenda.”

Repealing anti-protest legislation may take some time, but it will be time well spent, because restoring the right to protest is a vital part of democracy, and intrinsic to any positive agenda.

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