“Dissent is not disloyalty but a natural, noble and potentially powerful tradition”
By Shami Chakrabarti and James Welch, Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties)
Dissent is not disloyalty but a natural, noble and potentially powerful tradition. In this country it has played an important role in achieving social and political change – the extension of the franchise to all men and then to women, the establishment of the welfare state, the consolidation of union rights – and in resisting unjust laws – the poll tax being an obvious example. Abroad we have seen dictators toppled by the sheer force of numbers in the street.
Of course, it is rare for public demonstration alone to immediately or directly achieve its goals. The diversity of concerns people feel compelled to contest and the likelihood that, if some support a cause strongly enough to protest, it is almost certain that others will take an equally strong contrary view, make that unlikely.
At the very least however, is a vital pressure valve in any society. It allows those with keenly felt opinions on an issue – particularly, but not exclusively, those that are not promoted or prioritised by any of the mainstream political parties – to express them and in so doing to feel validated, vindicated or at least noticed. But one might argue that protest means even more. It is as important a part of our democratic system as the electoral process. Both are routes by which ideas can be promoted and debated. But while formal parliamentary politics is coordinated and constrained by party discipline and the search for the centre ground, protest is by its nature messy and disruptive. For this reason too many in authority can come to see it as an irritant in need of control.
The forms of even wholly non-violent protest are so wide and varied that those seeking to control it have at times resorted to creating quite specific offences to deal with a particular tactic. In 1994 Parliament created the offence of ‘aggravated trespass’ as a means of restraining hunt saboteurs. But an offence created in response to one type of protest can be used in other situations as well. So we have seen the same law used against UK Uncut protesters who staged a protest in Fortnum and Masons during the TUC’s March for the Alternative in March 2011. Similarly, over-broad laws that were not created with protest especially in mind can have their original intent twisted for use against protesters. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997, designed to address the problem of stalking, has been employed by large companies to injunct those protesting against controversial developments.
But it is not all bad news. With the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 a positive right to protest has for the first time been established in the United Kingdom. Law, policy and action that unjustifiably interferes with the right to protest can be challenged as incompatible with the rights guaranteed by Articles 10, freedom of expression, and 11, freedom of assembly. At last we have a yardstick that those who would curtail protest can be measured against.
But the law remains a labyrinth both for those who organise and take part in demonstrations and for those who must advise them. It is therefore a pleasure to welcome a book such as this; one that compendiously sets out the law relevant to protest. It will no doubt become a standard resource for campaigners and their advisers. Those that are well-informed will be better able to challenge the actions of the police and others who overstep the mark and seek to suppress the hard-won democratic right to peaceful dissent.
Shami Chakrabarti and James Welch, Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties)
From the foreword to the book