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: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?