Mud from a Muddy Spring

Francis FitzGibbon

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.


  • 16 March 2021 at 5:31pm
    Mark Robinson says:
    The American Revolution was fought, it part to secure the natural right to peacefully assemble. The protection of this right is enshrined in the US Constitution. Governments are always looking to crush what Mussolini (and many in the progressive Left) referred to as inconvenient, unnecessary, and dangerous liberties.

    • 17 March 2021 at 5:08pm
      Evangelion says: @ Mark Robinson
      The Conservatives are 'progressive Left'? Really?

      In democracies, suppression of protest is always associated with the Right. Usually on the grounds that it might interrupt the flow of business. or cause some minor inconvenience the petite-bourgoisie.

      See e.g. Trump's reaction to the BLM protests. The US, and particularly its Right, have little to be proud of in this matter.

    • 17 March 2021 at 6:40pm
      Graucho says: @ Evangelion
      Not all demonstrations. Trashing the Capitol was fine as far as Republicans were concerned.

  • 16 March 2021 at 8:00pm
    Rachael Padman says:
    It was the Blair government as I recall that introduced the asbo -- a way to make even a small crime, or even just unwanted (by someone) behaviour, into a big crime worthy of time in gaol. This is a continuation of the idea.

    • 16 March 2021 at 8:49pm
      Nigel Howells says: @ Rachael Padman
      And the Blair government gave local government targets for the number of asbos issued. An incentive to criminalise people where one might otherwise have resolved issues constructively. The new proposals have similar implications- one can see the police and CPS targeted to criminalise peaceful demonstrations.

  • 17 March 2021 at 8:13pm
    freshborn says:
    "What is the government so scared of that it needs to suppress public protest in this way?"

    Good question. Presumably, the Met having to pay out legal fees and compensation when it gets sued for illegal behaviour when they suppress protests. I'm not sure what other reason there could be, since protest in this country is already functionally impossible due to policing.

    • 22 March 2021 at 2:18pm
      Abigail Watson says: @ freshborn
      Obvious to me (perhaps I am too simple). They are scared of people engaging in mass gatherings and spreading the coronavirus.

  • 18 March 2021 at 1:35pm
    OldScrounger says:
    Three months in jail. Does that include the children? Or just the registered owner of the vehicle? What happens to any adults remaining with the vehicle after the apprehension of the owner? Do they get turfed out onto the highway so that the vehicle can be impounded? I mean, if a job's worth doing.....

  • 18 March 2021 at 1:56pm
    OldScrounger says:
    Will the government intervene when local authorities decline to take action against travellers encamped on common land (theoretically possible)?

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