by Martin Odoni

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.

Disturbing scenes in the Bristol protest against the Policing Bill

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.

I may take this picture down, as I have received a complaint from a Mr A. Hitler of Austria, objecting that those comparing him to Priti Patel are being grossly offensive and hyperbolic, as he does have some standards.

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. It could be argued reasonably that the protest should not have happened because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, I would normally agree with that, except that in this instance, we have to consider the context of the Bill once more. The Tory Government trying to advance a Bill this draconian through Parliament when there are lockdown conditions in place is a very sordid trick indeed. They are attempting a huge legalised power-grab at exactly the time when the public are not in a position to mobilise opposition to it. In order to offer what resistance they can, the public have been left in the position where they observe the lockdown, and then lose critical rights, with the Tory cynics saying, “Well we didn’t seen anyone objecting…”, or they ignore the lockdown and risk spreading the disease again. And given what a hugely dangerous turning-point in the country’s history it could be if this Bill became Law, the actions required against it probably do need to be physical as well as vocal. There is so much at stake.

And strategically, it is more sound than you might imagine. Consider the Community Charge (‘Poll Tax’) protests of 1989 and 1990.

The tax was initially introduced to replace the old ‘Rates’ system of local taxation in Scotland in 1989, with everyone in an area paying a similar amount, no matter their income. (Most Scots seem to think that they were being used as ‘guineapigs’ and that it was unfair on them to be the first to endure this deeply unjust system. In reality, MPs of the Conservative Party in Scotland had asked the then-Prime-Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to introduce the system to Scotland first, because they thought it would be a popular move to get rid of the Rates.)

The furore began just after I and my family had moved to Glasgow when I was a teenager, so I got a ‘front-row view’ of the resentment. There were protests all across Scotland, demanding the Poll Tax be removed and the Rates be restored, or replaced with a system that took account of ability to pay. The anger came close to boiling point more than once. But at no stage did the Scots cross the line into outright violence.

The following year, the new taxation system was rolled over into England and Wales. People all over the UK were now looking in shock at bills that were frequently higher than they had been under the Rates. The selling point of the tax for Thatcher had been that with everyone paying similar amounts, the average bill should have been a lot lower, but this was not the case.

Protests were now happening all over England, Scotland and Wales, and famously, the big protest in London did turn violent on Trafalgar Square. Very violent. The Government was clearly terrified as it saw police officers injured, beaten, and quite unable to quell disorder.

Within a couple of years, the Community Charge was gone, and so indeed was Margaret Thatcher within a few months. But what is the noticeable moral of the story? The Scots had protested peacefully. And were clearly ignored. The English had protested violently – and got what they wanted. The Scots were at times applauded for keeping their powder dry during the protests, but in hindsight, it is difficult not to conclude that they made a mistake. Without the application of force, the arrogant Thatcher saw no reason to listen to the Scots. When force was applied by English protesters, the policy was broken.

Consider also the protests against the Iraq Invasion in 2002-3. So many thousands, some estimate over a million in a single day, marched through London to protest the upcoming war against Ba’athist Iraq. But they did so peacefully. And, like the Scots in 1989, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, just ignored them, dismissed them as “behaving stupidly.” The invasion went ahead, and we are still living with the direct consequences of that defeat 18 years on. Had protesters used violence instead, that would at least have put Blair in a position where he could not just yawn and shrug.

Given the enormity of the harm that can be done to contiguous political movements when their right even to protest peacefully is curtailed, I question whether this is a battle people can afford to fight by “Laws of Chivalry,” or “Queensferry Rules.” The implications of losing this battle would be so enormous that the people simply have to win.

Am I encouraging violence? No, I must emphasise, where possible, protests should be kept peaceful. Am I suggesting we should be prepared to resort to some measure of force, should we find politicians are ignoring us again? Yes. Because when they ignore us, especially over something this fundamental, they are staking a claim to powers that end their status as servants of the public, and grant them the status of masters of the public.

That, dear readers, is dictatorship.