Today
Tue 25 January 2022

Johnson is sold to voters as a libertarian full of bonhomie – but his Government is suppressing freedom of speech and movement

Peppa Pig World, we learned from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his speech to the CBI, is a place with disciplined schools, “safe streets, virtually no crime”. Everything and everyone conforms to the rules. “I loved it,” Johnson told his audience. “It is very much my kind of place.”

Johnson has a reputation for being a great libertarian leader. The Coronavirus lockdowns, we were told, were an affront to his liberal tendencies. He’s the enemy of red tape, the ruiner of regulations. And yet, his fantasy of Peppa Pig World tells a different story. Despite the narrative we are fed, Johnson falls far short of his libertarian self-image.

Lockdowns aside, which were necessitated for public health more than political expediency, one of Johnson’s first acts as Mayor of London was to ban alcohol on public transport. A policy welcomed by some, but not indicative of a free-wheeling approach to freedoms. As Prime Minister, he wasted no time in unlawfully shutting down Parliament

How can a libertarian proponent of freedom of speech close down the space dedicated to democratic debate?


No More Chains

Central to Johnson’s authoritarian tendency is his Government’s new Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. Last week, the Home Secretary Priti Patel introduced new amendments to the Bill that strengthened police powers to shut down and even criminalise protests. 

The amendments include criminalising “locking on”, with specific emphasis on people locking themselves to transport infrastructure. The move appears to be a response to Insulate Britain protests, and protests against deportation flights, both of which involve people attaching themselves to transport, railways or roads. The police will enjoy new powers to stop anyone they reasonably believe may “lock on” to, or obstruct, major transport works. 

Locking on has been a vital part of peaceful and nonviolent protests for centuries, from suffragettes chaining themselves to Parliament’s gates to Greenham Common women attaching themselves to the famed military base’s fence. 

The vague wording of the proposed law means it could feasibly be applied to people linking arms and creating a human chain, even holding hands, as well as the more obvious acts of attaching oneself to a physical object. In doing so, it undermines a long history of nonviolent resistance where protesters put their own bodies on the frontline of the cause they believe in. 

Such vagaries are a problem throughout the Bill, which allows the police to stop a protest if it creates too much “noise” and “disruption”, or causes someone “serious annoyance” and “serious inconvenience”. The problem is, one person’s inconvenience is another person’s no-bother. The lack of specificity when giving the State wide-ranging powers to prevent people’s freedom of speech, assembly and movement is deeply troubling. 


Thought-Crime

The new clauses in the Bill don’t stop there. Police will be given new powers to stop and search people at protests to avoid “serious disruption”, or if they believe a protester is carrying a “prohibited object” such as those used to “lock on” to infrastructure. Refusing could lead to a 51-week jail term. 

Then there’s the use of the Serious Disruption Prevention Order or SDPO. This order can be imposed on anyone convicted of a “protest-related offence” which, as the above demonstrates, could now include linking arms while chanting and marching through the local city centre. 

According to the Bill, an SPDO can be applied to someone whose activities are “likely to result in serious disruption”. This means a person can be prevented from even getting to a protest, so long as there’s enough suspicion they may well be disruptive should they ever get there. 

The SPDO severely restricts people’s freedom of movement. Those who have an order imposed upon them can be forced to report to the authorities whenever the courts demand it, as often as they demand it. They can be prevented from going to certain places, socialising with certain people – even blocked from using the internet to “encourage” people to “carry out activities related to a protest”. Something as simple as tweeting about a protest could be treated as a violation of the order, which lasts for two years. 

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Freedoms for the Few, Not the Many

The assault on the right to non-violence and peaceful protest exposes a hypocrisy in the Conservative Party. 

Back in 2018, there was an attempt by Labour to introduce “buffer zones” around abortion clinics designed to protect women from harassment while accessing healthcare. Then Home Secretary Sajid Javid called the measure “disproportionate”. More recently, Sir Desmond Swayne said they would be a “curb on freedom of assembly” and Congleton MP Fiona Bruce accused the zones of threatening “hard won” freedoms of speech, assembly and democracy.  

All but one of the Conservative MPs who voted against a Ten-Minute Bill in 2020 to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics voted in favour of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Bruce did, however, express concerns about the Government’s plans, not least because they would curtail the ability of people to protest outside abortion clinics.   

It’s not the only example where the Conservative Party’s commitment to freedom of speech seems to privilege anti-rights activism over other types of speech or protest. The Department of Education’s white paper on freedom of speech in universities quoted research by ADF International – an organisation that claims to fight for ‘freedoms’ while seeking to deny women freedom of choice when it comes to healthcare, and LGBTIQ people freedom to marry. 

Then there was the news this week that individuals who criticised the current Government are not welcome in Whitehall – a move in direct opposition to the white paper on freedom of speech in universities.

Ultimately, the current Conservative Government appears more interested in the freedoms of the few than the many. This is a Government in favour of the freedom to rip up red tape and wreak havoc on regulations, let alone the freedom to circumvent due process in order to deliver crony contracts. But when it comes to the freedom of the public to protest these same Government actions, it becomes clear how one-sided its commitment to liberty is. 

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has built his reputation on a liberatarian pose – fuelling a culture war where his Government rails against “cancel culture” and accuses the left of being “snowflakes” who are intent on shutting down any speech or statue they don’t like. 

The truth is that Johnson is an authoritarian in libertarian clothing. He may claim his passion for freedom of speech when it allows him to attack “wokeness”. But as the head of a Government that wants to clampdown on hard-earned freedoms to protest, the narrative of Johnson as an “instinctive liberal” is as fictional as an episode of Peppa Pig. 

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