Yesterday Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, by 90-odd votes. The first reading (for those unfamiliar with British Parliamentary procedure) was a formality; the Bill now passes to its ‘Committee Stage’, when amendments can be made to it. Some of us are hoping that those amendments can delete what appear to be drastic curbs on the right of public assembly and protest, including the criminalisation of protests – even one-person protests – which are simply noisy or an ‘annoyance’ to people, and hefty prison sentences for damaging public statues. (I suppose it’s just a cheap jibe to point out that I find Priti Patel pretty ‘annoying’.) Not only the Opposition parties objected to these, but a few good old-fashioned Tories also seemed troubled, as one might expect of a party that professes to value British ‘traditions’, of which the right to protest has always been considered one. Maybe they will be enough to modify the Bill in Committee. And after that, there’ll be the funny old Lords, who are now in the curious and unprecedented situation of being the House that one relies upon to hold a reactionary government in check.
I watched much of the Commons debate. It made for depressing viewing. One problem was that most of the old-fashioned Tories have been expelled from the party, and hence from Parliament, on account of their position on Brexit; leaving mainly rabid Right-wingers and what used to be called the ‘young fogies’ of the Conservative Party on the Government benches. – A second problem was that the Bill is a huge one – 296 pages long – and pretty catch-all; with scores of measures that the Opposition could normally be expected to support, and indeed many of which had originally been proposed by Labour MPs. That allowed the Government to claim that by voting against the Bill the Opposition was rejecting these, which fitted in nicely with the ‘soft on crime’ image that the Tories like to throw at it. – A third difficulty was that the debate came just a few days after a vigil on Clapham Common, in memory of a young woman murdered by a police officer, was attacked with excessive force by the Police who were patrolling it; which allowed the debate to be diverted into one on the protection of women against male violence, on which the Bill in fact had nothing at all to say. Nonetheless this dominated the discussion, and made it look as though the Bill’s opponents were soft on gendered crime too. In this atmosphere, the proposed measures against ‘protest’, though objected to by one or two MPs, especially by the admirable David Lammy in his summing-up for the Opposition, were rather lost in the general outpouring of sympathy for the poor murdered woman, even from Tories who had never shown any empathy for women before in their lives.
Clearly the question of policing ‘demos’ should have been the subject of a separate Bill. I imagine it was incorporated in this one in the hope of its getting through under the cover of these less controversial measures. But the right to assemble and demonstrate is different from ‘ordinary’ crimes; on a higher level I would say – the ‘constitutional’ one. It affects us all, not just criminals; bearing on our ‘freedoms’ and the nature of our ‘democracy’ no less. To bury it in 296 pages was like putting a poison pill in a plate of porage.
All I have to contribute to this debate as a historian – and a historian of ‘counter-subversion’ in particular – is the observation that this, the right to protest publicly and even loudly, is a principle that has been struggled for in Britain over many centuries; and so must qualify as a basic ‘liberty’ which is essential if Britain wants to define itself as a ‘liberal’ State. It’s effectively an extension of the wider and much-prized principle of ‘free speech’. It got me wondering whether Priti Patel had been taught any British history at school (Westfield Technical College in Watford), or as part of her higher education in Economics (at Keele and Essex Universities)? If not, this might explain her blindness to this crucial – historical – aspect of it.
In the debate that preceded this one Boris Johnson, waffling on about Britain’s ‘global role’, made a great deal of the importance of projecting ‘our ideals and principles’ in the world, of which this is surely one. It must come ahead of increasing Britain’s stock of nuclear weapons, which Johnson announced in the same statement to the Commons. That was the non-waffly bit. It was probably intended to make the Opposition look ‘weak’ on defence, as well as on crime.
Indeed, these whole two days of debate revealed a government hell-bent on exploiting traditional Conservative – and it was hoped working-class – prejudices: against rowdy young left-wing protesters, ‘woke’ (a new and somewhat artificial target), gypsies (also included in the bill), pacifists, do-gooders… and the army of subvert enemies of virtue and patriotism described so brilliantly in the tirade from the Reginald Perrin series I referenced in an earlier post: https://bernardjporter.com/2021/03/07/second-comings/. Whether it will appeal equally to the ‘red wall’ of working-class voters – the ones who defected to Johnson over the issue of Brexit in 2019 – has yet to be seen. Boris doesn’t seem to be doing so badly in the opinion polls just now. And that’s without the demon Corbyn to put people off.
What these two debates reveal, in my view, are the latent and instinctive authoritarianism of Britain’s new political order, together with – of course – the weakness of the parliamentary opposition to it. In ordinary times the latter might be counter-balanced by extra-parliamentary opposition: if it weren’t for the Coronavirus, which is making people scared to leave their homes, and prohibited from mingling in large crowds; and this new Police Bill, which will make it impossible to protest effectively even in defence of the right to protest.
Is this outcome deliberate? Boris, I think, isn’t clever enough. Dominic Cummings undoubtedly is. He has left Number 10, hasn’t he? – But wait: what about the shake-up of the civil service that’s expected in a year’s time, to make it more ‘efficient’ (that is, subservient to Ministers): https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/16/radical-shake-up-of-civil-service-comms-to-be-in-place-by-april-2022? That has the fingerprints of Dominic all over it. And all this together – the Police Bill, the nuclear weapons, the civil service reforms – mark a clear stage in the transition to a more authoritarian Britain in the near future, which some are already labelling neo– or at least proto-Fascist. As a historian, I’m holding my fire on the nomenclature. But whatever it is, it will greatly undermine the ‘traditional British liberties’ which Priti Patel should have learned about at school.
PS (Next day.) Apparently the Committee Stage of the Police Bill is being delayed. A hopeful sign?
Populism can slip into elective dictatorship without having to call it fascism, aided by Tory majorities perhaps stretching into the distant future. The authoritarian elements are there in government policies and actions, such as intolerance of civil liberties, dispensing with parliamentary norms when it suits them, expelling party members who disagree with the leader etc. The Conservatives think they represent views of many English voters, and no doubt opinion poll to support them, but Patel has party members in mind as she no doubt hopes to succeed Johnson as the leader of a very little England beyond Europe. What a thought.
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