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Latest 22 March 2024

It’s Sunak’s attacks on protest that are extreme

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The Tories claim they’re defending fundamental rights and freedoms, but they’re ramping up efforts to dismantle our right to protest and freedom of expression. Here’s what you need to know.

When Rishi Sunak stood at a lectern outside Downing Street for an emergency press conference earlier this month, it wasn’t to address the nation over a natural disaster or major political event, but to wage war on the protester. “We must face down the extremists who would tear us apart”. It was the latest ploy from a Government who, having lost the will of its people, has ramped up efforts to restrain them.

The new definition of extremism

This isn’t a legal definition, it’s far more subtle than that. When the Government decides your organisation is extreme and therefore banned, there’s no conviction and no right to appeal. The only way to challenge it would be through a Judicial Review – an expensive option that would only be granted in exceptional cases.

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Point 1 of Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism is the advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance that aims to “undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights”. It sets an extremely low bar. The charge of undermining the UK’s current democratic system could be levelled at any anti-monarchists or pro-socialists who, despite having never incited violence or criminality, may have advocated the use of nonviolent civil disobedience in any form. 

Gove was quick to claim his new definition “is not a restraint on free speech”. But point 3 describes the creation of “a permissive environment” for those described in the previous two points. This could see anyone who platforms, funds or even provides a bank account for an “extremist” organisation branded as extreme themselves – condemning these organisations to a lonely death.

Amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 

Gove’s initiative comes on the heels of a Tory push to target protest in the Criminal Justice Bill, currently going through Parliament. The full details have not yet been published, but the Home Office press release proposed removing the “ability to use the right to protest as a reasonable or lawful excuse to commit some crimes”. Removing the right of protesters to explain why they block roads, lock on or even cause “public nuisance” is bound to lead to more arrests and more convictions. This chilling and oppressive measure may well breach human rights, but even if it is challenged in the courts it still sends the message that protest is not a fundamental pillar of democracy but a threat to the state that needs to be quashed.

This latest attack on protest is part of a wider pattern. After juries refused to convict protesters, both Suella Braverman and then Victoria Prentis asked the courts to restrict the defences available in criminal cases. When four protesters were cleared of criminal damage after toppling the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, the Court of Appeal decided future defendants would not be able to rely on the European Convention on Human Rights. And earlier this week the same court concluded a case involving environmental protesters who smashed windows at HSBC, ruling that activists are not allowed to discuss “the merits, urgency or importance” of a protest to explain why they acted. Protest that involves direct action is now threatened with heavy criminal penalties and juries will no longer be trusted to decide on guilt or innocence.

Increasing the likelihood of convictions for protesters

All this comes within a landscape where the police can now ask the courts to ban people from protests, ban them from working with other protesters, and monitor their activity online. These banning orders can last for up to two years with jail time at stake for any breach. A sanction as severe as this should be targeted at people who have seriously endangered life, but anyone convicted of any offence at a protest could fall under these orders, all in a bid to prevent “serious” disruption. And serious doesn’t really mean serious. The Tories have widened the definition to include any disruption that is “more than minimal”. It’s inevitable: people will be banned from protests for the kinds of peaceful civil disobedience we have seen in protest movements through the ages.

Not content with convicting and sometimes jailing protesters, the Government has pushed forwards with injunctions against protest which can lead to protesters facing tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees. Protesters can’t access legal aid to fight these injunctions, and any attempt to hit back can lead to costs racking up even further. You are damned if you fight and damned if you don’t.

As the leader of a Government that is set on tearing down our fundamental rights, Sunak’s calls to “face down the extremists” ring a little hollow.

Our right to protest is under threat. It’s time to stand up and be counted.

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