Imagine that it’s January 30, 1969, and you’re walking past Apple’s headquarters on London’s famous Savile Row. Suddenly, you hear something that makes you stop—the Beatles are playing live on the roof of the building. For fans of the Beatles, this was an unexpected but very welcome gift. But you can see many shopkeepers visibly annoyed by the crowds gathered on the street and on the rooftops of nearby buildings.
Despite complaints from some that the music was nothing more than noise and an unwelcome distraction to a busy workday — and perhaps even an act of fan resistance — the Beatles continued to play. Eventually, the police got on the roof and ordered the group to stop playing. But the intervention came about 45 minutes after the unauthorized performance began. History has been made. No one expects anyone, be it the band or the audience, to face any further consequences for attending a concert or partying “illegally” in central London. Everyone went on with their day as if nothing had happened.
Now imagine the same concert taking place in the near future, just after the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in Boris Johnson’s government, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords. Armed with the new power and confidence gained through the act, Tong Ren rushed to the roof of the building, abruptly halting the show and arresting everyone there. Some people who had gathered “illegally” on the streets were also arrested. Those detained, including the Beatles themselves, are contemplating possible months in jail.
It’s not just a bleak fantasy. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, if passed in its current form, would empower the police and could lead to this Orwellian scenario. In fact, under the new bill, those deemed to be causing a public nuisance – by making too much noise, blocking streets and storefronts, or generally “annoying” the public – could be jailed.
Of course, the main purpose of this bill is not to stop the surprise performances of beloved British bands – it is designed to stifle the British people’s right to protest.
The new legislation proposes to give police new powers to deal with anything that may “have a relevant impact on those in the vicinity” or “may cause organisations to be in the vicinity of the assembly”. It can be used to shut down almost all peaceful protests, including peace vigils. The new police powers will also include conditions that set protest duration, maximum noise levels and locations. All of this will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the freedom of the British people to peacefully assemble and participate in democracy.
In addition, Home Secretary Priti Patel managed to add 18 pages of amendments to the already illiberal bill after it passed the lower house. The new version of the bill makes it a new criminal offence to obstruct major transportation works. It also expanded the power to stop and search without suspicion of protests. This means police will have the power to stop and search individuals if they think “serious damage” or “public nuisance” can be avoided. This can happen “regardless of whether the police have any reason to suspect that the person…is carrying a prohibited item”.
Another amendment gives authorities the power to ban named individuals from participating in protests through a “serious disruption prevention order,” or SDPO, and even use the internet to encourage others to do so. Courts can impose SDPOs on anyone convicted of “protest-related offences.” This category is very broad – it includes “violations” such as having super glue near a demo.
The bill also proposes to introduce new laws that would prohibit unauthorized parking on private and public land, with penalties including confiscation of vehicles. This will criminalize the way of life of Gypsies, Roma and travelers. As The Guardian explained in a recent editorial, such extreme restrictions on nomadic lifestyles “have the potential to spark prejudice against communities and individuals already facing serious disadvantage”.
If the bill becomes legislation later this month, as expected, British democracy will suffer a blow unprecedented in recent history. At the end of the road lurks a philosophy of crime prevention reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s dystopian film Minority Report.
Patel has successfully brought the draconian bill to this stage, capitalising on widespread backlash against the damaging protest movement by environmental group Insulation UK.
Insulation UK activists have been blocking major motorways and disrupting public transport to make their voices heard since the group was founded in 2019. Their protests have angered a considerable part of the British public. An October 2021 YouGov poll found that 72% of respondents disapprove of the protesters’ actions.
Understandably, in an atomized society, many people are angry at protests that disrupt their daily activities, even seeing them as a threat. It’s also true that people generally don’t want to be caught up in a tug-of-war between protesters and the authorities. They don’t want their daily life to be affected in any way by protests they may or may not support.
However, this new proposed legislation is not really designed to protect the public from undue abuse by protesters. The bill simply gives the government a lot of power to arbitrarily restrict citizens’ freedoms — especially the freedom to protest.
In an example of Jungian synchronicity, the bill’s debut in parliament coincided with police’s scandalous response to Sarah Everard’s vigil – the 33-year-old Londoner on March 4 Kidnapped and murdered by a police officer. On March 13, police raided and forcibly arrested women who had peacefully attended an “illegal” vigil for Everard at Clapham Common. On the same day, British MPs discussed a bill that would give police further powers to clamp down on such vigils. In many ways, what happened that day was an ominous dress rehearsal for what would be under the new bill.
Since the end of the 30 years of economic growth and democratic progress in the West between 1945 and 1975 — a period the French economist Jean Fourastie called “the glorious 30 years” , democracy in the Western world has been in steep decline.
During this period, Western governments began to quickly move away from support for active democracy, tacitly creating conditions for citizens to participate in democracy only passively. Ultimately, popular participation in governance is reduced to voting on one of a handful of primary candidates every four or five years. The message to citizens is that after voting, they should stand by and let elected officials do their jobs.
Police, crime, sentencing and court bills are just an extension of this sentiment. It tells the British public clearly: After voting, do not dare to interfere in the actions of those in power. But this is not democracy. The public should always maintain the right to correct the practices of their governments through protests in democracies.
The UK has a long and successful history of disruptive protests. Protesters in the UK, for example – using the same tactics the Johnson government is now trying to ban – persuaded then-Prime Minister John Major to abandon a senseless and environmentally damaging road-building programme that began in the early 1990s.
Aside from a handful of seasoned activists and dedicated campaign groups, some opposition voices on the left, and the Guardian, who voiced their opposition to the bill in a recent editorial, the bill is heading towards legislation without much resistance.
This is unacceptable. Johnson’s government, guided by the far-right Home Secretary Patel, is moving silently but firmly to deny the British people the right to peacefully protest and correct their government’s practices. As British civil rights group Liberty explained, the bill would “affect us all by repealing the hard-won and much-cherished rights to freedom of assembly and dissent”.
Britons need to wake up and resist attacks on their rights and freedoms before it’s too late. If they don’t act now and do everything they can to block the bill, they may have to face serious consequences for opposing their government – or just daring to disobey it in any minor way – in the near future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.