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Sunday, April 04, 2021

Even illiberal former Home Secretaries oppose this bill

Pandemic aside, those who are protesting about the government's bill to restrict the right to protest by giving more powers to the police are, in my opinion, on the right side of history. The list of those speaking out against the bill is growing, and even includes some surprising voices.

Amongst those voices are former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who writes in yesterday's Guardian that this anti-protest bill risks making the UK like Putin's Russia.

Blunkett writes that the government’s plans to use the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill to give police in England and Wales sweeping powers to put down protests look set to strain community relationships to breaking point. He adds it will leave a bad taste in the mouths of British people who value tolerance, democracy and open debate:

By giving police forces sweeping discretion about how they deal with protesters, this law would drive a wedge between them and the public. Among other things, the bill would allow police officers to impose any conditions they feel necessary on certain types of protest, and expand their power to shut down demonstrations they feel would be unacceptably noisy or a nuisance. Try defining the term “nuisance”, because parliament certainly won’t, and you see the problem.

Forcing the police, who are citizens in uniform, to make individual, highly charged decisions makes it inevitable that some will be inconsistent, and that means we’ll see individuals singled out for blame. The pressure on Cressida Dick and the Metropolitan police after the vigil for Sarah Everard gives us an inkling of the controversies that could blaze across the country if these sweeping powers are pushed on to the police. That risks making the force the scapegoat for every unpopular decision – a dangerous spot to be in for a service set up to police by consent.

Protest might be inconvenient for politicians, but it acts as a pressure valve, allowing citizens to express their views and vent frustrations that could otherwise boil over. Irish politicians such as John Finucane MP have drawn on their experience of the Troubles to warn that stifling protest won’t work and risks undermining the belief that each of us has a stake in society. If we suppress protest, we could see more anger towards institutions including the police, the judiciary and parliament. We would lose the civil engagement and sense of celebration that we see at events such as women’s marches or Pride.

It’s easy to stereotype protesters as leftwing. But this bill would mean alienating others across the centre and right wing of the electorate whom the government won’t want – or can’t afford – to lose: taxi drivers angry about Uber, say, or ardent Brexit supporters. The French gilets jaunes movement proved the appeal of a big-tent protest movement that mobilised citizens from the left, centre and right. However, the long burn turned out to be reactionary rather than revolutionary. The pendulum can swing either way.

Tolerating dissent and protest is a British value, and it’s central to our democracy. It’s ironic that this bill would mean far harsher treatment for protesters in Parliament Square, where statues commemorate Mandela and Gandhi, leaders of historic disruptive, noisy and annoying protest movements now taught in British schools.

He concludes: 'if this bill passes into law unamended, we’re heading for more ugly conflicts between the public and the police – and a police force that’s weaker for it.'

Although I welcome this intervention, I am not blind to the irony. Blunkett was one of the most illiberal Home Secretaries in my lifetime. If he thinks this bill goes too far then we really are in danger of slipping into dictatorship.
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