Comment: Theresa May's response to protest violence shows her liberalism is skin deep

The home secretary's knee-jerk authoritarianism has no bearing to what happened at the anti-cuts protest.

Ian Dunt

It's been undeniably fun to watch Theresa May contort herself into a series of unpredictable political positions over the last year. Like some horrible political puppet show, she has been entirely unconvincing when alluding to legislation on gay marriage or proclaiming a new age of civil liberties. Each time, she sounds like a child's toy emitting pre-programmed phrases.

But after each violent protest she relaxes, lets her shoulders drop, and acts naturally. Saturday's demonstration was ruined by "mindless thugs", she told the Commons yesterday afternoon. The government will look into using the "pre-emptive banning orders" which have been so successful in the case of football hooligans. It will see what powers it could give police to stop protestors covering their face with masks or balaclavas at protests. She wouldn't even rule out the suggestion of dawn raids and snatch squads.


The only protest she'd even been on was the Countryside Alliance march, May proclaimed proudly, and not for the first time in her career. Back then, they cleared up nicely when they were done. Her dislike of protests is quite evident.

I didn't approve of what the black bloc anarchists or UK Uncut did on Saturday either, mostly because it distracted from the main demo and discouraged other demonstrators from future events. But the home secretary's response is laughable and muddle-headed.

May's proposal that we force demonstrators to remove their face covering goes right to the heart of the individual's relationship to the state. You don't need to prove anything to the state. The state has to prove to you that it has a right to exist. The right to anonymity, like the argument over ID cards, may seem trivial but it has massive symbolic and ideological importance.

The change would almost certainly come through an amendment to section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which prevents the police forcing people to remove clothing other than headgear, foot wear, jackets or gloves once an authorisation has been made. For a glimpse into how readily the police and Home Office abuse their powers, note that for almost ten years all of Greater London was secretly designated as a section 44 area.

It might be this law or it might not be. The Home Office won't confirm it because, in a spectacular piece of circular logic, they insist it's for the police to suggest powers and for May to grant them - not the other way round. Quite right, except that the only reason we're asking is because she mentioned specific plans in the Commons yesterday.

People are entitled to keep their identity secret at demos, not least of all because the police routinely contravene section eight of the Human Rights Act by filming protestors. A Guardian investigation two years ago suggested they added these images to Crimin, a general database for criminal intelligence. Uploading photographs of people who are not even suspected of a crime to a criminal database reflects the approach of the police to legal protest. The response of legal protestors should be to cover their faces.

Exactly the same could be said of the pre-emptive banning orders which May wants to expand. These people are either criminals or they are not. If you catch them committing a criminal act, arrest them. If you don't, don't.

These actions are a cry of impotence from the government. It knows that the fundamental problem is that police find it difficult to control small, chaotic gangs of trouble-makers, so it proposes solutions which contravene our collective rights: the right to anonymity, the right to only have your freedom taken away when you've been shown to have committed a crime.

May simply doesn't understand what happened on Saturday, a fact she revealed when she showed no distinction between the black bloc anarchists smashing shop windows and the UK Uncut activists who occupied Fortnum and Masons.

Inside Fortnum and Masons they held meetings and ate sandwiches. Outside, they smashed windows and fought running battles with police. The result? Of the 201 people arrested, 149 were charged. Of those, 145 came from Fortnums, where police gathered everyone up, assured them they wouldn't be interrogated and then arrested them en masse. Journalists, including myself, were barred from approaching the scene, and the 145 Fortnums demonstrators were kept in police cells all night.

"The police are right in what they were doing," May said. "The people who should be condemned are the people doing that occupation, who were perpetrating acts of violence."

It suits governments to smudge the lines between words, especially emotive words, so that they can throw the blanket over activities which trouble them. So it was with Labour, which quite consciously smudged the line between protest and crime and crime and terrorism, until - well, until Walter Wolfgang could be held (under section 44 of the Terrorism Act, of course) for telling Jack Straw that he talks nonsense.

Right now there is a serious conflation in politics and the media between violence and violence against property. When windows are being smashed, violence is an unsuitable word to use. It's not technically wrong. But using it alone, without reference to the fact that it's directed towards property, rather than people, toys conspiratorially with people's assumed notion of what violence is.

Likewise, conflating peaceful occupation with violence against property starts to criminalise disruptive protest. Aggravated trespass is a legitimate charge for what happened on Saturday which the police are open to use. But is it really a suitable one against peaceful young protestors? There is a suspicion that the police treated UK Uncut in the way they did to bolster their arrest numbers ahead of the criticism they knew they would get the next day, for failing to prevent the damage to shops in the West End.

The police response on Saturday was broadly impressive, as I documented at the time. The Met really have improved since the death of Ian Tomlinson forced it to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The reason for that was because we hounded them. That houding is essential to their good behaviour. Giving them whatever they want is a licence to misuse of power.

The right-wing roar for a draconian response that followed was depressingly predictable. But it's May's reaction to the violence which reveals how skin-deep her commitment to civil liberties is.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Speakers Corner are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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