What a miracle that the House of Lords rose up and rebelled this week against the government’s assault on protest. Labour had no idea how many peers on the crossbenches, let alone the Tory benches, or even among their own rapidly ageing and frail cohort would be there to vote against draconian new laws that are more redolent of Hong Kong than Britain. If the Lords is the last backstop against the arbitrary powers of an elective dictatorship, it relies on the thin safety net of enough members’ individual sense of justice in that 800-strong chamber – motivating them to turn up and stay late to vote. And this time, they did.
This week the women’s rights activists Reclaim These Streets are in the high court arguing that the Metropolitan police breached human rights by banning a vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, who was murdered by a Met police officer. The group also allege that Met police officers used force while threatening protesters with £10,000 fines for breaching lockdown rules.
The spectacle of police charging into the spontaneous outpouring of anger and grief that night should have been shocking enough to stay the government’s hand in its attempt to ban virtually all effective protest. But no. In a parliamentary coup, after the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill went through the Commons, the government bypassed MPs by adding 18 pages of new anti-protest laws for the Lords. It was this outrageous procedure, as much as the laws themselves, that caused the Lords rebellion. In a clear attempt by the government to stifle protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, the new clauses would have made it an offence to disrupt infrastructure, including (rightwing) newspaper printers, with tougher sentences for blocking a highway. Police would also have been given the right to stop and search anyone at a protest without cause for suspicion, looking for people who may be planning to “lock on” to objects – a vital part of protest. Perhaps most shockingly, courts could ban anyone “with a history of causing serious disruption” from attending specific protests at all, even if they have committed no offence.
Ignoring the result of the vote, the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, says he is bringing controversial measures to restrict noise at protests – which were defeated in the Lords – back to the Commons in a new bill. He told the BBC’s Today programme that noisy protest “cannot be allowed to interfere with the lives of the law-abiding majority”.
These freedom-loving libertarian Tories do a lot of venting about escape from the state’s illiberal powers to make them wear masks or seatbelts, or stop them from smoking indoors, or whatever other imaginary curtailments of their personal “freedom” irritate the readers of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator – reckless of public welfare. Yet they make not a bleat about the silencing of protest that is a cornerstone of liberty.
What’s the point of protest? Anyone who has ever marched, sat down or locked on has asked themselves that. Few indeed are the marches that change a law, though specific and local ones can: fracking at Balcombe was stopped by Tory voters in the heart of Tory land. A million marching against the Iraq war didn’t prevent it. But as with the Chartists, mass protest does change how history looks back on events. Would Iraq be seen as such an unequivocal and illegal disaster without the spectacle of a government ignoring that biggest-ever demonstration of opposition? A giant Countryside Alliance protest seemed to frighten New Labour more.
I went on the first nuclear disarmament march as a child with my father (that time, he stopped at the Bunch of Grapes in Knightsbridge and we went no further). I carried on protesting in my teenage years – marching four days every Easter with friends to the atomic weapons research station at Aldermaston. That marked my teenage calendar much like rock festivals are teen rites of passage now. Yet despite the Greenham Common years, the bomb stays unbanned, with this government planning to increase its nuclear arsenal. Suffragettes won, says history – though the more moderate suffragists claimed suffragette violence against property delayed that success.
So, what protest does work? There is surprisingly little research, says David Mead, professor of human rights law at the University of East Anglia: “There’s no easy way to measure a causative link”. Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University, says the myth of the Jarrow hunger marchers is overdone: they changed nothing. “The poll tax riots didn’t finish Margaret Thatcher, middle England complaints in Tory seats did.”
Nothing works without capturing public attention – the press – and that takes wit, imagination, blocking streets, criminal damage or riots. The satirical collective Led By Donkeys is brilliantly subversive and effective, both online – as in its current Line of Duty spoof – and with its billboards and messages projected on to buildings.
In the post-2010 austerity years I took part in UK Uncut protests that cleverly juxtaposed public cuts with private companies the group claimed avoided paying fair taxes: I joined an occupation of a Barclays branch to set up a “library”, a Boots to set up a “medical centre”, a Pret a Manger and a Top Shop protest, setting up a token “swimming pool” (a paddling pool) and a “nursery” inside tax avoiders’ premises, as emblems of all the losses they caused. Alas, UK Uncut vanished. Such groups rise and fall, new ones refreshing ways to make a mark.
Does it do any good? Action solidifies opposition, encourages solidarity instead of despair among isolated objectors watching the climate reach boiling point. Pro-EU marches reminded us how close that vote was, how many were not consumed by Brexit lies, sending an affectionate message to Europe. Joining a march can feel futile, yet doing nothing feels worse. Protests can be annoyingly captured by the tiny Socialist Workers’ party’s bulk manufacture of placards, “usual suspect” imagery damaging the impact.
But here we are with effective protest destined to be banned, allowing only staid, quiet, police-backed marches, whose dullness guarantees no press coverage. This is the real cancel culture, where toppling a statue could earn a 10-year sentence. It took the rebellion of a jury against bad laws to save the Colston Four. Maybe the many rowdy protests around the country against the bill encouraged this week’s Lords rebellion. But that’s just a stay of execution, as the government presses on. As with all present policies, expect no new leader selected by this generation of Tories to turn liberal. They have their own perverse interpretation of liberty.