The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent

14.3.21

Shame on Priti Patel: a placard at the protest outside New Scotland Yard on March 14, 2021 following the heavy-handed suppression of a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common the evening before (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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So the war is on, then — of home secretary Priti Patel versus the people; Priti Patel, the authoritarian bigot, versus anyone who dares to disagree with her about anything; Priti Patel, a woman, and the child of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, who, nevertheless, embodies the worst aspects of an arrogant, intolerant, racist, sexist, planet-despoiling, rights-hating elite British patriarchy.

For anyone concerned about civil liberties in the UK, Priti Patel’s deeply troubling attitude to dissent seems to have fuelled yesterday’s heavy-handed response by the police to a peaceful vigil by women on Clapham Common mourning the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly by a serving police officer.

The sight of policemen using force to break up the vigil was an act of truly astonishing insensitivity, and while there are clearly questions to be asked of the officers involved — concerning their blatant ‘manhandling’ of grieving women, and claims that some officers deliberately trampled on flowers left by woman at the vigil, as well as the risibility of the Metropolitan Police’s own claims about them having to break up the vigil because of concerns about public safety in light of the ongoing Covid regulations — it seems most pertinent to look up the chain of command for an explanation of how and why such a heavy-handed and insensitive display of force took place — and that chain of command leads inexorably, via the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, to Priti Patel.

As Lindsey Graham, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, tweeted last night, “I have negotiated with the Metropolitan Police for 20 years over Stop the War demos. They are very sensitive to what is and isn’t popular. They know the feeling over Sarah Everard is huge. So why the Clapham Common attack? Ordered from highest places. Looking at you Priti Patel.”

Priti Patel, the most shockingly authoritarian home secretary in living memory — in a role that notoriously radicalises those who take the job — has, to be blunt, now added women to a roll-call of what she perceives to be a threat to her notions of law and order — a roll-call that, to anyone paying attention to her shocking authoritarian pronouncements over the last few years, also includes the environmental campaigners of Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter protestors, Gypsies and travellers, and, lest we forget,”lefty lawyers”, or “activist lawyers.”

Moreover, the timing of yesterday’s assault is far from coincidental, as tomorrow the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 has its second reading in the House of Commons. This horrendous bill includes “a desire to curtail the kinds of protests we saw last summer with Black Lives Matter, on the one hand, and Extinction Rebellion, on the other”, and “new regulations about unauthorised encampments … aimed at the Traveller community”, as Kenan Malik explains in an Observer article today, adding that Priti Patel ”has long expressed her distaste for the Black Lives Matter protests”, and also noting that “[t]he official policy paper on the new bill begins with quotes from Cressida Dick [about] how the Extinction Rebellion actions demonstrated the need for new laws ‘to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly’ but do cause disruption.”

Malik adds:

The 1986 Public Order Act already allows police to impose restrictions on a demonstration if they believe it could create “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The new bill extends these reasons for curbing protests: the police can curtail a demonstration if they believe “the noise” it makes is disrupting the “activities of an organisation” or has a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”. It does not matter how small or large a protest is. There is a specific section on “imposing conditions on one-person protests”.

A picket line outside a workplace, a demonstration at the Home Office, a sit-down in Parliament Square – all can be limited or banned if they are deemed to have an undue “impact” upon people. The whole point about demonstrations is to have an impact. A protest that does not disrupt in some way is not a protest. It is whispering in the corner.

Malik also explains, crucially, that “[t]he bill also allows the home secretary to define the meaning of ‘serious disruption’ by ‘regulation’. In other words, she has the right to change the reasons for curtailing protest as she wishes and to do so without parliamentary approval.”

The right to protest is fundamental to all notions of what separates liberal democracies from authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. As a pro-active component of freedom of speech, it can contain elements of disruption, or even of a threat to the status quo; otherwise, it is neutered. And while violence is never condoned, the law has long recognised that, when people with a grievance can claim that the authorities are refusing to listen to their concerns, and that no avenue of redress is open to them, they are allowed to protest, so long as that protest doesn’t involve violence.

In 1999, for example, this happened in a ruling by the Law Lords — then the highest court in the land — when campaigners protesting for public access to Stonehenge — after 14 years in which a military-style exclusion zone had been declared every summer solstice after the shocking events of the Battle of the Beanfield — were arrested on the verge of the road by the monument. The Law Lords threw out the conviction, and public access to Stonehenge was subsequently restored.

Non-violent direct action, by its very nature, repudiates violence as a means of achieving a movement’s aims, but actively embraces disruption as a legitimate means to that end, and history teaches us that everything we value in liberal democracies has only come about through struggle — the end of serfdom, the end of slavery, the legal obstruction of executive tyranny, universal suffrage, universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights, environmental safeguards, unemployment benefits, pensions and crucial battles against sexual discrimination and racism.

Over the centuries, many of these struggles have involved significant bloodshed and violence — usually on the part of the authorities — but our notions of what constitutes a liberal democracy, the civil society we so often take for granted, has largely survived because parts of the establishment — those with money, land and power — have recognised that a country based on universal rights is infinitely preferable to one of executive tyranny and the oppression of the population, by whatever means necessary.

Parts of the establishment have, however, always disliked this kind of progress, although they have tended to keep their grumbling behind closed doors. Patel, however — ironically, as the daughter of immigrants — represents the historic British establishment at its worst.

A bully, as well as a bigot, she should not be in office at all, and only is because the execrable Boris Johnson needed fanatical pro-Brexit ministers for his lamentable ‘Get Brexit Done’ cabinet of second-rate politicians following his election victory in December 2019; that collection of inadequates that then ended up manifestly ill-equipped to deal with the arrival of the Covid pandemic.

For Patel, the authoritarianism of the government’s Covid restrictions, and the lack of meaningful debate and opposition — provided by the temporary extinction of Parliament as a meaningful part of the democratic process, and by the general uselessness of Keir Starmer — has given her the illusion that her malignant dream of a UK in which all meaningful dissent is stopped, by police violence, if necessary, is close to coming true, and it is incumbent on all of us who value the right to robustly challenge what is wrong through protest — and, when required, active disruption of the status quo — to resist.

See you on the streets!

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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34 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, my response to the astonishingly insensitive police violence at the peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, and my reflections on its curious timing, coinciding with the second reading – in the House of Commons tomorrow – of home secretary Priti Patel’s horribly authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to legislate meaningful protest out of existence.

    Patel’s bill specifically responds to the disruptive protests of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, but after the Clapham Common incident, she seems to have added women to her roll-call of “enemies within.” Her disgraceful bill also proposes a clampdown on travellers, as was flagged up in November 2019, and as I discussed in my most-read article ever, “‘First They Came for the Travellers’: Priti Patel’s Chilling Attack on Britain’s Travelling Communities”: https://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2019/11/15/first-they-came-for-the-travellers-priti-patels-chilling-attack-on-britains-travelling-communities/

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Nicki Jameson wrote yesterday:

    She was answered today.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I am so glad, Nicki. I was down at New Scotland Yard at the start of the protest, but I didn’t stay, and it was only when I got home that I discovered how big it had got. Great video from Parliament Square! https://twitter.com/SistersUncut/status/1371144587931230219

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    She is a horror, power crazed … twisted … and deeply malevolent

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I find her attitudes very deeply offensive on a very personal level, Damien.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    The response to the original vigil was horrific. Kind of like the US. What is up with these authoritarian goons across the planet.
    #F12 #DEFUNDPolice #ACAB

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Solidarity, sister Jan!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy, back at ya, brother!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Terry Griffin wrote:

    Covid just keeps on giving … be interesting to see if there is any increase in Covid infections in the next two weeks … especially among women … TAG 🙂

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Most people were wearing masks, Terry – so I doubt it. It’s the anti-mask, anti-vaxx people who are going to be the spreaders.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy Bungay wrote:

    I’ve added a link to this important reporting to my latest show with Colin Crilly where we discuss this in general terms – Many Thanks http://www.mixcloud.com/andy-bungay

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Andy. Good to hear from you.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    She has been a very willing executioner of very illiberal policies. Someone less sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, refugees and minorities would be harder to find. Whatever it takes to make sure nobody could possibly mistake her for a role model for ethnic minorities. There are psychiatric explanations for such conduct. She understands the Conservative base in the same way Johnson does and is willing to say or do anything in slavish devotion to acceptance from it in the same way Gove has devoted his fanaticism to its service.

    This second shift of the Conservatives rightward, from Thatcherism to the populist nationalism of UKIP is worrisome, and repressive legislation an inevitable outcome. I’m not optimistic that Parliament as it’s presently constituted is going to achieve much by way of checks and balances in the repressive nature of the bill. The idea that a Home Secretary alone can decide which demonstrations are to be permitted and which prevented seems like a thoroughly unsatisfactory and undemocratic way to progress such matters. The Left desperately need to get their act together and speak with one voice.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts and analysis, David. Yes, sadly, repressive legislation is to be expected from a party that has moved towards the far right. If it does pass – which , of course, it might, given that the Tories have a majority, and moderate Tory MPs have become quite stunningly supine – Patel’s self-declared right to decide what is permissible is going to be a trigger for resistance, just like Tony Blair’s exclusion zone around Parliament was.

    In addition, of course, any further clampdowns on women or on people standing up against the historical oppression of people of colour aren’t going to play well with anyone except the old intolerant rump of white Britain, and Extinction Rebellion protestors continue to be driven by a desire to actually get arrested, which makes repressing them rather more difficult.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, they can kettle and they can legislate but there is natural law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and in the end history always sides with progressive protest.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    I like that assessment, David. It certainly helps to explain how people’s actions over many centuries brought us to the high watermark of our rights, pre-Thatcher, but progressive societies can crumble when extremists manage to take control, and I do genuinely think that the anti-democratic impulses that started in the ’80s have mutated into something far worse in the last two decades, and that the bewilderment and anger that has awakened in many people has, additionally, been twisted and directed towards the kind of targets that extremist regimes rely on for their support.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, no question – My crystal ball in 1999 was not what has followed at all. I anticipated steady modest progressive reforming progress through the UN and EU with centre left administrations – instead we got right wing nationalism.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Goateze wrote:

    Was always there Cameron just opened the back door with a Brexit vote.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Dave. Such a chronic failure of leadership. The history books will not be kind to him.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Goateze wrote:

    They are all in a position not to care. They are all toff gamblers.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, despite his chronic political failure, Dave, Cameron was straight on the insanely overpaid speaking circuit as soon as he’d resigned.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Ecer wrote:

    Excellent article … I shall be on the streets in spirit.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks Jane! 🙂

  24. Anna says...

    Followed Sarah’s dreadful fate and the recent protests as well as Ms Patel ever since she came to power at this level. For early or even second generation immigrants being extra tough on the later ones is unfortunately rather common. On the one hand wanting to avoid any accusations of positive bias. On the other one often not only not having any extra sympathy for the others but actually the opposite. Fearing that recent arrivals might destroy the cosy position which the older ones have achieved over the years. Sadly enough most of each immigration wave feels superior to the following ones – although of course there are many individual exceptions. I know that from experience.

    That’s one of the sad side-effects of politically motivated ‘diversity’ in positions of power, rather than honest choices of the persons professionally best suited for the job, no matter their gender, ethnic background, religion or whatever else contributes to political ‘diversity’.

    As for Patel wanting to be the sole decider about demo’s anywhere in the UK, that’s even logistically too absurd for words. Compare that with the Pope – head of arguably the most centralised power structure on earth – is in the process of increasingly delegating power to lower tiers, including the field ones.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. It’s quite tense here in the UK right now for those of us who care about our freedoms. Far too many people, it seems, couldn’t care less. Patel probably ticked the right boxes as a woman and Asian, given how generally dominated Johnson’s circle is by white men, but it was her pro-Brexit stance and her “populist” tone that made her particularly attractive, I fear.

    I agree about implementation. It’s ridiculous for her to suggest micro-managing everything – but it’s presumably aimed primarily at XR and BLM, big disruptive movements. If it goes ahead, the police will regularly be in a quandary, there will be real problems with police violence against protestors on the streets, and there will also be a lot of court challenges. Too many of the Brexit idiots think that we’ve left our human rights obligations behind now that we’ve left the EU, which is what Patel and some of her colleagues want, of course, but they don’t even seem to realise that the ECHR comes with membership of the Council of Europe, which is necessary to join the EU, but which doesn’t miraculously vanish if you leave the EU. Perhaps the Tories will suggest next that we leave the CoE as well!

    What dangerous, idiotic times we live in, and what inadequates we have in positions of power!

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill just passed its 2nd reading in the House of Commons by 359 votes to 263. That’s 359 MPs who don’t believe in the fundamental right to protest that’s at the heart of any society that accepts freedom of expression and assembly, however inconvenient.

    Now it goes to committee and the House of Lords before returning to the Commons to become law. We need to fight it all the way!

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    This is the speech made in the House of Commons by Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, during the bill’s second reading. Powerful words!

    “How often have we heard the notion that somehow liberty is an integral part of the English character, and that we fortunate few in this country are somehow different from the rest of humanity? Not for us authoritarianism, autocracy or, God forbid, the dark slide into fascism. No, no, no—that is for other people and other countries, not us. Yet here we stand, yet again with yet another Bill from this Government stripping the people of this country of yet more liberty and more of their democratic rights.

    “English exceptionalism is a dangerous fallacy, none more so than when it comes to the constant vigilance required of any democracy. It is hubris of the first order—one I fear has infected those on the Government Benches. The potential for the slide into authoritarianism and worse is, as history has clearly demonstrated, part of the human condition. That is the painful and bloody lesson from the 20th century. Yet here we are, with this Bill before us. It is the tip of an authoritarian iceberg—one that is on a collision course with public defiance.

    “Democracy is being swept away in a calculated programme to leave the public muted and powerless. We have the demonisation of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community, a planned voter suppression Bill to strip the right to vote from black and other disadvantaged communities, and the limiting of judicial review to stop the public challenging the Government’s decisions in court and shifting yet more power to the Executive. We have the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which creates a two-tier, “them and us” system of human rights. Now, having passed that, the Government are coming for our rights with a review of UK human rights legislation.

    “Those on the Government Benches are fast moving from becoming a Government to becoming a regime. They want to stifle dissent, so that they are not accountable to the public. Our country—our economy, our politics and our media—is controlled by a small clique of individuals. Over the past 40 years, they have taken more power for themselves at the expense of our democracy. Now they are not even happy with us clinging on to the scraps we currently have.

    “I have directed this speech at Government Members, but to those on my own Front Bench who have finally been brought to the right position of opposition, I say this: it should not have taken the police assault on people gathered peacefully in memory of Sarah Everard to see the assault on democracy that this Bill is. It is writ large, so let this be a wake-up call. We have never seen anything like this Government before.

    “If the Bill goes through, anyone who values their democratic rights must get organised and fight back. I will stand with protesters, irrelevant of the laws passed by this place. I say to anyone in this place and outside who values democracy that we must create a democracy that is fit for purpose for the challenges we face—climate and ecological breakdown, the epidemic of inequality—”

    https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2021-03-16/debates/1BD30E62-8C44-4DCC-BBBA-0BA42E8D61E0/PoliceCrimeSentencingAndCourtsBill

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    For anyone interested in protecting Gypsies and Travellers from the proposals in this bill, please write to your MP via this Friends, Families and Travellers page: https://action.gypsy-traveller.org/page/78097/action/1

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    The bill is now at the committee phase, and the Human Rights Joint Committee is accepting submissions of 1,500 words maximum from interested groups and individuals until March 23: https://committees.parliament.uk/work/153/legislative-scrutiny-police-powers-and-protections-bill/publications/

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    And just a reminder that, for a very good analysis of the problems with the bill, here’s the Good Law Project’s briefing for MPs: https://goodlawproject.org/news/pcsc-bill-briefing-for-mps/

  31. Tue23Mar21: Right To Reside and Resist Anti-Trespass call to action against Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill | The Land Is Ours says...

  32. Anna says...

    Re : 27. Beautiful speech. May it be heard.

  33. Labour Party SW Officials Phil Gaskin, Dominic Collins And Hayley Jackson Force Their Right-Wing Candidates On Bristol Labour Members, Women Level Further Bullying Allegations Against Margaret Hickman, Mayor Marvin Rees And His Boss Kevin Slocombe – says...

    […] The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent So the war is on, then ­ of home secretary Priti Patel versus the people; Priti Patel, the authoritarian bigot, versus anyone who dares to disagree with her about anything; Priti Patel, a woman, and the child of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, who, nevertheless, embodies the worst aspects of an arrogant, intolerant, racist, sexist, planet-despoiling, rights-hating elite British patriarchy. For anyone concerned about civil liberties in the UK, Priti Patel’s deeply troubling attitude to d… […]

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Anna. He ought to have a bright future ahead of him in the Labour Party, but as a Corbyn supporter he seems to have been dumped by Keir Starmer, sadly.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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