The Perils of Maintaining the Status Quo:

Priti Patel’s ‘Silent, Law-Abiding Majority’ and The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

By Aura Bamber 

We have seen a series of would-be prime ministers, especially those put forward by the left, dismissed on the basis of being too ‘radical’ with even Sir Keir Starmer recently being condemned for “trying to appease the hard left”1. This attack on revolutionary thought and action has long been reflected, not just in politics, but in the law that has progressively sought to limit access to the means of bringing about radical change. This has reached somewhat of a pinnacle with the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2 which amongst other things penalises damage to memorials to a harsher degree than rape, places draconian limits on what can constitute ‘legal’ protest and gives the home secretary the power to change the ambit of the law without any real parliamentary scrutiny. 

Since these impositions on our fundamental rights show no indication of being limited to the pandemic period it seems only logical that dissenters would have to commit some acts of civil disobedience, in spite of the pandemic, to organise and protest against the reforms. However, under the guise of concern for public health and the obligation to comply with the law government ministers have sought to condemn the protests. 

First of all, the idea that this is motivated by concern for public safety seems disingenuous since police action involving manhandling and detaining protestors, as seen at the vigil for Sarah Everard, does very little to curb the risk of infection and in fact put members of the public at greater risk. Second of all, it acts in complete disregard of principles of governance and policing by consent. As H.A. Pritchard points out the law does not necessitate obedience3. Our dissent to these laws is as much part of their legitimacy as is their passing through parliament (another thing that the bill attempts to avoid). To expect the public to remain a ‘silent, law-abiding majority’ in this context is manifestly unreasonable4

This disingenuous desire to ‘protect the public’ is reflected once again when we look at the wording of the bill which first addresses public processions. Clause 54 suggests that restrictions can be placed on protests that may have a ‘relevant impact’5. This in essence means that any protest will be subject to the condition that it has no impact, in other words that it be completely robbed of its purpose. A similar provision applies to protest potentially impeding access to the parliamentary estate6. Can it really be said to be in the public interest to erase the ability to question those in power? Is it in the public interest to give politicians an untouchable authority? 

Clause 59 presents an even greater affront to fundamental freedoms as it treats as an offence, an extremely wide range of conduct, including a risk of “serious annoyance”7. It would be somewhat difficult to prove that a risk of annoyance was not caused by a protest therefore the threshold for this offence is unbelievably low. The power this gives to those who oppose protest, most often those who are its subject, is only amplified by the remarkable power bestowed upon the Secretary of State, currently Priti Patel, to regulate on the meaning of the law8. This power for ministers to reduce parliamentary scrutiny whilst shaping the law to fit their agenda poses a massive and unacceptable risk to democracy as we know it. 

You might imagine that this is a symptom of a conservative government or simply those who are currently in power, however this move towards authoritarianism has been a long time in the making. 

We see similarities between the current bill and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced by Tony Blair’s government which utilised a similar tactic of ambiguous and subjective terms that enabled the legislation to be applied to a wide range of behaviour, including public protests9. There is then also the question of the misuse of counter-terrorism laws which prior to the European Court of Human Rights decision in Gillan & Quinton v UK in 201010 had been used against protestors whose behaviour could be caught under the very broad definition of ‘terrorism’. 

The desire to extend such measures, especially powers of surveillance, to protestors is made even clearer with the HMICFRS Report, released only two days after the announcement of the bill. The report reveals the reclassification of “domestic extremists” as “aggravated activists” and describes them as anyone engaging in,

“activity that seeks to bring about political or social change but does so in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality, has a negative impact upon community tensions, or causes an adverse economic impact to businesses.”11

Under the current definition it is possible that anyone protesting in spite of the COVID-19 regulations would qualify for surveillance. 

All things considered, we can safely assume that the government feels quite comfortable limiting the right to protest and has made little attempt to conceal the fact. Behind the thin curtain of a concern for public health, ministers have conspired to limit and deprive the public of much of their power to dissent whilst simultaneously condemning them for their arguably warranted response. However, the civil disobedience that Priti Patel would like to condemn as ‘thuggery’ has one important qualifier and that is that, at its root, it is a reflection of dearly held beliefs in the worth of democracy, individual rights and justice12. Something that protestors are willing to endure police violence, legal repercussions and a life-threatening virus to uphold. 

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/28/labour-mps-raise-fears-over-keir-starmers-lack-of-grip

  2. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0268/200268.pdf 
  3. Moral Obligation (Oxford 1949), p. 54.
  4. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0268/200268.pdf at [46]
  5. Ibid clauses 57 and 58 at [50-51]
  6.  Ibid at [52]
  7.  Ibid clause 55(6) at [47]
  8. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/state-control-and-repression-of-dissent-in-britain-through-legislation-and-policing-me/

  9. ttps://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2010/28.html