We have to restore public trust – banning protests at Parliament won’t help

Like many of you, the last month of allegations about rule-breaking in Downing Street has troubled me. As an NHS doctor who worked on the pandemic frontline, and experienced the distress of watching so many prematurely lose their lives, I too was enraged when it emerged that the rules were not being followed by those setting them.

The British public expect integrity in high office, and they have been let down. It is unacceptable, people are understandably angry and many are losing faith in our Government as a result.

We find ourselves in a challenging moment. While acknowledging the damage this has done to trust in politics generally, the electoral stakes are also high for the Conservative Party. Before long, the Conservatives could be on the opposition benches for the first time in 12 years. It is imperative, therefore, to prove to voters that a Conservative Government still offers the best future for our nation, and to show those who have lost faith in us that the Conservative Party is on their side.

But the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, may do just the opposite. The Bill contains some welcome changes, particularly on tougher sentences for domestic abusers, but other clauses would be a direct attack on our freedom of speech, freedom of expression and, crucially, our right to peaceful protest.

As originally presented to MPs, the Bill would have prohibited any large-scale peaceful protest from taking place in Parliament Square, shutting off parliament from the people we are elected to represent regardless of political persuasion. The impact would be profound. If you voted for Brexit, the March to Leave and Brexit Day of Celebration would not have happened. The 400,000 who marched with the Countryside Alliance 20 years ago would have felt the long arm of the law. Opponents of the Iraq War would not have been able to make their plea for peace. And if, like me, you felt pride when this Conservative Government offered refuge to those protesting against tyranny in Hong Kong, you may now be blushing at the hypocrisy of cracking down on protesters at home.

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While many will highlight the need to tackle disruptive protesters and understandably point to the group who accosted the Leader of the Opposition outside Parliament last week, these groups already operate outside of the rule of law and so the bill as drafted can only limit those who want to lawfully exert their right to peaceful protest in Parliament Square. The Government claims the legislation is intended to prevent obstructions to vehicles gaining access to the parliamentary estate, but is it worth it when the cost is preventing peaceful, law-abiding citizens from standing up for their beliefs and values?

It is also worth Conservatives imagining being out of power again. If the Conservatives are punished at the next election, another government could use these provisions to limit opposition to their own political agenda.

Protest is something essential for any democracy worthy of the name and after the lobbying scandal just a few months ago, voters may understandably conclude that this Government wants to shut down criticism and accountability, rather than accept it.

The House of Lords recently backed amendments which would protect the right to peaceful protest in Parliament Square, so now it returns to us in the Commons. The Lords have given us a chance to think again.

Not only does the opportunity exist to show the country that the Conservatives are the party of law and order, and protect our long tradition of democratic freedom, but we also have an opportunity to repair the bonds of trust that have been badly damaged.

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It is now the duty of Conservative MPs to do the right thing. To prove that the Conservatives are still the party who champion freedom of speech, the rule of law and democratic liberty, who are trusted with the economy, the NHS and the will of the British people. Supporting this amendment will be the first step in restoring that trust, which is why I will be voting to protect the right to peaceful protest in Parliament Square when it comes back to the commons after recess, and I urge all Conservatives to do the same.

Churchill had a motto: “Trust the people.” If we heed his advice from him, they might once again return our trust.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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