The British ability to be morally outraged is as powerful as any in the world. Inevitably, any ugly images of violent conduct on TV therefore trigger pompous expressions of moral superiority from those not involved in it.
On Sunday 21st of March, in Bristol, a demonstration against the draconian new policing Bill in Parliament, turned violent. The knee-jerk reaction from conservative types has of course been to get angry and offer damning condemnation of the ‘regressive left.’ Unsurprisingly, many on the left as well have expressed disapproval.
I do not entirely disagree with either side. What we have seen is ugly, dangerous, and illegal, and I cannot go as far as saying I approve of it. The cost of fixing the damage of course will fall ultimately on ordinary people who have done nothing wrong. As a general rule, I do oppose violent protest and would prefer it be kept peaceful, if only because violent images can be, and almost always are, used for propaganda against the protesters.
But in this instance, I am making an exception – of a sorts at least. Looked at in the context of what is being opposed, the violence could in fact make a very telling point. The Bill, brain-bastard-child of the Home Secretary, Priti ‘Pritler’ Patel, would make it legal for the police to break up any protest, no matter how apolitical or peaceful it is, whenever it receives any complaint that it is an ‘annoyance’. Any MP who does not like being criticised could simply phone the police and ask them to chase the protesters away. In any practical sense, it is a ban on the most basic political right of all – the right to protest.
Looking at the Bristol violence in the context of that Policing Bill, yes, we can see it as evidence that the Bill should be allowed through the House of Lords without contest.
But equally we can see it as the evidence that the Policing Bill absolutely should not be allowed through. After all, the Bill confiscates the right to peaceful protest, and what happened tonight was not peaceful. So why should the Bill even be seen as relevant? Moreover, it is a longstanding principle learned centuries ago that if one disallows peaceful protest, the only option one leaves people is force.
Words, or the cannon? What is safer?
Those who argue that this violence will give the Government the pretext it needs to ban protests need to catch up; people were protesting in their thousands in Bristol tonight against attempts to take away the right to protest.
And there is a characteristically dirty, opportunistic side to this whole shabby business that leaves the public in a “damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t” position…
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