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The Government cannot call out Putin with authority while mounting a civil liberties crackdown of its own

4 min read

Across Russia in the last few days, thousands of people have come out to protest in solidarity with Ukraine and against the invasion of their neighbour ordered by Vladimir Putin.

They came out to protest to make it clear that Putin’s war is not in their name. They came out despite the very real prospect of violence and arrest by their authoritarian government.

They came out because they know that the right to protest, on the streets, making noise, challenging authority, is an essential part of personal freedom and political change.

Our government has talked a good game in recent days of standing up to Putin’s authoritarian aggression – and yet today they are once again driving for new restrictions on our democratic right to protest. If enacted, their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would bring us closer to a Putin-esque crackdown on civil liberties. If Conservatives truly believe in the value of our liberal democracy then they must live up to its principles. They must back down on the restrictions on the right to protest that they have been pushing.

Through a mixture of parliamentary shenanigans and brute force with their large majority, the Tories have attempted to impose a hardline, authoritarian rewriting of our fundamental rights, including aggressive rules to restrict “noisy” or “annoying” protests and dangerous powers of police discretion to pick and choose which demonstrations could or could not be permitted. For the first time, even the right to individual protest has been placed under restriction in the legislation. Dedicated work on the part of Liberal Democrat colleagues and others, however, has meant that many of the most draconian measures in the Bill were removed or toned down by the House of Lords.

Now the Policing Bill returns to the House of Commons. Despite those defeats, Priti Patel and the government are attempting to re-impose many of those measures, with no recognition of how dangerous such restrictions on democratic rights can be. They have seen all-too clearly in the last few days what such authoritarianism can lead to – and yet they still have not shown the humility needed to back down and rethink their plans.

Protests are messy things. They get in the way and they do indeed sometimes “annoy”– sometimes simply by being about things that you disagree with or I disagree with! Recent events, however, have been a powerful reminder of how important the role of checks and balances on power is in protecting our democracy and the stability of our shared society.

The right to peaceful protest and assembly is one of the most basic and most vital of those democratic checks and balances. It is personal, individual, organic. Protest can happen without organisation or forewarning, simply because people feel the need to raise their voice. Before you know it, great and unexpected things – like the toppling of an autocrat – can happen, all from such a simple act.

It is why authoritarians around the world, like Putin and others, always seek to limit this basic right and harass those who exercise it regardless. They rightly fear the power of free assembly. If we have learned anything from the last few days, it should be that we must guard that right to protest all the more tightly, and mistrust those who would curtail it.

It would be a welcome and considered step on the part of the government if they were to recognise their overreach on this Bill and withdraw the more restrictive elements of it. It would be an act of humility and a sign of our government’s genuine loyalty to liberal democracy. In the absence of such a climbdown, however, Liberal Democrats – and democrats of all kinds – will resist this crackdown. We will fight for these basic rights today, in words, in votes, and – of course – in protest. Our democracy, in every corner of the world, deserves nothing less.

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