On Tuesday evening, the second reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed through the Commons, with the Conservatives voting 359 in favour versus 263 votes against. Among its many increases in policing and sentencing power in the UK, one thing sticks out in particular for its implications on the future of protest in this country.

10 years in prison for ‘annoyance’

The bill would mean that the police can arrest someone involved in any type of action that causes ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious inconvenience’ to the ‘public or a section of the public’. Those convicted can face up to ’10 years’ in prison.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the bill aims to strike a ‘balance […] between allowing people a reasonable way to go about their daily lives’ and people’s right to protest.

The vague wording and nature of the bill, combined with the fact that it has been rushed through Parliament, has made not just opposition MPs, but also some Conservative backbenchers — including former Prime Minister Theresa May — uneasy over its potential implications.

Most of us accept that there should be (and are) laws that protect against those forms of protest where either direct or indirect physical harm may result. But this bill goes so much further than this.

Vague terms

In using terms such as ‘inconvenience’ and ‘annoyance’, the matter automatically becomes very subjective. As the Huffington Post points out, the call becomes the Home Secretary’s to make. The fact that Priti Patel has previously called the Black Lives Matter protest ‘dreadful’ and the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations ‘criminal’, suggests that given greater powers, any presumed defiance will be suffocated immediately.

Protests without inconvenience?

The Conservative leadership’s stance seems to be that it’s perfectly possible to protest without causing ‘serious inconvenience’ or ‘annoyance’. This, however, is completely at odds with the very form and notion of protesting.

Protests, strikes, and other things of that nature are inherently disruptive. If they weren’t, then they simply would not be effective. 

When other diplomatic channels are broken down, and big issues or whole sections of the population are ignored by the government, disruptive action is the only way to leverage against the power of the state.

Only by disrupting the running of society is the government forced to listen, and perhaps even shift its position to stop the disruption. But this bill wants to prevent any disruption from occurring in the first place by blocking people from protesting, thereby impeding any potential for societal change. It seems that rather than listen, this government intends to thwart people’s calls for positive change.

Power in numbers

In February 2003, when Labour under Tony Blair was preparing to go to war in Iraq — having ignored not only public opinion but also the UN Charter — the only way the British people could have any immediate say on the matter was through mass protest. The biggest protest the country has ever seen.

Although ultimately unsuccessful — which begs the question whether the British constitution is fit for purpose — the right to protest, to cause mass disruption, inconvenience and annoyance is an essential feature of any democracy.

When power is concentrated in the state’s hands, the only way to defend against abuses of power is through collective retaliation.

Former Shadow Chancellor and Labour MP, John McDonnell, made a shrewd point when he said:

‘in mobilising against injustice in our society young people have realised the power they have. So have the Tories. Hence the Bill’.

It is hardly a coincidence that such a bill is being passed after almost two years of mass protests across the country. Whether it be the climate protests of Extinction Rebellion or those of Black Lives Matter, the state has been continually challenged on the streets. We should all be worried about this bill and its vague wording, which could soon see protesting become a thing of the past.

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