The new bill will make it harder to protest and encroaches on civil liberties, argues Orwell-scholar Rebecca Clayton
The government has recently passed a new Public Order Act. The new laws have been designed to deal with the disruptive protests that have become more commonplace over the last five years, many of those at the hands of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. The government have come under significant pressure to deal with the civil disobedience. I can see why the government might feel the need to act; the protests did bring certain parts of London to a standstill. However, the introduction of tightened protest laws is a particularly authoritarian response to this pressure, and I am not sure the benefits outweigh the reality of the Public Order Act, which is the gradual erosion of our civil liberties across England.
Public opinion is mixed, and there are many who are not properly informed. There are those who find it incredibly sinister. They liken it to the Chinese government’s crackdown on protests in Beijing and Hong Kong. And then there are those whose sum response seems to be, “yeah well, those pesky Just Stop Oil protesters need to just stop, literally”. There are those whose view lies somewhere in between. Despite the existence of these differing viewpoints, there doesn’t seem to be enough outrage from anybody. The odd rant in the Comments section of The Guardian, sure, but other than that (and I am under no illusion that the Guardian’s Comments section is not a fair representation of society’s makeup); nada, nil, nothing. I don’t hear it spoken about it in public, it’s not a feature on BBC News, and even Labour MPs are staying quiet on the subject. The opposition voted against the motion when it was seen in Parliament but have done precious little else to challenge this flagrant attack on our civil rights.
There are those who are making their voices heard, but they are not within either the Conservatives or the Labour Party. The SNP have been particularly vocal, with MP Alison Thewliss denouncing the legislation as “one of the most Draconian pieces of law to pass through Parliament”. There are petitions online, including a Liberty petition with almost 100,000 signatures. Human Rights charities have been holding their proverbial heads in their hands, as I imagine they have been since Suella Braverman, and even Priti Patel before her, first gained high office. But still, no outrage. Even those whose opinions I respect and admire in my own friendship group have been dragging their feet on the issue. One of my closest friends reasoned that “we can’t have a situation where people cannot get on the train to work again”, as though Network Rail aren’t doing their level best to prevent people from getting on trains anyway, and that’s without a salient social point about our over-reliance on fossil fuels at its core.
Keir Starmer is hinting, through his failure to stand up to the Conservatives on this issue, that he agrees with the new legislation passed. Um, excuse me? How can a Labour MP stand aside and watch as our civil liberties are crushed, and our right to voice our political opinions publicly compromised, simply on the grounds of public nuisance? In the case of the recent Republican protests on the day of the King’s coronation, Keir Starmer accepts that the Metropolitan Police got some of their “judgements wrong” after they arrested six Republic campaigners during the demonstration. However, the Mirror reported that Starmer said, “it’s early days and in my experience of public order legislation, it takes a little while for it to bed in”, leaving viewers such as myself wondering why exactly we would want such abominable legislation to bed in.
Admittedly, things become a little more complex when it comes to Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. This is because the existence and importance of the climate crisis is more readily accepted, yet their controversial means of protest have incited far more anger amongst the British public. People feel real anger towards Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil; a brief glance at Twitter could convince anyone of that. Many people think that Extinction Rebellion has gone too far, that their protests should not include methods such as holding up traffic on the M25 or chaining themselves to the Circle line at Aldgate at rush hour. I would say that, for the most part, the desired ends justify the means. If we do not take serious action against climate change, the consequences to human settlements and biodiversity across the globe will be catastrophic.
In the case of the anti-monarchy protests, the Metropolitan Police’s arrests are the result of mismanagement on the ground, coupled with a failure to interpret the newly-passed legislation, which came into effect only a few days earlier. The Met police later said that they regretted the arrest of the six demonstrators and released all without charge. However, in the case of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, our reaction to the protests really amounts to the direction of our social gaze. Do our sympathies lie with the many members of the public whose lives were impeded by the protests, or do we sympathise more with the protesters, and specifically their efforts to alert us all to the devastating effects of the climate crisis? I think most people would put themselves somewhere in the middle of this sliding scale.
There are individual instances that I do not agree with; I don’t think that protests should disrupt medical workers, and I can’t support demonstrators who are aggressive towards members of the public. Furthermore, I wish that people would stop throwing paint at priceless works of art, although I understand that shock tactics are necessary to make people listen (and, crucially, the artworks are behind glass). However, it’s possible to agree with 95% of the organisation’s methods without endorsing all of them. The threat of climate change does not account for the loss of life due to, say, an ambulance not being able to make it to the hospital. Neither does it dissolve those who have had public altercations with commuters from all personal responsibility. All protesters should take responsibility for their actions in this way. Despite this, the threat posed by the climate crisis does justify delays to our daily lives because if the climate crisis continues to deepen, we will no longer be facing traffic jams on the M25. Instead, we’ll be witnessing the death of our planet. The extremity of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil’s protest is, arguably, commensurate with the severity of the climate crisis we are facing.
Some might think I’ve offered too many caveats to my support of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. Some might think I haven’t offered enough. That’s kind of my point. There seems to be an attitude running rife in modern political discourse that, if you disagree with someone’s methods, then you disagree with the matter itself. Or, crucially, that you cannot disagree with somebody whilst simultaneously defending their right to hold that opinion. This is a concept both Labour and Conservative MPs have forgotten. The new Public Order Act is testament to that. But just because the government doesn’t agree with Just Stop Oil, or the methods they use to gain publicity, doesn’t mean they should ban those protests. When you live in a democracy, things can happen that contradict your worldview. That doesn’t make it okay to suppress those things to the point that they are extinguished.
Rebecca Clayton is a higher education professional and freelance writer. Graduating with a masters degree in English Literature: Issues in Modern Culture from UCL in 2020, her thesis on George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published in the Orwell Studies academic journal, the leading publication globally for scholarly studies of Orwell.