This essay, on the government’s new policing bill, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the new government policy of “unlevelling down”.) It was published on 14 March 2021, under the headline “If you thought the right to protest was inalienable, then think again”.
The next time you take part in a protest, don’t shout too loudly, don’t get in anybody’s way and don’t cause a commotion. Best to sit quietly in a corner and whisper your grievances. That certainly would be what many governments would like. Authoritarian regimes, from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia and from Belarus to China, try to impose such curbs by brute force. Democratic nations rely more on “consent”. Consent, however, is a slippery beast, spawned from a process of constant negotiation and renegotiation between the authorities and a multitude of public voices.
The pandemic has created a public health emergency requiring constraints on our rights and unprecedented levels of policing. By and large, the authorities have gained the consent of the British public to impose such restrictions. The question now is how far an exceptional year has shifted our sense of what is acceptable and to what we will consent.
One straw in the wind was the attempt by the Metropolitan police to shut down the Reclaim These Streets vigil on Saturday evening following the death of Sarah Everard. The police stance felt not just astonishingly ham-fisted in the wake of her death, given the public mood and the debate about the right of women to walk the streets safely and without restrictions. It also felt like the latest attempt by the authorities to take advantage of the pandemic to reset the balance of what is acceptable policing.
Another straw in the wind is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, published last week. It’s a monstrosity of a bill. Its 296 pages cover everything from making it harder to prosecute police for dangerous driving to new regulations about unauthorised encampments (which appear to be aimed at the Traveller community), from setting minimum sentences for drug trafficking to encouraging the use of British sign language interpreters in courts.
At the heart of it, though, is an assault on the ability of people to protest. The government has made clear that the proposed law is the product of a desire to curtail the kinds of protests we saw last summer with Black Lives Matter, on the one hand, and Extinction Rebellion, on the other. The home secretary, Priti Patel, has long expressed her distaste for the Black Lives Matter protests. The official policy paper on the new bill begins with quotes from Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, on how the Extinction Rebellion actions demonstrated the need for new laws “to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly” but do cause disruption.
The 1986 Public Order Act already allows police to impose restrictions on a demonstration if they believe it could create “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The new bill extends these reasons for curbing protests: the police can curtail a demonstration if they believe “the noise” it makes is disrupting the “activities of an organisation” or has a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”. It does not matter how small or large a protest is. There is a specific section on “imposing conditions on one-person protests”.
A picket line outside a workplace, a demonstration at the Home Office, a sit-down in Parliament Square – all can be limited or banned if they are deemed to have an undue “impact” upon people. The whole point about demonstrations is to have an impact. A protest that does not disrupt in some way is not a protest. It is whispering in the corner.
The bill also allows the home secretary to define the meaning of “serious disruption” by “regulation”. In other words, she has the right to change the reasons for curtailing protest as she wishes and to do so without parliamentary approval.
This points to another way the government has made use of the pandemic to reset public expectations. Covid has become an excuse for the executive to bypass parliament, to push through rules on the fly after a nod from the minister, with little transparency or scrutiny. Now, it seems, the government wants to institutionalise this process.
Covid has exposed much about our societies, from the depth of inequalities to the significance of social interactions. There is much talk about using the lessons learned to reset the post-pandemic social contract. When it comes to policing, the reshaping of what “consent” means is already happening. If we are not alert, we may well find ourselves reduced, metaphorically, to sitting in the corner, whispering our grievances.