Rishi Sunak Orders Crackdown on Protests Despite Court Challenge

After years of terrible leadership in the UK, and now high inflation and a recession taking place when social services, particularly the NHS, have been hollowed out, it’s actually striking how placid the British public has been. Most citizens appear not to have embraced the great Socialist leader Tony Benn’s maxim, “Governments should always be afraid of their people, but people should never be afraid of their government.” But protests in the UK, both large scale and more targeted efforts, have apparently become so frequent and allegedly intimidating that Rishi Sunak looks set to use sweeping powers against protestors, which were made law in the Public Order Act of 2023, which we have embedded below.

As the post below indicates, the House of Lords blocked amendments that would have further increased the state’s anti-protest powers. A short recap from Wikipedia:

The act introduces new offences for locking on (with 51-week sentences), interfering with key national infrastructure, obstructing major transport works, causing serious disruption by tunnelling, greater stop and search powers to prevent disruptive protests (including without suspicion), and “Serious Disruption Prevention Orders” “which can restrict people’s freedom by imposing conditions on repeat offenders”.

The act is “explicitly targeted at protesters”, such as “the current outbreak of climate protests across Britain”. The government specifically named the protests of Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain as reasons it is needed.

The immediate rationale for the crackdown that officials feel intimidated. The news coverage mentions both the large-scale, persistent marches against the war in Gaza, as well as gatherings at or new town halls and official’s homes. From the Guardian:

Rishi Sunak is seeking to halt demonstrations outside MPs’ homes after telling senior police officers that the UK is descending into “mob rule”.

In comments that have concerned civil liberties groups, the prime minister also demanded a crackdown on protests outside parliament, political parties’ offices and town halls that may prevent use of a venue or “cause alarm harassment or distress”.

The move comes after a roundtable meeting with police chiefs on Wednesday in Downing Street to discuss how to handle the intimidation of MPs, candidates and councillors. Ministers have criticised regular mass protests, which have escalated over the Israel-Gaza conflict, and disruptive tactics used by groups such as Just Stop Oil.

Downing Street said ministers and senior police agreed to sign up to a new “democratic policing protocol” that would see police treat demonstrations outside MPs homes as “intimidatory”, a minimum standard of police response to demonstrations against MPs and guidance for officers policing protests and other “democratic” events.

During the meeting Sunak told police chiefs they had to demonstrate they would use the powers they already have, saying it was “vital for maintaining public confidence in the police”.

In a stark assessment of the UK’s political processes, he added: “There is a growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule. And we’ve got to collectively, all of us, change that urgently.

Notice the slanted presentation, by starting with demonstrations outside ministers’ homes, which some might find objectionable, and then only later gets to the plan to choke mass protests, particularly the ones against the war in Gaza. Note the article further skews the story by leading with a photo of Greenpeace protestors having wrapped Sunak’s mansion in black cloth last fall. Nowhere does the article consider that demonstrations on public property, as in streets and sidewalks outside a residence, are in a different legal category than trespass and vandalism, which were already punishable under the law.

in addition, the plans to outlaw action that could ““cause alarm harassment or distress” appears to go well beyond existing law. There may be other relevant Acts, but a quick search of the Public Order Act of 2023 finds the prohibition against “causing harassment, alarm or distress” is limited to “interference with access to or provision of abortion services.”

Now to the legal campaign to roll back these curbs on protests.

By Anita Mureithi, a reporter at openDemocracy. She tweets @anitamureithii. Originally published at openDemocracy

A human rights campaign group suing the government for forcing through anti-protest laws says people who go on Palestine marches are being “vilified” to “stoke division”.

Liberty is today challenging the home secretary, James Cleverly, in the High Court over a decision by his predecessor Suella Braverman to introduce new legislation targeting protesters that had already been rejected by Parliament.

The case comes in a week where protest rights are in the spotlight. Pro-Palestine marches are being labelled a threat to MPs and the Home Affairs Select Committee has called on the government to force organisers to give more notice.

Speaking to openDemocracy ahead of the hearing, Liberty director Akiko Hart said: “We’re seeing both our fundamental rights of protest being undermined, but also specific protests like the pro-Palestinian marches being vilified.”

Hart took aim at the “incredibly irresponsible rhetoric from senior politicians where protest is equated to intimidation and harassment”.

MPs’ safety fears were raised last week following chaos in the House of Commons over a symbolic vote on a ceasefire in Gaza. Though some MPs have reported an increase in abuse and threats, campaigners warn that peaceful protests are now being associated with terrorism in order to undermine them.

“There were legitimate concerns around MPs’ safety – obviously, two MPs have been murdered in the last ten years,” she said. “We need to take that very, very seriously. I would also say that it’s MPs who are racialised who are most at risk from harassment, and that’s what the evidence shows us.

“But to conflate harassment with protest, which is what’s happening this week, is really dangerous and irresponsible. There are laws in place to deal with harassment and abuse. That isn’t the same as legitimate protest.”

In its recommendations, the Home Affairs Select Committee said more notice was needed ahead of Palestine marches because the size and frequency of the protests is a burden on police resources. But according to the coalition organising the national Palestine marches, the measures would further limit the right to peaceful protest. Hart also said the current notice period of six days is enough for police to prepare for marches.

“Extending that will just restrict people’s ability to be able to make their voices heard. With this, as with any other issue, the point about protest is that it is not about whether or not you agree – it’s about our right to protest,” she explained.

Liberty was given the green light to sue Braverman in October after she used secondary legislation – which doesn’t get the same level of parliamentary scrutiny – to allow police to restrict or shut down any protest that could cause “more than minor disruption to the life of the community”.

“It shouldn’t be the case that you would have to take the home secretary to court with all the time and effort and energy and expertise that that involves,” said Hart. “The reason we are doing so is because of the then home secretary’s egregious act of circumventing Parliament.”

The government previously tried to insert the new powers into the Public Order Act 2023 in January last year, but was blocked by the Lords.

Liberty believes a win “would be a powerful check against any future minister or government that intends to do the same thing”.

Hart told openDemocracy that there have already been clear examples of the impact of anti-protest laws that have come through the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts (‘Policing’) Act and the Public Order Act, which both give police more powers to restrict protests.

“There were anti-monarchy protesters who were arrested on the basis that the luggage straps that they were carrying were seen to be tools for locking-on, which was a new offence created under the Public Order Act, but they were carrying them to secure their placards.

“We’re also seeing it in sentencing. Last summer, the Court of Appeal upheld the sentences of the two protesters who scaled the Dartford crossing. And those sentences were two years and seven months, and three years – the harshest sentences ever handed down in modern times around protests around civil disobedience,” she said.

The trial against the home secretary is expected to run for two days at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Hart told openDemocracy that while she and Liberty’s team of lawyers are feeling optimistic, “there’s a level of underlying exhaustion at how this government is conducting itself and responding to the protests that are happening”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to peaceful protest is fundamental; the right to disrupt the hard-working public is not.

“We have taken action to give police the powers they need to tackle criminal tactics used by protesters such as locking on and slow marching, as well as interfering with key national infrastructure.

“We work closely with the police to make sure they have the tools they need to tackle disorder and minimise disruption.”

00 Public Order Act 2023
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  1. Es s Ce tera

    Aren’t the UK police the ones who have in recent years begun tracking down the employers, friends and family members of protesters, knocking on their doors, interrogating them at unusual hours?

  2. JohnA

    The government has now found millions to increase security for MPs (who continue to vote against a ceasefire in Gaza, one of the main reasons for mass protests), and millions to increase security for Jewish people, even though there has been a huge Jewish representation at the Gaza protest marches, and no noticeable rise in supposed threats to the Jewish community.

  3. CA

    As best I understand the undoing of Labour, Tony Blair took 2 efforts that turned the British media Conservative all through. First was the alliance with Rupert Murdoch in return for support for Bair. Second was the cowering of BBC presenters when Blair wanted complete support for war in Iraq. David Hare portrayed the bullying dictatorial Tony Blair perfectly in “Page Eight,” to severe media criticism. *

    Third was the ruining of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn by the BBC presenting Corbyn as literally a Russian Communist and then by continual media attacks on Corbyn as anti-Semetic. Corbyn had for years and years been a Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela style civil right supporter, but Corbyn was ruined by the media and even expelled from the Labour Party with scarcely a word of support by the end.

    Labour intellectuals were completely cowed or looking for alliances with Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch, as Jeremy Corbyn was being ruined. Unfortunately, academic economists who had long been advising Labour resigned in full after Corbyn was voted Labour Leader.

    * Think of Ralph Fiennes portraying a threatening Tony Blair.

  4. The Rev Kev

    If the UK government is so scared of protestors, I have an idea. Using something that they helped do in Iraq, they could set up a Green Zone in the heart of London. Just build a huge wall on the north side of the Thames and inside have Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Whitehall, etc. and then all the MPs could move into this Green Zone with no dissidents or protestors allowed – just like in Baghdad. The Embassies would be there as well as the headquarters of all the big corporations along with The City of course. Outside of course it could be a police state for all they cared but inside the walls it would be a garden – just like the EU.

  5. fjallstrom

    From Wikipedia, on the UK Suffragettes:

    Places that wealthy people, typically men, frequented were also burnt and destroyed whilst left unattended so that there was little risk to life, including cricket pavilions, horse-racing pavilions, churches, castles and the second homes of the wealthy. They also burnt the slogan “Votes for Women” into the grass of golf courses.[38] Pinfold Manor in Surrey, which was being built for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, was targeted with two bombs on 19 February 1913, only one of which exploded, causing significant damage; in her memoirs, Sylvia Pankhurst said that Emily Davison had carried out the attack.[38] There were 250 arson or destruction attacks in a six-month period in 1913

    And today’s MPs are worried about demonstrations. Perhaps they need “Stop the genocide” burnt into their golf courses.

      1. fjallstrom

        I have nothing against golfers as such, and as I understand it the suffragettes targeted the specific golf courses of decision makers. If the MPs no longer golfs, well…

        *Looks at the suffragettes list*

        I guess people have to use other ways, but even in jest suggesting most of the actions the suffragettes took might be hazardous to the site, so I won’t.

  6. Not Moses h

    When neoliberal/ neocon David Cameron was appointed Foreign Secretary, it was bad news. What she going to giveaway and break now? He’s an Israeli supporter – Israel right or wrong, which has to do with his family history. One of his first acts was to whisper on the PM’s ear the removal of widely unpopular and low hanging fruit, Home Secretary, Suella de Vile, for proposing draconian immigration policies that were sinking Sunak’s caretaker government. With so such a mountainous high foreseen errors and egregious policies, the Tory’s are set to lose at the next elections.

    By illegally removing suppressing public demonstrations will it put a nail on Tory’s quicker demise.

    Yves money quote is Tony Benn’s maxim that, “Governments should always be afraid of their people, but people should never be afraid of their government.”

    The demonstrations will continue, particularly about the Gaza Genocide, as it should.

    Regrettably, Labor leadership, Blair 2.0, isn’t any better.

  7. ciroc

    For the government, “peaceful” simply means not inconveniencing the ruling class. Conversely, you can attend a demonstration and go home without being arrested, not because you live in a democracy, but because those in power consider you powerless.

  8. Synoia

    So this is a list of those things which Rishi Sunak does not want to discuss, answer for or even contemplate.

    Thanks for the list. Now all the discussion in the pubs will be loaded with common opinion.

    What a great way to tell people what you fear.

    1. clarky90

      I believe in the sanctity of free speech. If it is illegal to discuss topics/events, how can anybody, ever, change their minds as they mature?

      “It is illegal to Hurt feelings” is the thin edge, of the wedge of Totalitarianism.

      First they came for the anti-abortionists, but I said nothing, because I was not an anti-abortionist……

      Then they came for……

      Then they came for….

      Then they came for me….and nobody was allowed to speak up, on my behalf ……

      Human beings (usually good friends) have challenged me (hurt my feelings) over the years,- and forced me to re-examine my stances- and often, I have grudgingly, changed my POV. Thank God (with a capital G) for true friends!.

      “Hurt feelings” are often a tell for a belief, that is rooted in, hearing “the party-line” so often, over so many years, that it becomes accepted as The Truth. Changing your mind can be exhilarating, and liberating.

      Never having ideas challenged is so disrespectful of the individual. It is assuming that we are infants, who need to be coddled, and protected from any “harmful wrong speak”.

      In a nutshell, censorship is a way to reduce us to little children, with no autonomy of thought or action.

      We are seeing the awful effects (genocide-denial!) on our close-minded, Vanguard Classes, as we speak….!

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        It used to be that therapists would tell you that if your feelings were hurt, that was your problem. Now to your point, people are being encouraged to be emotionally immature.

        1. clarky90

          Yves, you have been a tireless, true friend to many of us, over many years. Thank you … for “hurting our feelings” (challenging our cherished beliefs, but with loving intent) now and then!

  9. Anonymous 2

    On the placidity of the majority of the British public, I think a degree of hopelessness has now set in for many. For some, you could think of Brexit as having been a desperate last throw, inspired by the thought that ‘things can’t any worse’. But then things did get worse…..

    Now there are no desperate last throws available.

  10. JBird4049

    >>>A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to peaceful protest is fundamental; the right to disrupt the hard-working public is not.

    Isn’t this statement an oxymoron? Protests are disruptive or they are not protests, just theater.

  11. Patrick Donnelly

    Where, oh where, will the Great and the Good flee, once the police rebel against enforcing the law against the marchers for food?

  12. James P McFadden

    “Gentlemen, this is a test. Moments such as these are matters of faith. To fail is to invite doubt into everything we believe, everything that we have fought for. Doubt will plunge this country back into chaos, which is the last thing we want, and I will not let that happen. Gentlemen, I want this terrorist [protestor] found, and I want him to understand what terror really means. England prevails!” UK Chancelor Sutler [Sunak] V for Vendetta

  13. ereed

    Sunak is following the tested method of first having a war (Ukraine and Palestine) then finding an internal threat to create a climate of fear in the belief that this will enhance his popular vote. Labour have adopted the same practices, so with luck both parties will lose support at the next election

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