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‘Terrifying’ – Johnson’s Government ‘Following Far-Right Playbook’ on Crushing Dissent

Labour peer and former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti told Byline Times that new amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are designed to frame people peacefully demonstrating as terrorists

The 2021 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Mark Thomas/Alamy

‘Terrifying’Johnson’s Government ‘Following Far-Right Playbook’ on Crushing Dissent

Labour peer and former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti told Byline Times that new amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are designed to frame people peacefully demonstrating as terrorists

The Government is following the “classic far-right playbook” by introducing new draconian measures which will result in peaceful protestors being treated like terrorists, the former director of Liberty and Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti has told Byline Times

She said that new Government amendments – introduced “out of the blue” in recent weeks – to the controversial Police, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Bill are “even worse” than the existing proposals designed to crackdown on protest. 

“They are very obviously modelled on anti-terror legislation – except they’re for protest,” the former Shadow Attorney General said.

Chakrabarti believes that the Government is following the tactics of far-right ideologue, former Donald Trump strategist and Cambridge Analytica founder Steve Bannon. 

“We know there are close links between these people and the Trump regime,” she told Byline Times. “It’s divide and conquer to get into power and you then keep that campaign going to retain power. 

“You demonise dissent, you crush it. You demonise insurgents from within or without. So whether it’s so-called migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from without – you demonise them because you’ve promised to ‘take back control’ of our borders. And you demonise dissenters from within.

“It’s the classic far-right playbook. And it is terrifying. And people want to be very polite about it but it is thoroughly chilling.”

‘Protest has to be Inconvenient’

The Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill represents “the biggest step-change in many years in criminalising peaceful protest”, according to the barrister who served as the director of the civil liberties and human rights advocacy group Liberty for 13 years.

As well as allowing for increased police powers around protest and criminal consequences for those taking part in peaceful demonstrations, it will make “residing or intending to reside on land without the permission of the owner or occupier” a new criminal offence – “a piece of racist legislation” explicitly targeting the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Chakrabarti said.

“The anti-protest provisions will affect everyone, because everyone benefits from protest and free expression in a supposedly free country and that’s the people who go out and do it and also the people who don’t but who benefit over the centuries from the fruits of their labour,” she told Byline Times. “Whether it’s all of us women who now get to vote because of brave Suffragettes or people no longer living under Apartheid. Where would the world be in the 21st Century if people hadn’t sometimes taken to the streets in previous centuries?”

The provisions in the bill extend existing police powers to place restrictions on protests if they are likely to cause serious disruption to the life of a community, such as damaging property. Under the new plans, nuisance, noise and impact in general could suffice. 

“Whether it’s those who enrich themselves from fossil fuels or developments, we know we’re all supposed to put up with the emissions, we’re supposed to put up with the noise, with the impact and disruption to our lives,” the peer said. “And yet that is subject to a nicely regulated and actually quite deregulated planning process. Whereas, if you cause disruption, noise or impact as a peaceful demonstrator, you’re going to be subject to draconian police powers and criminality, in some cases up to a year’s imprisonment.”

Chakrabarti said there are also concerns around a new measure in the bill which would allow the Home Secretary to “amend the definition of ‘disruption’ in the legislation by Henry VIII powers” – circumventing parliamentary scrutiny. In what circumstances could such a measure be used? “If in the future, the Home Secretary of the day thinks that the police have been too conciliatory with protestors and not suitably political and repressive”, according to Chakrabarti.

She believes that a September 2020 demonstration by Extinction Rebellion activists at a Newsprinters site – which stopped three-and-a-half million copies of national papers from being distributed – has been “part of the trigger” for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Under the new legislation, an “organisation” can now be unlawfully disrupted by protestors, as well as a community. 

Six people were found guilty of wilfully blocking the highway during the protest. A court heard in June that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had been in contact with the police in charge at the time of the demonstration, with calls and messages asking why it had taken so long to resolve. The court also heard how the “two phones of two very senior officers have had their messages deleted”.

For Chakrabarti, the main aim of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is to feed the Government’s ‘culture war’.

“We know that Boris Johnson and Priti Patel blew very loud dog whistles – and sometimes they weren’t even dog whistles, they were foghorns – in particular after the Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter protests of the last couple of years,” she said. “And these protests, yes, at times are inconvenient. Protest has to be inconvenient because, by definition, people are taking to the streets because they don’t have massive media empires or despatch boxes at their disposal. But they also caught the imagination of so many people worldwide. 

“So this is partly about a dog whistle and it is partly about being prepared to crush non-violent protest and discourage people from employing peaceful demonstration tools in the months and years ahead. Unfortunately, because the Government has taken quite a turn to the populist right, we are going to see more conflict.”

‘What they Really Mean is Executive Domination’

The last-minute amendments made by the Government to the bill – which will now enter its report stage in the House of Lords – include the new criminal offence of ‘locking on’ to land, property or another person; banning orders that can be issued against individuals with criminal consequences; and new stop and search powers targeted at protestors – including allowing the police to conduct suspicion-less stop and search.

“If you look at these new suite of measures, you’ve got something that looks like an anti-terror bill – except it’s an anti-protest bill,” Chakrabarti told Byline Times. “It’s demonising protestors because now they’re effectively being treated like terrorists.

“That from a Government that a few years ago was encouraging anti-Brexit demonstrators, from a Prime Minister who a few years ago said he would eat a compulsory ID card, who said he would lie down in front of bulldozers in relation to developments he didn’t approve of. And a Government that is banging on about free speech and ‘cancel culture’. 

“I too believe in free speech, but it’s a two-way street – it can’t just be free speech for people who have media empires or with millions of followers on Twitter because of their controversies, views or celebrity. Free speech has to be for ordinary people who care about the climate or race equality and have nowhere to put it except to go out and demonstrate.”

The Labour peer said that when the bill is taken with the Government’s wider authoritarian agenda – including plans to rescind citizenship, curbing judicial review, voter suppression legislation, and threats to the BBC – it is clear that “no dissenting power or coalition in society is to be tolerated” and that the approach of the Government is “you’re with us or against us”. 

“In the meantime, we’ve got catastrophic pandemic management with a state that’s perfectly prepared to waste taxes and spend money as long as their mates benefit from the contracts,” she added. “It’s very reminiscent of previous periods in history with this populist, far-right politics.

“We’ve got every potential sphere of civil society and democratic life under challenge from this Government, which uses phrases such as ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ but what they really mean is executive domination. Because, as we learnt from their behaviour in 2019 when they shut down Parliament illegally, parliamentary sovereignty is not really on their mind. This is the rise of the super-executive.”

The human rights activist believes that the actions of Boris Johnson’s Government should be viewed as part of a longer trajectory which has been travelling in a concerning direction for decades – including the response to 9/11 and the rise of the ‘War on Terror’ overseen by Tony Blair’s Labour administration.

“We’ve been in a very uncertain world since 9/11 and I’ve been all over on-the-record with mistakes that I think were made by governments on both sides of the Atlantic after 9/11 in their response,” Chakrabarti told Byline Times. “What we’ve seen subsequent to that is exacerbated war and tension and division. Within 10 years of that was the financial crash and greater and greater inequality and a sense that the people who were responsible for that crash didn’t pay for it but a lot of poorer and ordinary people did. Now we’ve seen the culture wars in both America and in the UK. 

“Rather than actually tackling inequality and climate catastrophe, the easier fix for a government just hell-bent on staying in power is even more accelerated division and inequality. As opposed to trying to deal with the fundamental problems that lead to unrest in society. It’s on a trajectory but it’s certainly an acceleration. 

“All governments of the last 20 years need to reflect on how they’ve contributed. When we look at these new provisions [in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill], they are more chilling than what came before, but they’ve been modelled on what came before. They were first used for ABSOs, then for terror suspects and now they’re being used for peaceful dissenters for being a bit of a nuisance essentially.”

The Labour peer also believes that it is a mistake to focus too much on Boris Johnson, as the changes being introduced on his watch are part of a deeper, more fundamental and longer-lasting shift.

“It’s an absolute mistake either to think that Boris Johnson is some sort of clown who is not serious and is just incompetent, or this is just about one person or a few people,” she said. “This is serious, long-lasting institutional domination that is happening. This is something much more fundamental. 

“There is a danger that a lot of political commentators, in particular, are behaving more like drama critics or sports pundits – ‘who landed a punch at PMQs?’ – as opposed to analysing these deeper trends and fundamental shifts.”

On the way forward, Shami Chakrabarti believes that a “broad coalition” is required and differences must be put aside – “whether they are between particular strands in parties or across parties”.

“We’ve got some tough fights ahead,” she told Byline Times. “That’s a reason for pulling together, putting other differences aside to work across all parties. If we don’t defend our rights and freedoms, we will have nothing left with which to fight.”

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