It’s been part of all of our lives. Protests on anything and everything, protected by law and enabling disaffected groups to show publicly the strength of their arguments. What is acceptable, and what is not? How much disruption is ok, and when is it unacceptable? Inconvenience versus public attention. Public attention versus public support. A delicate balance.
In recent years, we’ve watched protesters glue themselves to sofas on motorways, embed themselves in tunnels, and even smash the windows of a police station, over changes to the powers of the authorities.
On 16th January, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak backed the police, who are asking the government for further powers to prevent ‘disruptive protesting’ through the new Public Order Bill. The bill has already made frequent headlines, amidst fears that it will not simply target disruptive activity, but have a greater impact on human rights.
The new Public Order Bill claims to target the disruptive methods of protesting that have been increasing in frequency across the past few years. Some of the specific changes that the bill would introduce include making ‘locking on’, and interfering with key national infrastructure, a criminal offence, as well as providing the police with greater stop and search powers.
Activist groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have been using methods including blocking roads, and spraying fake blood, on ministry buildings to further attempt to spark a reaction from the government. Rishi Sunak stated in his announcement:
“We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.”
However, Human Rights Watch has argued that this bill will limit the right to protest, and provide the police with unjustified powers. In fact, these exact changes were proposed as part of the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill back in April 2022, when the changes were rejected, after the Joint Committee for Human Rights stated the measures would “pose an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest”.
This time however, the bill has passed. A reason for this could be the increase in frequency of disruptive protests and media attention since last April. A conference held at LSE in 2021 ‘Advocating for climate change Policies’ said: ‘The promise and peril of using disruptive protest tactics discussed how actions which are more disobedient and disruptive can have more power, but are often paired with negative media attention and reactions by the public.’
A poll by YouGov in November 2022 showed that the majority of Britons oppose Just Stop Oil’s methods. A video by The Guardian followed Insulate Britain as individuals glued themselves to roads, with the footage capturing frustrated reactions from the public, many of whom stated that these methods were turning them against the original cause.
Despite this, many have spoken out against the new bill, often not in direct defence of disruptive protesting itself, but instead stating that the bill is a draconian response by the government. Human rights activists fear that these new measures could be exploited, and impact an individual’s safety and rights, even in peaceful protests.
What is certain is that the British public are determined to continue to exercise their right to protest, as shown by many taking to the streets one day after the announcement, protesting the government’s other new bill, restricting their rights to strike. Human rights are high on the agenda, and the reactions and debate sparked by these new bills suggest that this is not the end of the discussion.
It is a political thicket. Disruption versus Production; Individual Freedom Versus Common Good. We all sit somewhere on that spectrum. Where the government finally falls is a tricky decision.