One of the trickiest challenges of being in politics is defending the rights of those we disagree with vehemently. That dilemma has never been truer than in deciding how to approach the Public Order Bill, now making its way through the House of Lords. How can I defend the right to protest when I have little sympathy for those protestors targeted by the Bill?
Take Just Stop Oil. These catastrophising eco-warriors – whose nihilistic stunts are aimed at causing maximum chaos to the public – are a real menace. Their disdain for democratic change is evident in how little they care about hindering ordinary working people going about their daily lives. Alienating the public is the only thing they have achieved with their stunts. Their tactics in blocking traffic and throwing soup at paintings are aimed at grinding us down until we give in to their demands. These misanthropic objectives include essentially forcing society to produce less energy in the middle of an energy crisis, regardless of the consequences for millions who are worried that they will not be able to afford to keep the heating on this winter.
But as much as I dislike Just Stop Oil, there’s a risk that we go too far in response. Understandable popular revulsion at this anti-democratic movement might lead to anti-democratic laws that affect us all. The public have looked on aghast as the police fail to stop the country’s busiest and most economically vital motorway being blocked for days in a row. But we shouldn’t fall for the government’s claim that we need myriad new offences to resolve such situations. All the complained-about tactics could be dealt with by criminal offences already on the statute book. So if the police will not use the laws they already have, why will arming them with new, more draconian laws improve things?
Whatever it is that explains the police’s reticence to deal decisively with activists who superglue themselves to roads, it’s clear the Home Office wants to resort to making new laws to paper over the cracks of the policing failures it oversees.