Some while ago, pre Covid while in Edinburgh, we passed some EDL (English Defence League, for those readers who haven’t come across them who support a very narrow right wing xenophobic view of what it is to be English) people. If you wanted stereotypes there they were – shaven heads, aggressive tattoos, trainers, jeans and hoodies – two were even play wrestling in the street. Apparently they were from Sunderland. Why were they there? Did I really care? Nope. What was noticeable was that for the ten EDL members there were the same number of police. That is the price for hating what someone says but defending their right to say it.
Made me think about a history lesson years ago when we discussed Oswald Mosley and his black shirts and the introduction of the Public Order Acts in the 1930s resulting from his activities. How that must have jarred with the sense of freedom of expression that arose after the traumas of WW1. The fundamental right to protest was constrained because it was being violently tyi00abused. Let me quote here:
This Act created the offence of conduct conducive to breach of the peace. This section was repealed by the Public Order Act 1986. The offence under this section is replaced by the offence of fear or provocation of violence.
What’s wrong with this? The legislation also means political protests have to be approved by the police. No uniforms can be worn. On the face of it, having some controls to stop riots seems fair and thus far, with the possible exception of its use against some flying pickets in the 1970s and 80s, it doesn’t seem to cause much long term debate or comment though it is always a subject that is ripe for debate. The recent overturning of convictions of those Extinction Rebellion supporters for blocking the Public highway is a case in point where the police’s application of its powers was criticised in the courts as effectively overzealous.
But the addition of conditions to widely drawn rights is something that generally disturbs me and is a hot topic: free speech and cancelling for one. I’m pro free speech and anti control speech. We need to offend, often. But we need to offend without seeking to cause violence. We need to tolerate more and respect less, perhaps.
Isn’t it odd (as in, it’s not odd at all) that once the changes are in place successive governments never repeal the laws that give government more control? 1986, the height of the Conservative’s power and they changed the law. Why? Because the 1936 Public Order Act wording was too vague to guarantee prosecution.
If you add conditions to an exiting position some future government, at the time of some unforeseen emergency, will be able to push the envelope further. We’ve seen it with public right of protest, with habeas corpus (where recent governments, using the generalised fear of terrorism post 9/11 and 7/7 have sought longer and long periods to hold people without trial – A labour government proposed 90 days without charge which Parliament rejected albeit allowing 28 days which was bad enough -, the same government, incidentally, that supported the unconscionable incarcerations at Guantanamo, just to show it’s all about power and control and not about political persuasion – the left are capable of being as egregiously intolerant as the right), and with constant snipings at press freedom. On the other side there is the sanctity of life/assisted suicide debate, seeing to add conditions to free up a long held absolute restriction (and I accept some will argue that this is just as bad, given it opens the way to a future widening of the initially limited exceptions proposed).
I worry therefore about Covid laws. Will they go or be kept, just in case of another pandemic and used in unintended circumstances?
I accept nothing is inalienable. Even the right to life where doctors can turn off machines that keep human husks alive or deny possible medical treatments.
But hard won freedoms should be diluted little and with enormous care. It’s too easy to slip into indifference and allow small erosions until it is too late.
Odd that those unappealing members of the community made me think about how their rights are curtailed and how we need to be very careful in how we justify that curtailment.
Odd too that it is a French man who nailed the basic concept when discussing free speech
‘Sir I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend your right to say it.’