Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Just as the Government hails ‘freedom day’ it also restricts the right to protest and denies freedom of movement. Sian Norris asks if this is just freedom for markets and money rather than people

It’s been a funny old time for freedom. 

Last Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the go-ahead of so-called “freedom day” when all Coronavirus restrictions will be lifted, with interventions such as face masks to become a “personal choice.” 

The decision was greeted with a mixture of joy, despair and caution. But one narrative has been clear throughout the pandemic: that Coronavirus restrictions are in opposition to the values of what Johnson called “a freedom-loving country”. It is very difficult, Johnson told the House of Commons, to ask the “British population to uniformly obey guidelines in the way it is necessary.”

Similarly, various right-wing commentators have commented on how Johnson is an “instinctive liberal”, a characteristic which, they claim, has made it challenging for him to impose draconian restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. That instinctive liberalism, one can assume, was behind the alleged comment to “let the bodies pile high” as opposed to introducing a second lockdown. Johnson denies making the comment. 

But hours after Johnson assured the nation that it would soon have its pre-pandemic freedoms back, his Government was voting to take freedoms away via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which passed its third reading by 365 votes to 265 noes

During the vote, “instinctive liberal” Boris Johnson agreed to severely restrict the right to protest. This includes increasing police powers to shut down protests such as processions and assemblies if they “result in serious disruption”, for example “noise”, have “an impact on persons in the vicinity”, or “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity.”

Joining Johnson in the Aye lobby was Sir Edward Leigh, who called Coronavirus restrictions “authoritarianism”. Steve Baker, who referred to lockdown situations as “dystopia”. Mark Harper, a leader of anti-lockdown backbenchers, voted for the Bill, as did various other MPs critical of restrictions such as Sir Desmond Swayne who called wearing a mask “a monstrous imposition.”

Sir Charles Walker, who mounted his own protest against Coronavirus restrictions by walking around London holding a glass of milk, did not vote. 

The Bill also includes longer sentences for protesters who vandalise or remove statues, although an amendment by the Labour Party to introduce tougher sentencing for rapists was voted down by the Conservatives. 


Who is Freedom For?

The gulf between Johnson’s hailing of the UK as “freedom-loving” and the praise heaped on his “liberal instincts”, and a Bill that removes key freedoms around speech and protest, could not be clearer. On the one hand, we have libertarian MPs decrying basic public health measures as “authoritarian.” On the other, we have those same MPs banning people banging drums, shouting slogans and occupying space – often in the pursuit of greater freedoms. 

But we don’t have to look too far to understand what is driving these contradictions. 

One of the protest movements that has received large amounts of criticism from this Government is the environmental activists Extinction Rebellion. The Home Secretary Priti Patel accused the group – who blockade roads and perform disruptive stunts – as threatening the UK way of life and floated the idea of categorising its members as an organised crime group. 

There can be no doubt that the new Bill will further criminalise many of Extinction Rebellion’s activities, making it harder to protest against policies that fail to tackle the climate crisis.

In doing so, the Bill smooths the path for business interests whose activities fuel the same climate crisis – including the individuals and companies linked to oil and gas industries who donated at least £419,000 to the Conservative Party last year. 

Other large Conservative Party donors have a lot to gain from increased restrictions on protests by environmental activists. Sir Michael Hintze, the “godfather of Conservative donors” funds a climate-crisis denying think-thank. He gave £3,000 to Home Secretary Priti Patel. Lord Bamford of JCB fame is one of the Party’s biggest donors while the construction industry influences almost 47% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions. Ukrainian oil man Alexander Temerko has donated around £20,000 to the Conservative Party via the Offshore Group Newcastle. 

This is just one example of a protest movement working in opposition to the interests of Conservative donors that is now facing harsher penalties and restrictions. Various arms of the arms industry, a frequent target for disruptive protests, have spent significant sums on Conservative politicians. 

Business interests linked to HS2 contracts, another hot button protest project, have also donated to or are linked to the Conservatives. For example, non-executive Director of the Keller Group, Baroness Kate Rock, is a Conservative Peer. The group won an HS2 contract. Aggregate Industries, which won a modular track contract, is a historic donor to the Conservative Party, having given significant sums between 2008 and 2011. 

The Conservative Party has also received £60.8 million from individuals and companies within the property sector – another industry that is often the target for protests ranging from rent strikes, occupations and blockades and which would therefore benefit from the Bill. 


The New Plan for Immigration

Alongside the assault on the freedom to protest, last week also saw the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration in the headlines. The plan will make it harder for people seeking asylum to come to the UK, including by changing the rules so that people who arrive via so-called “illegal” routes will be treated differently to those arriving “legally”. It has also been mooted that the plan will create offshore processing centres for people seeking asylum. 

Just as with the Policing, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, the gulf between the New Plan for Immigration and Johnson’s rhetoric about the “freedom-loving” UK is stark. 

While the Conservatives hail freedom day, the walls for a new detention centre for “failed” women asylum seekers is being built in Hassockfield, County Durham.

Mitie, the company contracted to run the asylum housing at Hassockfield, has Conservative Peer Baroness Couttie as its non-executive Director. The old detention centre for women, Yarls Wood, is operated by Serco and linked to Conservative donors. Camilla Soames, wife of Serco’s Director, donated nearly £5,000 to the Party in 2019.

It begs the question: who is freedom for? Does our love of freedom extend to those escaping persecution for expressing their political, religious or social views? Does our love of freedom extend to men, women and children who simply want the opportunity to live free from the fear of conflict and violence? 

Or is freedom for markets and the movement of money, rather than people?

Johnson told Parliament that “every advance from free speech to democracy has come from this country.”

But right now, his party seems intent on rolling back our freedom of speech, freedom to protest and freedom to seek asylum in favour of the freedom to make money. 

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