The right to peaceful protest is a traditional and legitimate expression of a point of view. Peaceful protest is public, open and visible. It is designed to inform, persuade and cajole. It may be a nuisance; it may even be intended to be. It is often noisy and inconvenient. But it is a legitimate form of public expression.
Peter Thornton QC, supporting Twyford protestors in the High Court 1993
In December 1993, I was driving a van not far from Twyford Down. I was listening to the news and suddenly had to pull into a layby. The anger and fear at the words I was hearing rendered me momentarily unable to drive.
Those words were then Home Secretary Michael Howard announcing his Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. It was a catalogue of erosions of liberty – targeting hunt saboteurs, environmental protestors, squatters, travelling people and ravers among others. Yes, it even singled out electronic ‘music characterised by a series of repetitive beats’.
At the time Howard made his announcement, I was working with Road Alert!, a campaign group co-ordinating support for the anti-road protests that were sweeping across the UK. A few days after Howard’s announcement, we issued a press release condemning the ‘fundamental attack on civil liberties’ posed by the Bill, including ‘the biggest increase in police powers’ since the Second World War.
We also quoted Michael Mansfield QC, a leading human rights lawyer who worked with the Birmingham Six, the campaigns for justice for striking miners assaulted by police at Orgreave in 1984, the death of football fans at Hillsborough stadium in 1989 and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by armed police officers at Stockwell tube station in London.
Mansfield called the 1993 Criminal Justice Bill ‘the most oppressive piece of legislation in memory’
The following spring, an alliance of different groups involved in opposing the Criminal Justice Bill decided to stage a large summer demonstration against it. The groups wanted to gather not in London, the traditional stage for large rallies, but at a place relevant to the actions and lifestyles targeted by the Bill. Stonehenge, site of free festivals and solstice celebrations, was discussed as a possible location, but Twyford Down was chosen as being equally relevant, easy to access and with the potential for using the broad sweep of Plague Pits Valley for a rally. The mass trespass into the Cutting would be the final such protest before the new road opened to traffic.
And now, so many years later, I find myself facing the same rage and fear, as another Tory government tries to further erode the right to peaceful protest and assembly. There seems now to be stiff competition for Mansfield’s ‘most oppressive piece of legislation’.
So much of what we value as a nation stems from protest – worker’s rights, the right to join a trade union, the rights of women and working class men to vote, the right to have gay family life taught in schools, for men and women to have equal pay for equal jobs, the right for black people to have equal rights across society, the right to walk in the hills, to rally together and so much more.
Without the right to protest, not only do we risk making further improvements in all of these and more, but we risk losing the fragile gains we have made.