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The right to protest is eroding in Britain

The right to protest is eroding in Britain

The UK is one of the world's oldest democracies, but there is now growing concern about the loss of basic rights – not least the right to protest.

A retired woman faces up to two years in prison after she lined up outside court carrying a sign reminding the jury of her right to acquit. An engineer has been sentenced to three years in prison after he hung a banner with the slogan “Just Stop Oil” on a bridge. Simply walking slowly down the street as part of a protest can result in arrest.

Hundreds of environmental and climate activists were arrested against the backdrop of peaceful demonstrations. The reason is changes in the law, which, according to experts, entail a severe restriction of the right to protest.

The conservative government says these are far-reaching measures that harm the economy and disrupt daily life. Others are deeply concerned about British democracy.

– The government has been very clear about what it wants to achieve, that is, it basically wants to suppress legitimate and legal protests, says Jonathan Porritt, former president of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth.

Patchwork democracy

Great Britain is one of the oldest democracies in the world. It was here that the Magna Carta was signed more than 800 years ago, an agreement that serves as the basis for both Parliament and the country's independent judiciary.

The system is based on an “unwritten constitution,” that is, a set of laws, rules, agreements, and legal provisions that have accumulated over the years.

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The result is that we depend on the government for self-policing, says political scientist Andrew Blake of King's College London, who also wrote the book Democratic Turmoil in the UK.

“You hope those in power will act correctly,” he adds.

But what if they don't? During his three years in power, Boris Johnson pushed the powers of the Prime Minister to the breaking point. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also been accused of being self-absorbed. Among other things, he asked Parliament to bypass the Supreme Court after the court refused to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Critics believe that these measures have led to cracks in Britain's democratic foundations.

Strict measures against climate action

Not least of all is the treatment of environmental activists that has caused the warning lights to go on. To draw attention to the climate issue, they closed roads and bridges, attached themselves to trains, threw paint on works of art, sprayed buildings with blood red paint, and sprinkled orange powder on athletes.

Groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain believe that civil disobedience can be justified because of the dire consequences of climate change. For his part, Sunak sees activists as “ideologically fanatical”.

In 2022, authorities adopted a new law that means disorderly conduct can be punished with up to ten years in prison. In 2023, the definition of disruptive protests was expanded. In addition, the police were given increased powers to search people. It was also decided to punish protesters who block roads or other important infrastructure with up to one year in prison.

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In recent months, hundreds of Just Stop Oil activists have been arrested based on a new law criminalizing slow-motion protests. Some were also sentenced to prison for this.

Engineer Morgan Truland was one of two activists who scaled a bridge over the River Thames in October 2022, causing the road below to be closed for 40 hours. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but was released on December 13 after serving 14 months.

Incidental case law

The UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights, Ian Fry, believes that the new laws constitute a direct attack on the right to peaceful assembly. But the British government rejects the criticism.

– Those who break the law should feel its full force, is the answer to Snack.

Some legal experts also point out that the case law appears too haphazard. Half of the accused environmental activists were acquitted by juries after explaining their position in court. Others were not allowed to speak about climate change or their personal convictions in court. If they refuse to follow the judge's instructions, they risk being charged with contempt of court.

Environmental activist and former government lawyer Tim Crosland believes this is reminiscent of the way protesters are treated in Russia and China. Like when retired social worker Trudi Warner was accused of holding up a banner outside a London court that read “Jury – You have every right to acquit the defendant according to your conscience.”

Is Brexit to blame?

Many legal experts believe this development indicates that political leaders have acquired an increasingly permissive attitude towards British democracy. Many believe that Britain's exit from the European Union is among the reasons, and that a man like Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.

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– People were promoted to senior positions and then behaved in ways that were difficult to reconcile with maintaining a stable democracy, says Andrew Blake of King's College.

It seems that the populist instinct is still the characteristic of the government. In November, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be illegal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda because the country was not safe for refugees. The government responded by announcing a new law declaring Rwanda a safe country. Some people think it's almost like saying “all dogs are cats.”

81 years on the barricades

Many proposals have been put forward about how to remedy what many believe is Britain's democratic deficit, but at present there are no concrete legislative proposals. At the same time, climate activists find that they are fighting not only for the environment, but for the right to protest as well.

Anglican priest Sue Parfitt (81 years old), a member of Christian Climate Action, says she has been arrested several times. But this does not prevent her from being an activist. She believes protests are also important to preserve democracy. The fact that she faces prison time is less important.

– It would be difficult for me to go to prison at 81 years old. “But I'm ready to go,” says Sue Parfitt.