Mud from a Muddy Spring
England was in a wretched state in 1819. The economy was stagnant. Unemployed and destitute soldiers discharged from Wellington’s armies were roaming the country. The authorities feared the advocates of democratic reform and freedom. Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which continued and intensified the repression of public dissent in a law of the same name from 1795. It banned meetings held ‘for the purpose … of deliberating upon any grievance, in church or state’, unless authorised by an official.
Shelley’s sonnet ‘England in 1819’ described ‘Princes, the dregs of their dull race who flow/Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring,’ and ‘Rulers who neither feel, nor see, nor know’, but use the army for ‘liberticide’ – referring specifically to the Peterloo massacre, and to the crushing of freedom generally.
The 1819 Act fell into disuse but remained on the statute book until its repeal by the Public Order Act of 1986. Now it is being revived in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This monstrous piece of legislation is intended to make it a crime to do something in public that causes, or risks causing, ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious inconvenience’.
The point of non-violent protests and demonstrations is to annoy, even to seriously annoy: how else to get people to take notice? And you won’t actually have to annoy anyone seriously to be committing a crime: it’s enough if your action ‘risks’ it. Temporary inconvenience is usually a price worth paying for the right to protest and express ourselves freely. We won’t be allowed to do so noisily, because the law will give the police powers to impose conditions on protests that are thought to be noisy enough to cause ‘intimidation or harassment’ or ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’ to bystanders: noisy protests by one person included. Breach the conditions and you may end up in jail.
Bands of discharged, hungry and threatening soldiers are rarely to be seen wandering the UK. What is the government so scared of that it needs to suppress public protest in this way? It could be the women who came to Clapham Common to mourn the death of Sarah Everard and protest against the epidemic of violence against women; it could be Extinction Rebellion, who blocked Oxford Street to warn us about the climate disaster; it could be anyone with an opinion to express through a megaphone. Or the target could be the rights under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights – the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – which through the Human Rights Act are legally enforcible: the real battle is between a xenophobic nationalist assertion of power (‘take back control’) and the freedoms provided for in an international convention.
The bill also outlaws ‘unauthorised encampments’, creating a new offence of ‘residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle’. If your presence causes, or is likely to cause, significant distress, damage or disruption, and you don’t leave ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ after being asked, you can face three months in jail. ‘Land’ includes common land. Cue for hostile confrontations between the authorities and the Traveller population.
Liberticide once again.