The Future of Protest

Does protest have a future? That’s a question that, even just a few years ago, I would have found unthinkable, not only here in the United Kingdom but around the world as well. That was a time when human rights seemed to be on the march everywhere, the Arab Spring was throwing authoritarian regimes in north Africa and the Middle-East into turmoil, and even confident despots like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Alexsandr Lukashenko in Belarus were having to deploy high levels of coercion merely to mind their backs. Liberals have always been tempted to believe that the course of history leads inevitably to ever-increasing levels of personal freedom, that they are bound to win. That is how many felt.

No more. This year I ran a new lecture series at LSE, on ‘Freedom and the Law in Britain’. Open to all – academic staff, students and professional services alike – the idea was to escape the tyranny of compulsion, of course codes, course work and exam prep, to offer a fresh perspective on a subject of what was clearly great contemporary interest, (It was the efforts to control protest about the Israeli destruction of Gaza that first gave me the idea.)  But is was also, I thought, to being some much needed historical perspective.  My plan was to show how it has invariably been a struggle to exercise civil liberties, that every new group always gets a rough time from the police and the public until (if they win) they are retrospectively deified as constitutional treasures. Reinterpreting the past like this is what has long allowed us to pretend that civil liberties are the life-blood of English democracy: all those valiant suffragettes, impressive hunger-marchers, defiant workers fighting for their basic rights, and so on. My initial thought, then, was to force my audience to get a grip, to see that the present was no worse than the past had been, that we are not ‘becoming the police state’ that many feared but rather repeating old cycles of civil libertarian oppression that would be followed by – if we held our nerve – the good guys winning.

Preparing the lectures changed my mind. It is worse today than it ever was in the past. A succession of public order laws has poured from Westminster in recent years and these have made protest practically impossible, not just old-fashioned stuff like marching and meeting but new-fangled ways of drawing attention to your cause as well (‘slow marching’; ‘locking-on’; even just being ‘noisy’ in the wrong places; and much else). I knew that elected parliamentarians of both parties have never liked protestors as in their bones (and we can see why) they think the best, indeed the only right thing to do, is to stand for parliament as they have all (by definition, successfully) done. But the current antagonism has been outlandish in its reach: it is as though overwhelmed by the scale of the problems they face, MPs have decided that it is easier to hound that pro-EU bloke who greets them with some music on the way in, or some other single protestor who sits across the road reminding them, day in, day out, that they have blood on their hands. As the power of our sovereign parliament shrinks before our eyes in the impoverished country that Brexit Britain has become, so ‘taking back control’ ends up reduced to being the ability to bully into subjection those citizens who protest in the hope of changing the country for the better.

Three aspects to the current on-going effort to criminalise effective protest make things worse than in the past.

First it is very unlikely that any new Labour administration will roll back the powers accumulated at the centre of government. Labour has not been civil libertarian in spirit since the days of George Lansbury in the 1930s and (briefly) Jeremy Corbyn a few years ago. Neither had any electoral success. The leader who did, Tony Blair, adopted all previous Tory laws on protest and added many of his own.  Keir Starmer is likely to follow this path, more aware than even Blair was that in Britain’s flawed democratic system coercion pays electoral dividends.

Second, while it is true the police have historically never been (to put it at its mildest) exactly sensitive to the necessity of accommodating protest, they have usually been mindful of their obligation to obey the law, or at very least the risk of not doing so. In recent years a succession of government ministers from the prime minister down have sought to pressurise senior police officers to act to ban protest where they have no legal authority to do so and/or to be more aggressive in their policing where such protest does take place. I think no such overt effort to interfere with the operational independence of the police has ever occurred here since democracy took root in Britain at the end of the last century. Weirdly aggressive ministers who in past administrations would never have escaped the ranks of junior ministers (if they made it that far) now don the constable’s helmet and yell from the sidelines for more, not less police violence. The police are confused as to which to follow, authority or the law.

Third, there is the recent altogether closer association that has been fostered between corporate power and the police.  Much contemporary protest on climate change and its effects has been focused not on governmental but rather on those large private companies that benefit so hugely from expediting the destruction of our planet. They do this perfectly lawfully of course, but lawful too should be the peaceful means of protest designed to draw their conduct to the wider public while also attempting to slow down their polluting endeavours. Increasingly the police work with private power to make such protest impossible, agreeing how to police the environmentalists so as to reduce their effect.

What can be done? There are still bulwarks in place defending the rights of protestors.  Some juries at least have been willing to treat protestors with respect and acquit where the state has been baying for punishment. Now and again judges take the rule of law seriously (much more so than in the past) and rule against abuses of executive power. Smart phones make police brutality much harder than in the past, and social media has helped dilute the homogenising force of the right-wing press. Business boycotts by individuals are hard to defeat as the government has not yet got the capacity or the will to force us to buy products produced by exploitation or illegal occupation.

We still need, though, to be even smarter than ever before if we are to work out new ways of enjoying the solidarity that follows from a mass action against oppressive action by the state and its corporate partners, ways that do not end up with many of us in jail. In the old, pre-democratic days, it was a riot that power truly feared; even as recently as the late 1980s, it was the anti- poll tax disturbances that helped bring the Thatcher premiership to an end.  But such violence needs to be very carefully focused if it is to succeed, and – let’s face it – the essence of a riot is its uncontainability.

What does the future hold for protest? How should we do it today? Readers, any ideas?


Shami Chakrabarti on human rights

Human Rights. The Case for the Defence (Allen Lane 2024)

(A preview of a forthcoming book review in the Irish Times)

In the middle of writing this review I heard Shami Chakrabarti on the radio, eviscerating some confused Tory advocate of the UK’s proposed new law to remove a few asylum seekers to Rwanda. Chakrabarti was courteous throughout, her politeness serving only to maroon her opponent ever deeper in contradictions of his own making. The exchange brought back happy memories of peak Chakrabarti, the young, brilliant women from a diverse background holding forth fearlessly in defence of civil liberties on this or that TV show at a time when everyone watched the same programmes. This was when a supposedly socialist government was brutally disrupting basic liberties in its pursuit of those whom it suspected were linked to Islamic terrorism: at times it seemed that only Shami (as everyone everywhere called her) and her Liberty cohort of young activists stood between government and a police state. Departure from Liberty was followed by a brief engagement with Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle which did not go well. But it did lead to her securing a seat in the House of Lords where she takes the Labour whip and continues to cause mischief, these days from within rather than without the corridors of power.

Chakrabarti also now writes books, albeit (as here) not exactly boasting about her elevation into the fabricated aristocracy that is the current house of lords (though she clearly likes the place despite herself: her acknowledgements contain an array of those she has met there even if they all come heavily disguised by use of their pre-ennoblement names). The theme of this volume is universal rather than local human rights, and Chakrabarti is excellent on the historical origins of her subject and how it took off in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The book is at its best showing how the idea of human rights can have a direct bearing on the problems of today, whether they be about war, climate change, poverty or artificial intelligence. In Chakrabarti’s hands, the underlying values are what matter about human rights, forming a road-map to civilised living at a time of change and crisis. I cannot offhand think of a better, more attractive introduction to the subject for those curious to know more about it than the occasional newspaper headline.

Chakrabarti cleverly embraces within the book’s wider remit a robust reassertion of the value of the British Human Rights Act, a law passed in the early, idealistic phase of the Blair/Brown hegemony. This is the measure that will forever be associated with Chakrabarti. Increasingly excoriated since enactment by a plethora of government ministers, its critics now include most Tories and a succession of Conservative prime ministers, the sort of people who want such rights for everyone in the world – except those over whom they themselves have direct control.

A modest and rather legalistic measure, the Human Rights Act continues to draw especial ire on account of its connection to the European Convention on Human Rights, overseen by the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. The judgments of that court, of which Irish jurist Síofra O’Leary is president, play an influential but not authoritative role in how the UK law is interpreted. Tories and their fellow-travelling lost imperialists are not strong on detail (the Strasbourg tribunal has nothing to do with the EU for example, a basic point they still frequently miss) but they are bright enough to spot the word ‘European’ in the Convention, and also the term ‘human rights’ which feels to them (schooled as they are in their uniqueness) vaguely continental, possibly even French (they have mostly heard of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and can place it in the Paris of 1789, more or less.)

In the years when what we now call Brexit was regarded by all political leaders as the obsession of lunatics, antagonism to European human rights became an easy way for David Cameron and colleagues like Theresa May to show that though they were in favour of staying in the EU, really in their hearts they hated foreigners. Then Brexit marked defeat of the true enemy, though the UK’s win in 2016 makes Pyrrhus’s triumph against the Romans in Asculum (which destroyed his forces) look like not such a bad result by comparison. For all their taking back of control, the Tories cannot even shake free of the European Convention, being bound to it by a desperate Foreign Office keen to meet important Europeans at least now and again, and by US and European intransigence on the issue of the British border on the island of Ireland.

By focusing on human rights as a universal rather than local idea, Chakrabarti does a fine job in indirectly showing how deluded the arguments against UK human rights law is and how vital it is to defend the law. Protecting the Act is a last stand for the culture of equality and dignity which Chakrabarti so ably presents in this book, and from which a counter-attack for a better, more cosmopolitan Britain might conceivably be made at some point in the future. The same is true of the world in general, where the idea of human rights could in the right hands act as a passport out of populist madness.

Chakrabarti has an enviable writing style, her fluency in print matching her bewitching speaking skills; many times I could hear her voice coming through the text. I found myself wondering (perhaps as she does?) whether these skills could indeed be better deployed (as clearly she once thought) within a Labour government. But the thought of her, say, having to justify the inaction of a Starmer administration in the face of Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian people, or some other travesty of human rights values, fills me with anticipatory horror. Shami is better off where she is, pugilistic in her defence of human rights, a key high priest in this, the most important of our secular religions.