Democracy and Freedom of Expression

As we reflect on the shocking scenes in Bristol at the weekend, and the government’s drive to overhaul the laws around protest, we need to remind ourselves of the true role of protest in modern society and the responsibilities that come with this. Harry Barton, CEO, Devon Wildlife Trust shares his views on this important issue…

Five and a half years ago, I walked for two miles across London an uncharacteristically warm autumn afternoon.  I wasn’t alone – there were around 55,000 of us.  We came from schools, churches, mosques, community groups, international aid organisations.  We smiled, we talked, we cheered and made a bit of noise, we carried banners, some of us came in costume.  And then we gathered in a huge crowd in Parliament Square. This was the run up to the Paris Climate Change Conference 2015, and all around the World similar marches were taking place.  Some were tens of thousands strong, others somewhat smaller – one group of 100 or so, led by a 12 year old, braved horizontal rain and winds to carry their model polar bear across Dartmoor.  We all had one thing in common - we came with a message, and we wanted it to be heard.  

Since then, we’ve seen protests in all shapes and sizes.  Most have been good humoured and done little to impact on the day to day activities of the bystanders other than providing an impressive spectacle.  Others have been rather more disruptive, such as the Extinction Rebellion protests that stopped traffic in parts of central London in 2019.  A few have been hijacked by those with a different agenda and become violent, as we saw in Bristol at the weekend.  But the great majority haven’t, and even in the case of those that have, very few of the participants have been responsible for the problems.

Before looking at the pros and cons of protests and marches, it’s worth reflecting on why people participate and what they’ve achieved.  Marching is a great way to experience solidarity with people who feel strongly about the same thing as you. Back in 2015, and at subsequent climate change marches in Exeter, I felt a sense of comradery that is hard to describe with people who I had never seen before and may never meet again.  The groups of children with their colourful placards, the songs and chants, the drums, the inspiring speakers, the warmth of the crowd.  We were bonded by our shared sense of shared purpose and the feeling that we’d made the effort to stand up and be counted in public.  After this year of isolation, it’s a reminder of how important this kind of group belonging can be.  Sharing experiences on social media or signing petitions just doesn’t compare.

Digger on brownfield site

Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

But why go on a march?  The answer is pretty simple – because people in power aren’t listening or aren’t taking you seriously.  We know a lot about this in the environmental sector.  The science behind climate change is overwhelming, and the evidence of the destruction of the natural world frightening.  And yet it seems nigh on impossible to get the issue taken seriously or to carry any weight when it is up against economic or development considerations.  Just take HS2. This new railway line will destroy or irreparably damage five internationally protected wildlife sites, 693 local wildlife sites, 108 ancient woodlands and 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.  And the benefits?  Journey times reduced by between 15 minutes and one hour.  In the age of zoom, and with an ecological emergency on our hands, is a slightly quicker journey that important, and the best use of £80 billion? Seriously?   

Well organised public protests have been instrumental in bringing about progressive social change.  The suffragettes a century ago, the mass trespass of the 1930s, the march on Washington by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, more recently Take back the Night with its focus on violence against women and of course the Greta Thunberg led Youth Strike for Climate.  It would be an exaggeration to say that any of these on their own brought about the radical change that followed, but there’s little doubt they had a very significant impact.  Would Parliament have declared a climate emergency were it not for those pesky school children and Extinction Rebellion protesters two years ago?  It would be nice to think so, but I doubt it.

Parliament

Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

Right now, the government is pushing through a new law – the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill 2021.  A quick read of the government website makes it clear that much of this is a reaction to recent protests and how the police should handle them.  The Public Order Act 1986, which currently governs this area of policing, is 35 years old and, it is argued, needs updating.  On the face of it, much of the new Bill seems pretty reasonable – more effective powers to curb violent behaviour, for instance.  But a closer look should make us very worried. 

First, one has to wonder why the government is doing this so quickly and quietly.  With no public consultation, MPs were given less than a week to review the Bill’s contents before it was debated and voted on. A little hasty for something that could have a profound impact on civil liberties surely?  It’s worth noting that the Environment Bill, first discussed more than two years ago, has just been delayed yet again until the Autumn of this year.  Maybe we haven’t got our national priorities quite right here?

And then there’s the detail.  Imposing maximum noise levels, stopping protests that are disruptive or prevent people going about their daily business, setting start and finish times, penalties of up to ten years in prison for damaging a memorial.  I saw no violence or aggression of any sort in the climate change marches I attended.  But yes, we did block roads for a while (this was unavoidable), cars, pedestrians and shoppers almost certainly were inconvenienced to a degree, and tens of thousands of people walking through a city is inevitably a noisy affair. Are we looking at a future when these kinds of peaceful activity are to be banned?  Interestingly, these rules can apply to one person protests.  Did the government have in mind Greta Thunberg, whose international movement started with her lonely vigil outside the Swedish Government offices? Would the World be a better place if Greta’s actions had been declared illegal?

This is not the only incidence of recent governments looking to curb democratic rights.  The 2014 Lobbying Act made it harder for charities to communicate during election periods.  The recently proposed changes to the Planning System, if implemented, would dramatically reduce the ability of local communities to have a say in development.  And changes to the Judicial Review process in recent years have made it much harder for members of civil society to challenge official decisions.   

All over the World we see evidence of governments tightening up controls on individuals’ rights to speak out.  It is always tempting for those in power to want to limit the ability of others to frustrate their plans. One of the great things about the UK is our heritage of free speech, and it is this that has made us world leaders in bringing about positive change – gender equality, workers rights, animal welfare, action on climate change and environmental protection. Yes of course a balance has to be struck – most reasonable people do not want to see looting, violence or intimidation, and yes of course police should feel empowered to deal with it appropriately on the relatively rare occasions when it happens.   But neither do we want to see protests confined to small handfuls of people murmuring in hushed voices in a field where they won’t get in anybody’s way and won’t be noticed.  

I don’t believe there is any place for violence in modern, civilised society.  The scenes we saw in Bristol over the weekend were reprehensible, but we should not conflate the aggressive and destructive behaviour of an angry mob with the well justified stand taken by reasonable people wanting their views to be heard.  An important part of peaceful protest is to be inconvenient, to disrupt, to force decision makers to think differently.  For the non-participant, the inconvenience may raise our blood pressure for a few hours while we’re in that traffic jam, but it’s quickly forgotten.  The lasting benefits of progressive change on the other hand – or the damage caused by the lack of it – can be felt for generations.

The time for responsible, enlightened people to speak truth to power has never been more important.  We must not let our right to do so be whittled away.