Leading article: Petty excesses that add up to a major assault on our freedom


It is 15 February 2003. One million people or more are pouring on to the streets of London in a last effort to avert the imminent invasion of Iraq. The Prime Minister is addressing the Labour Party's spring conference in Glasgow. Alluding to the huge protest, Mr Blair said this: "I rejoice that we live in a country where peaceful protest is a natural part of our democratic process."

These were admirable and proud words - words that every citizen of this country - for or against that war - would surely have endorsed. If we had only known then what we know now, we might have called for them to be engraved in stone, with their attribution, and positioned on the wrought iron gates at the entrance to Downing Street. Lest we, or the occupant of No 10, forget.

How long ago those days suddenly seem from the perspective of this week. On Wednesday, a 25-year-old woman, Maya Evans, became the first person to be convicted under a new law that makes it illegal to stage an unauthorised protest within 1km of Parliament Square. Read those words again, slowly. Is this really Britain? The whole concept of a law against unauthorised protest close to the national parliament is something we associate with repressive states - places like China or Uzbekistan, say - not with our own long-established democracy.

To warrant arrest, then, Ms Evans must have been engaged in some highly disruptive activity. In fact, she and a companion were standing outside the fortress that is now Downing Street, reading aloud the names of British soldiers who have died in Iraq. Her companion, who had spoken to the police in advance, was released without charge. Ms Evans was found guilty, given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay costs.

Now, it could be argued that, in the context of the new law - Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 - she got off lightly. Section 132 envisages a fine up to £1,000. The fault lies less in the conviction than in the law. Protesting peacefully within shouting distance of the institutions of power should be a universal right in a democracy. Whitehall and Parliament Square are made for the purpose. Whose public spaces are these, anyway?

The intention of the legislation was apparently to evict the long-standing peace protester in Parliament Square, Brian Haw. In a poetic twist, however, the law may not be applied retrospectively - a view upheld when Mr Haw was briefly arrested yesterday, after police apprehended a visitor to his encampment. So Mr Haw remains, to be harassed over any new arrival - and Ms Evans pays. The law has its uses, if not the precise use for which it was conceived.

Section 132 is not the only piece of legislation to have found a dubious new application. Remember the ejection of 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang from the Labour conference after he to heckled Jack Straw? This was under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, a provision increasingly used to intercept people who formerly would have been regarded as common or garden protesters.

Today is Human Rights Day. British and US anti-war protesters, led by Rose Gentle and Cindy Sheehan - who both turned to campaigning after losing sons in Iraq - are holding a conference in London. They plan to visit Mr Haw at his camp. Are the police even now out with their tape, measuring the 1km in a straight line from Parliament Square beyond which they may not advance without authorisation?

Petty and absurd though they seem, such small excesses add up to a serious assault on our rights. This is how freedom starts to shrink. Now who was it again who described peaceful protest as "a natural part of our democratic process"?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Day In a Page


Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride