The outrageous deployment of state violence against women attending the #ReclaimTheseStreets vigil in London’s Clapham Common on Saturday night had little to do with either public health restrictions or supposed incompetence on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. It was, rather, the latest salvo in a sustained and deliberate attack on the right to protest, one which predates the Covid-19 pandemic but has accelerated under its cover.
The British state is increasingly relying on authoritarian measures to overcome challenges to its authority from below, whether from women challenging patriarchy, black and ethnic minority communities resisting racism, workers on strike, or the intransigent national movements in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The democratic façade of British capitalism, already tenuous, is beginning to slip away altogether. New grassroots alliances are now possible and desperately needed to defend our rights by any means necessary.
People versus police
Tomorrow, MPs will debate the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. A cornerstone of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s response to Extinction Rebellion’s pre-Covid campaign of civil disobedience, this bill – mostly limited to England and Wales under the devolution settlement – is being rushed through Westminster at break-neck pace in an effort to preemptively discourage and defang the post-Covid return of those tactics.
One of the most significant provisions of the mammoth bill is the criminalisation of protest which causes “serious inconvenience” or “serious annoyance” to others, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. This serves a number of purposes beyond simply threatening protesters; it forms part of a new propaganda offensive aimed at delegitimising political dissent by conflating it with criminality, and justifies a ramping up of state surveillance of activist groups and movements under the guise of flushing out criminal elements (previously dubbed ‘domestic extremists’ but now known under the even more ridiculous label of ‘aggravated activists’).
That this bill represents, at least in part, the wielding of the criminal justice system as a new weapon within the Tories’ wider culture war is made clear by provisions like those on “criminal damage to memorials”, which will dramatically increase the maximum punishment for most iconoclastic acts like the tearing down of statues from just three months behind bars to a whole decade in prison. We couldn’t ask for a starker illustration that the repressive function of the state extends to protecting its cultural and social foundation by force if necessary.
‘Protesting’ at home
The hyper-atomised liberal imagining of protest – as any of a number of individual actions, from performative social media posts to making more enlightened consumer choices – has undoubtedly enjoyed its zenith in the Covid-19 era.
Though it is necessary to acknowledge that online meetings have made a genuinely positive contribution to our various movements in several respects, not least in connecting activists across international borders and overcoming some of the barriers disabled people face in accessing in-person events, the replacement of marches and rallies on our streets in favour of the so-called ‘online protest’ has had a deeply negative effect, obscuring how protest is made powerful by its collective rather than individual nature as well as its implicit or explicit threat to the political peace or the stable day-to-day administration of the country’s affairs.
The #ReclaimTheseStreets vigil in Clapham is an instructive example: had hundreds of women not defied the order to stay at home, they would not have forced the policing of women to the top of the political agenda and, in turn, humiliated Keir Starmer’s Labour Party into opposing the Policing Bill rather than sleepwalking into yet another meek abstention on the extension of British state power. No dictatorship has ever felt threatened by the size of a virtual protest far from its palace doors. (And social media is, of course, subject to the whims of the small clutch of private companies which are now responsible for regulating the boundary of online speech.)
The right to protest during Covid-19
Contrary to the deflective statements of the Metropolitan Police and its Praetorian Guard in the form of the right-wing British press, the crackdown on last night’s Clapham Common vigil was by no means an inevitable result of the public health restrictions currently in place in England and Wales. To buy into either of the competing narratives – that the violent grabbing of women by police officers was a necessary consequence of either the lockdown or the supposed incompetence of certain officials – effectively shields the political leadership of the police, namely Priti Patel and her underlings, from scrutiny and meaningful accountability.
That Ireland’s An Garda Síochána – hardly a paragon of virtue – has fared relatively better in facilitating protests and pickets than the PSNI to its north or the Metropolitan Police to its east does not speak to a gulf of difference in the nature of the respective forces or the marginal differences in the respective lockdown regimes but to the difference in political leadership, which in Ireland has become notably more liberal on policing than in any part of the UK (notwithstanding how low that bar is set).
A last-minute court challenge by those who initially called the Clapham vigil has effectively confirmed that lockdown does not necessitate a blanket ban on protests, as has been recognised for much longer in countries with similar public health restrictions such as Germany. It cannot be overemphasised that the much more repressive attitude taken towards protest by the Met is a deliberate and ultimately political choice.
From London to Glasgow
The Met’s leadership should be of particular concern in Scotland given that the force will most likely be deployed in Glasgow to police the COP26 summit this November, set to be one of the first major post-Covid protests anywhere in the UK with both environmentalists and Scottish independence activists among those intending to take to the streets. It will also have serious implications for the prospect of a self-determination march on Westminster, an idea raised increasingly often in light of Boris Johnson’s stubborn refusal of a Scottish independence referendum and one which could provide the basis for practical solidarity between the Scottish, Irish and Welsh movements (given that the Tories are also steadfastly refusing an Irish border poll).
Most important, however, is the signal which the Policing Bill sends about the trajectory of the British state. The Tories’ strengthening of the repressive apparatus is not an accident, but a strategic decision taken in the expectation that these additional tools will be necessary to navigate the UK’s ongoing and future political crises – a telling indication of how it expects to restore normality for the ruling class after Covid-19. The greatest existing challenges to this push for a stronger British state are the national movements in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, no matter how limited in their political orientation, which are seeking to break it up. The dismantling of democracy in Britain provides an even greater moral buttress for the dismantling of the British state.
This is probably lost on the SNP, architects of Police Scotland, the UK’s second-largest police force after the Met. The shared heritage of the two forces is often downplayed as part of broader, ahistorical efforts to portray Scotland as the gentler, more humane partner in the British union. Police Scotland’s inaugural chief constable, Stephen House, began his policing career in the Met and had risen to head of Strathclyde Police before his appointment by Kenny MacAskill to lead the nascent national force in 2013. Having put armed officers on regular patrol and greatly expanded the use of stop-and-search in Scotland, House – who proudly identifies as Scottish and Glaswegian – has since returned to London as deputy commissioner of Scotland Yard, now leading efforts to criminalise Extinction Rebellion activists. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government continues to reject calls for a Scottish inquiry into undercover policing and happily oversees intra-UK police co-operation.
However, just as hundreds of women in Clapham exposed the cowardice of the Labour Party in defying the Met last night, so too does the grassroots independence movement in Scotland have the power to move beyond the limited constitutional nationalism of the SNP by adopting a republican approach.
This would mean identifying the denial of an independence referendum, the deferral of an Irish border poll, the assault on the right to protest, the resort to repression in defence of patriarchy and racism, and so on, as different components of a broader push-back against democracy, led by the Tories and buttressed by the institutions of the British state. This understanding strengthens the case for a deeper alliance between the national movements, the anti-racist movement, the environmental movement and the feminist movement. This strategy – building pressure from below for a radical and militant democracy – is best described as a republican strategy. It draws on our movements’ existing instincts and makes urgent the demand for solidarity between them.
Strategic questions of this sort will only become more important over the coming months, particularly following the May elections. A narrow pro-independence majority in Holyrood is unlikely to break the referendum impasse alone. With Scotland likely to emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic by the end of the summer, the grassroots independence movement must prepare to return immediately to the streets of every town and city across the country. The more allies we make, and the more pressure points we can press across the state, the better our chances of victory and of creating in Scotland a genuine alternative to British so-called democracy.