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

Share

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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable