It is a great and ancient right of all freeborn Englishmen, stretching back far beyond the reaches of our recorded history. From Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, it has been woven into each of the defining constitutional moments of the British story, a principle bled and died for on the battlefields of Europe. It is, of course, the right to make a tit of yourself.
Whitehall’s Stop Brexit Man has been the most vociferous pursuer of that right in recent years. Steve Bray, with his Brussels blue top hat and shouty megaphone demeanour, loves to make a tit of himself. He marches around Westminster barking inanities at any unsuspecting Tory MP, usually something demented about Russia and Brexit. He likes to pump out the sugary pop tune Bye, Bye, Baby but instead shouts ‘Boris’ over the word ‘baby’ (he’s a clever one our Steve). Speak to anyone unlucky enough to work within spitting distance of Parliament Square and they’ll tell you they’ve suffered at least one Bray-induced headache. The man is nothing more than an irritant, changing no one’s mind, existing only to satisfy those remainers who think, like ageing Japanese soldiers found long after the end of the war, that there is still a fight to be had in Brexit.
Then along came the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Within minutes of the bill receiving royal assent, a dozen Met Police officers swooped in and confiscated the braying Brexit Man’s speaker equipment. They informed him that he had been reported for carrying out a ‘noisy protest’ and may now face prosecution.
Well, I hate to say it, but I stand with Steve Bray. If he feels strongly enough to commit his life to shouting on a busy traffic island, let him. He’s doing no real harm beyond annoying a few MPs. We already have harassment laws that mean that if he oversteps the mark, the police can arrest him. But the new law prevents ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’. Well, firstly, there’s nothing serious about Bray. He’s a joke. One man can hardly be considered a great threat to the running of our country. But even if he did manage to gather together a larger band of nutters to march on Whitehall, would that now be a criminal offence too? Serious disruption is the point of protest, however irritating it might be.
In fact, I suspect parts of this legislation were drafted specifically with Bray in mind. There was a special provision for protests outside parliament that are deemed ‘seriously annoying’. Who else might this piece of statute be directed at other than Bray and his little group of supporters? The idea that parliamentarians have the right to be spared serious annoyance – and that their right trumps the right to protest – is mad. Far madder than Bray. The pressure group Big Brother Watch, which keeps an eye on the more authoritarian elements of the state, wrote back in February:
“Unnecessary criminalisation of dissent, which this Bill seeks to do, goes against the very best traditions of our history and undermines the public’s right to protest. The trajectory of public order legislation has largely moved in one direction – incrementally chipping away at people’s fundamental rights and weighting the balance of power heavily towards the authorities.
It’s a funny thing that the government even feels it has to do this. We are a fairly docile country. Beyond a few crusty hippies glueing themselves to lamp posts, British protests have largely been conspicuous by their absence; certainly by comparison to the French, who seem to enjoy spending their long summer evenings torching cars and hurling cobblestones at policemen.
We should defend the rights of those funny middle-aged men who commit their lives to protest. Those like Brian Haw, who spent a decade living in a tent on Parliament Square in protest at the Iraq War. These people almost never cause harm in any serious sense of the word. And their continued existence is a testament to a country that can happily tolerate a bit of dissent. England has always been home to eccentrics; turning them into criminals is a deeply unpatriotic thing to do. I feel that ancient right to eccentricity may soon now be extinguished. Perhaps I’ll get my megaphone out and go and join Steve Bray.