UK Liberty

Missing the point of the freedom to protest

Posted in accountability by ukliberty on June 12, 2007

Martin Kettle in the Guardian, on the film Taking Liberties (my emphasis in bold):

To anyone in Whitehall on Wednesday, however, the dramatic thrust of Atkins’s film Taking Liberties might have seemed hard to square with the evidence. For there, right outside the entrance to Downing Street, stood a line of male protesters wearing nothing save their boxers, holding placards complaining about the collapse of their pension rights. Given the sweeping absolutism of the assertion in Taking Liberties that the Blair government has swept away the freedom to protest in the vicinity of Westminster, the lack of police interest in this peaceable near-naked defiance seemed more than a little disjunctive.

To see again how Maya Evans and Milan Rai were arrested for reading out the names of Iraq war victims opposite the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall (though if they had given the right notification they would not have been)… is in each case to witness an oppressive denial of the right to protest.

As a CiF commenter pointed out, why on earth should we have to seek permission to read aloud?

Or eat a cake, or wear a T-shirt?

And it is quite simply a lie that “in just 10 years, [Blair] has successfully dismantled our basic liberties”. To take a single example, of which the film and like-minded writers make much, it is untrue that Blair has taken away an ancient right to demonstrate near the House of Commons. There never was any such ancient right.

It rests on a misreading of the past, a failure to engage with the present, the unassuaged wound of Iraq, and a conceptual confusion between a “freedom from” and a “right to”.

It seems Kettle is confused as well.

Look, we once had the freedom to protest near Parliament, because there was no law prohibiting it.

There was of course legislation, such as Public Order Acts, under which the police could break up demonstrations and cart people off under certain circumstances, but that’s not really the same as being required, as we are now, to notify the police six days in advance of your plan to protest.

What we’ve done here is trade away the freedom to spontaneously protest near Parliament, and other ‘designated’ areas, for the comfort of our politicians. Is that a good trade? I don’t believe it is.

As the director points out, it certainly violates the Town Square Test:

If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.

In testimony, Condoleeza Rice linked the Town Square Test to such countries as “Cuba, and Burma, and North Korea, and Iran, and Belarus, and Zimbabwe”.

No, the UK is not a police state (or is it?).

But is it a good thing that the UK can now be included in that illustrious list?

(Naomi Klein’s article on the US is an interesting read, and I think parallels can be drawn with the UK)


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