The Curtailment of the Right to Protest

Recent graduate Tom Hannah sees the throttling of the voice of protest as a serious infringement of intergenerational justiceIF_Blog_Vox_Pop_Retro_Mic_logo_revised

We are led to believe that the freedoms that define Britain as a democratic and liberal country are being challenged and undermined by foreign terrorist organisations who want to fundamentally alter British values. This scaremongering, peddled by politicians and the media, has provided cover for our governments to surreptitiously siphon away rights in regard to privacy, rights to protest and more recently Internet freedom. By using the war on terror and “national security” as justification, my generations’ rights to challenge government have been irrevocably changed. We are more monitored and under greater surveillance than any generation before and I feel it is a part of the assault on intergenerational fairness that is rarely highlighted.

How effective is protest?

The viability of protest as a means of shaping policy is disputable. One could point to the worldwide protests against the Iraq War in 2003 as an indication of the futility of protest. It has gone down in history as the largest protest ever, and did it stop the war? Absolutely not. Only a month later we witnessed the bombing of Baghdad, a city of exceptional cultural and historical importance.

One could also point to the more recent student protests against the rise in tuition fees. Thousands lined the streets to criticise the coalition policy that seemed so counter-intuitive. Did we see a reversal in policy? Sadly not.

Despite the failures of these two protests the importance of public displays of defiance should not be underestimated. Protest is a useful tool in displaying the voice of the many against the few, and reminding the ivory-tower politicians that they are technically representatives of the people – although it must be easy to forget when you’re earning three times the average wage, have two houses and an “expenses” account.

How have our rights been curtailed?

The freedom to challenge the authorities has been chipped away since Thatcher. The introduction of the Employment Act 1980 and the amendments in 1982 restricted the numbers allowed on the picket line and began the process of criminalising closed-shop agreements.

The introduction of the Trade Union Act in 1984 made it illegal strike without a ballot held prior to strike action. By 1993, two years after my birth, one could argue that the ability of trade unions to effect change had been greatly reduced. Collective bargaining is now largely ineffective, and the public sector has paid the price in recent years.

In the past 15 years we’ve also begun to see a reduction in the effectiveness of public protest. The Human Rights Act 1998 enshrines the right to peaceful protest; nevertheless, newer measures have been introduced that have diminished the ability to protest, and we’ve seen a increase in police powers. Police have the power to stop and search without suspicion under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. And as witnessed in the student protests, the use of kettling has become a means of ensuring that marches aren’t mobile and are contained. Furthermore, protestors are now prevented from protesting in Parliament Square. This is arguably the most draconian of all measures, considering that the greatest protests in recent history have taken place in central squares close to the most important political institutions, such as those in Egypt (Tahrir Square), China (Tiananmen Square), Russia (Red Square) and Ukraine (Independence Square).

Our rights to challenge our employers and our politicians are slowly being etched away and, whilst this is going on, we are also witnessing a growth in police militarisation. In 2009 we saw the death of Ian Tomlinson at a G8 protest due to police brutality. London Mayor Boris Johnson has supported the use of water cannon as a means of dealing with protest.

In what way can young people challenge the system?

Although, as I’ve already mentioned, I feel protest is an ineffective means of policy change, as I’m of the disposition to believe that key decisions are made behind closed doors in hush-hush settings, this doesn’t mean that I think protest is a totally impotent measure. I believe that there are ways in which my generation can protest and make a difference.

Firstly, I think it is imperative that protests remain peaceful. Although violence has proven extremely successful in history, it is simply not tolerated in modern societies, and if your protest turns ugly you can guarantee that public opinion will turn against you; moreover, the media are very effective at publicising violence/criminal damage over the message you are attempting to espouse – a recent example being the vandalising of a war memorial at a protest. Although the action of a single individual, it became the story of the protest instead of the anti-austerity message.

Secondly, we need to find a way in which we can legally disrupt the day-to-day proceedings of politicians or corporations. I feel that marching on a sunny Saturday afternoon isn’t going to help get your message across. We need boycotts, sit-ins and disruptions in the places where key meetings are held – even in the House of Commons.

Lastly, we have to use the Internet to organise and ensure that we can transfer ideas from the digital realm into the political realm. It’s no good signing an Avaaz petition and thinking you’ve done your part: you need to lobby and agitate if you want to innovate.

Whilst the desire of the young to effect change can seem hopeless at times, we can still form a critical mass that can shape policy in the future. Politicians may be trying to dampen our spirits and voices but it is up to us to find effective means to circumvent the law without breaking it. The days of effective protest may be passing, so it’s up to my generation to find away to ensure politicians are still held to account and aren’t allowed to surreptitiously make policy that is against the interests of the people they represent.