UK’s Crackdown On Protests Sparks Concerns Over Democracy

credit: aljazeera

UK (Parliament Politic Magazine) – “It’s obvious that the government wants to stifle legal and legitimate protest,” stated Jonathan Porritt, a former Friends of the Earth director and environmentalist. A retiree may spend up to two years in prison for carrying a placard outside a courtroom reminding juries of their authority to acquit prisoners. An engineer was sentenced to three years in prison for hanging a banner that said, “Just Stop Oil,” off a bridge. 

Numerous individuals have been arrested for simply strolling leisurely down the street. Hundreds of environmental activists have been detained in the UK for nonviolent protests in response to severe new legislation limiting the right to free speech. The Conservative administration claims that the rules stop radical extremists from destabilizing society and harming the economy. Critics argue that the arrests are concerning.

According to Jonathan Porritt, an ecological and former director of Friends of the Earth, “the government has made its intent very clear, basically to suppress what is legitimate, lawful protest.” An Incongruous Democracy With the centuries-old Parliament, the independent judiciary, and the Magna Carta, Britain is among the oldest democracies in the world. 

The unwritten constitution that supports that system is made up of a collection of laws, customs, traditions, and court rulings that have been amassed throughout time. As a result, we depend on governments to exercise self-control, according to political scientist Andrew Blick of King’s College London and author of Democratic Turbulence in the United Kingdom. You hope those in authority will act appropriately. Boris Johnson stretched the bounds of prime ministerial authority throughout his three scandal-plagued years in office. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has requested that Parliament overturn the decision made by the UK Supreme Court to thwart an asylum-seeker transfer to Rwanda.

Critics claim that the democratic underpinnings of Britain are beginning to crumble. The decent man’s system of checks and balances has now been put to the ultimate test, in the words of former Conservative justice minister David Lidington. The government targets demonstrators. Environmental activists are the canaries in the coal mine. 

They have sprayed fake blood on buildings, glued themselves to trains, stopped highways and bridges, painted artwork, and drenched athletes in orange powder in an effort to raise awareness of climate change. Sunak has referred to organizations like Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil, and Extinction Rebellion as ideological fanatics despite their claims that civil disobedience is appropriate.

A statutory offence of public annoyance was established in 2022 and carried a maximum 10-year jail sentence. The 2023 Public Order Act extended police search authority, defined disruptive demonstration more broadly, and punished protestors who obstruct highways or other vital infrastructure with up to a year in jail. Before King Charles III was crowned in May, six anti-monarchist protestors were taken into custody without even putting up a Not My King sign. 

Everyone was freed without being prosecuted.

A new law that makes slow-walking protests illegal has resulted in the detention of hundreds of Just Stop Oil campaigners in recent months. Some demonstrators were given prison terms that were deemed too harsh. One of two activists who climbed a bridge over the River Thames in October 2022 was structural engineer Morgan Trowland. This action forced authorities to close the roadway below for forty hours. He received a three-year jail term.

After being detained for 14 months, he was released early on December 13. The United Nations’ climate change and human rights expert, Ian Fry, has described Britain’s anti-protest bill as an outright violation of the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly. 

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The Conservative administration has discounted the complaint. According to Sunak, those disobeying the law should suffer the consequences. According to some legal experts, the justice lottery is even more concerning. After outlining their reasons for being there, juries cleared half of the prosecuted environmentalists. Judges, however, have forbidden defendants in previous cases from bringing up climate change or the causes behind their protests. Several defendants were imprisoned for contempt of court after disobeying the instructions.

Environmental campaigner Tim Crosland, a former government lawyer, remarked that it seems more common in China or Russia than in this country for defendants to be silenced. Retired social worker Trudi Warner held a banner saying “Jurors” while sitting outside a London court in March to draw attention to the issue. You have the whole right, in accordance with your conscience, to acquit a criminal. This is her current legal battle. Many legal and constitutional experts argue that Brexit has encouraged an increasingly careless attitude toward Britain’s democratic processes, reflected in how protestors are treated.

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.