People will protest – it is futile and dangerous to try and stop them

The government is seeking to make protests more tense and difficult to police by imposing ridiculous rules on events. It won’t work

Sean O'Grady
Monday 15 March 2021 13:06 GMT
We need to restore public confidence in police, says Sir Ed Davey

If it wanted to, parliament could pass a law abolishing gravity. The Abolition of Gravity (Special Provisions) Act 2021 would impose stiff mandatory penalties on people permitting, or causing, or conspiring to permit, directly or through joint enterprise, things such as apples falling off trees.

There could be strict enforcement, punitive fines, long prison sentences, and speeches from ministers about the need to “end the madness” of things just moving, invariably downwards, with no central coordination and order.

The “antigrav” movement would applaud. Boris Johnson would make a joke about Isaac Newton being a bit old hat anyway. Keir Starmer might call for more help for those in vulnerable groups badly affected when their toast lands on the carpet, buttered-side down. The SNP would claim that gravity is essentially an English invention anyway, and Scotland should decide how much gravity, if any, it wanted.

You get my drive. Bad politics makes for bad laws, and the laws on Covid, though mostly sound, have been found unworkable in restraining mass protest. That is what went wrong at the Sarah Everard vigil in south London on Saturday evening.

The Covid law, in this respect, is bad law. It is inconsistent with the human rights legislation, and parliament never made clear which law trumped the other. The current severe restrictions on mass events are also fatally undermined by the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, casually remarking to a select committee that big outdoor gatherings generally don’t cause spikes in Covid infections, albeit they are not “zero risk” (what is?). If only we’d known.

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But badly designed laws can still work if the public isn’t much bothered about them, and goes with the flow. Britain’s unfathomable and self-contradictory tax code proves that. Things go badly wrong when the public are bothered about bad law, have no intention of abiding by it, and the police therefore have no chance of enforcing it.

Time and again over the past year, the supposedly imperative demands of public health and public order have been trashed as readily as a statue of a slave owner in a city with a large black, Asian and minority ethnic population. The copper on duty when the protesters in Bristol chucked Edward Colston in the drink that bright day last June had obviously decided to let them get on with it, because there wasn’t much he could do about it. Sensible.

He was much criticised at the time for giving in to a “mob”, as were many other police officers in similar situations, but sometimes giving in to a mob is much the safest thing to do. He was wise, and politicians and the police should have learned the lesson he offered. Protesters are going to protest, and there’s no point trying to stop them. You may as well try to defy gravity. The police should have let those attending the Sarah Everard vigil get on with it as well.

We know that the police are supposed to uphold the law, even when it’s bad law, and don’t have the choice as to which laws to enforce and which to ignore. The officers on duty and the chief constables are berated when they don’t, as we saw last year when the Black Lives Matter protests sometimes turned into disturbances. Priti Patel, the home secretary, was one of those livid that the police had caved in to “mob rule” and criminal damage. When officers chose to take the knee, it incensed her. Then she wanted the police to be tough. Not so much now, it seems. The critics of the police are rarely consistent or supportive, whatever their politics or whatever they say.

No doubt, in a parallel universe, if the Met had allowed the Sarah Everard vigil to take place unimpeded, and just smiled and told everyone to mind how you go, then they’d have been berated for failing to uphold the Covid restrictions because of “political correctness”. Cressida Dick would have been mocked as some sort of “woke cop”, putting thousands of lives at risk just because of some cultural sensitivities.

Very likely the politicians now calling for inquiries about why the arrangements for the vigil and the Reclaim These Streets march all went wrong would also be calling for inquiries about why the police had cheerily allowed a deadly Covid superspreading event to occur, one which was against the law (or at least one of the two contradictory laws parliament has set down).

The Covid laws were going to be broken anyway, because the judges wouldn’t say if a law would be broken in advance of it being broken (fair enough), and because the home secretary and mayor of London, presumably, would have a go at them whatever they decided to do.

It is pushing credulity too far to believe that there was some reasonable middle ground where a mass gathering of people on such an emotive issue could be consistent with Covid laws if only everyone was nice to each other, spoke softly, wore a mask and kept to the two-metre rule. Mass events, including football matches and music festivals, rarely pass without any incident, and the very fact of people gathering, masks or not, was a breach of the rules.

After the experiences of last summer, parliament – not the police – should have done better with the latest package of restrictions, because the impracticality of the laws on protest were demonstrated during our slightly bizarre statue wars last year.

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Yet now, the government, in response to those past problems, is seeking to make future, post-Covid protests more tense and difficult to police by imposing even more ridiculous rules on events, and absurd penalties for attacking inanimate objects.

They won’t work, any more than the Covid laws on free protest have worked. The new law will, at best, be ignored, and, at worst, exacerbate the divisions in our already fractured society by criminalising people exercising their human rights. Which, by the way, are also to be curtailed under a new human rights act, when the Tories can get around to it. The Tory manifesto promised: “We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.” Judicial review will also be pushed back. I wonder what the “free speech” lobby makes of these ominous promises. Human rights are inalienable, universal, set in international law and timeless. They don’t need constant “updates”.

For now, the silliest new rule is the prohibition on “single person protests” when they are too noisy to a “reasonable” person. That, I assume, is a belated, and futile, act of spite directed at the bloke who spent months wandering around Parliament Square dressed up in an EU flag yelling “Stoooooooop Breeeeeexxxittt!” to the great distress of the television presenters trying to get, say, Anna Soubry and Iain Duncan Smith to discuss the single market.

Yet he was quite harmless and offered some distraction to the bemused foreign tourists who’d really been hoping for a glimpse of the Queen. Most of all he was exercising his right to free speech, though rather volubly. We could all be single protesters going around the streets shouting to get rid of austerity, immigration or the smiling turd emoji, but there are plenty of laws and social conventions to deal with any nuisance surrounding that already.

Maybe we should have a protest about the new protest laws. That’d be fun.

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