Anna Soubry and Nigel Farage are both politicians with a capacity to be provocative. In a free society they are entitled to be provocative. The rest of us are entitled to express disagreement – including organising and attending demonstrations.
But we are not entitled to obstruct them from going about their lawful business, or to attack or intimidate them, as a group of men did to Soubry outside Parliament yesterday.
The principle of this balance might be simple, but applying it can prove problematic. It is not just a matter of getting the law right, but of the police being willing and able to uphold it.
Generally I would say that the law is bit too indulgent on demonstrators and does not provide enough protection to the recipients of such protests. For instance I would not allow demonstrations outside someone’s private home. In 2012 we saw UK Uncut descend on a quiet terraced street in Putney to protest outside the family home of our then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Other politicians have been targeted at their homes over the years – Harriet Harman by Fathers 4 Justice, John Prescott by Greenpeace, Michael Heseltine by ex coal miners. It seems to me reasonable that a Minister should expect to “run the gauntlet” when arriving at their office, perhaps even their official residence, but not at their private home.
Another example was picketing. If workers go on strike then they should be able to make that known and to state their case. But “mass picketing” – intimidation through force of numbers – clearly goes beyond that. So police have the power to intervene. There is a “Code of Practice” that no more than six pickets should be allowed at each entrance. Why not five? Why not seven? Again it is about finding a reasonable balance.
When it comes to slogans that demonstrators are allowed to chant or write on their placards, again this is tricky. Often what distinguishes a “good natured and orderly” protest from a “baying mob” is about tone and numbers, as much as content. There is a law against incitement – so the police should take notice if someone is calling for a crowd to attack someone. There is a law covering defamation. That should, for instance, offer protection to someone who is accused of a being a Nazi (when they are not). However that is a civil matter, rather than one for the police to get involved with.
Ronald Reagan said: “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.” Equality before the law is simple but not always easy. When it comes to free speech many – even sophisticated, intelligent people – find it terribly irksome to apply it to those they disagree with.
One paradox is that freedom of speech must be defended even for the benefit of those would deny it to others – Communists, fascists, various types of religious fundamentalists.
Owen Jones, the Guardian journalist and Corbyn supporter, was on the receiving end of a pretty rowdy and aggressive demonstration this week. Serve him right, some may feel. He has been an apologist for various regimes around the world with thoroughly odious human rights records. He has also supported some rather lively demos himself over the years.
For the police, in deciding at what point public order is breached and they should start arresting people, it must be irrelevant whether Jones is chanting or being chanted at.
Similarly it must be irrelevant in upholding the law around Parliament Square whether the MP is Conservative or Labour, Brexiteer or Remainer. The same level of protection must apply to the Labour MP Kate Hoey, when confronted by “Peoples Vote” supporters, as it does to the Conservative Remainer, Anna Soubry, when coping with the unpleasant behaviour of some disgruntled UKIP backers.
That should be obvious, but I’m afraid it isn’t. Robert Peston, the Political Editor of ITV News, has expressed sympathy for Soubry. But he has not spoken up in support of Hoey, or Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage or Douglas Carswell, all of whom have experienced the same kind of aggression from members of the public. The same goes for Norman Smith, the BBC’s Assistant Political Editor.
Of course it is not just about the EU referendum. As Danny Finkelstein, a journalist on The Times, tweeted:
“I wonder if it’s ok when condemning the behaviour toward Owen Jones & Anna Soubry, to gently point out that John McDonnell called for Tory MPs not to be able to show their faces in public without being challenged by direct action. And this shows at least the problem with that.”
Will Peston denounce McDonnell for that? Don’t hold your breath…
Some feel the easy answer is to blame the Daily Mail. It has attacked Brexiteer Tory MP rebels as “saboteurs endangering our nation” – the message prominent on its front page. Under its previous editor, Tory MPs who rebelled in support of Remain were denounced with similar prominence for their “treachery”.
To reach for that prissy phrase, this is not language I would use. But nor should these robust terms be taken as excusing any intimidatory behaviour.
To end on a more cheerful note, the narrative that we are seeing more anger over politics then ever before is probably wrong. Indeed the claim that differences of opinion are more likely to spread violence than previously is surely the opposite of the truth. Just reflect on the terrorism of the IRA, the student unrest in the 1960s, the rioting and the miners strike of the 1980s.
Probably the further back you go the worse it was. MPs feeling nervous venturing out of the Palace of Westminster now should feel pleased they weren’t about on 2 June 1780. An anti Roman Catholic protest by 50,000 Protestants descended into what became known as the Gordon Riots. The Prime Minister Lord North was hopeless at maintaining order. No wonder he lost America.