Anyone who has walked out of Westminster tube station this week may well have been greeted with the sight of protesters, makeshift fences and a sizeable police presence in Parliament Square. Many of these protesters have responded to calls from 'Occupy London', a movement which describes itself as representing the “UK public at large” whose “views and opinions… are being ignored” by the so-called political elite. At first glance this is all seems very noble, but the anger they have displayed about the subsequent police response risks trivialising the more pressing concerns facing civil liberties in the UK today.
Eye-witness accounts of police heavy-handedness have been widely reported in the news this week, and rightly so. A number of arrests have been made so far but many appear to be for relatively minor offences, including the possession of mattresses and tarpaulins used to facilitate the protests. While many will see the larger police presence as reassuring in the wake of the recent attacks at the heart of Canadian democracy, others have complained of bags being searched, confiscated and not returned and of forceful and unexplained ejections from Parliament Square.
Nevertheless, when activists such as the journalist Donnachadh McCarthy allege that Westminster is now “less free than in Hong Kong,” and the Green Party peer Baroness Jones (who was recently arrested at the protests and then released) complains that police action has prevented her from “supporting the civil liberties” of her fellow protesters, the rhetoric begins to divert attention away from the real problems facing UK civil liberties and risks diluting an otherwise crucial debate.
The health of true civil liberties in this country is a cause for concern. The introduction of 'secret trials' and closed material procedures by the Justice and Security Act 2013, which prohibits the disclosure of 'sensitive' legal material to the public and defendant, is undoubtedly a cause for concern. In addition, recently exercised police powers to search the confidential phone records of journalists, the spate of surveillance and anti-terror measures enacted in the last decade, and diminished access to justice are all real threats to civil liberties.
The rhetoric deployed by the activists in Parliament Square makes a mockery of these serious issues. This is exacerbated when the public are led to believe the rhetoric and begin to associate those who campaign on more important issues with those who peddle sensationalised or exaggerated accounts of their 'civil liberties' being deprived by the police, despite clear accounts of some protesters breaking the law this week.
One can be forgiven for questioning the credibility of these protesters. Is it not strange that a movement which styles itself as a bastion of liberty and anti-poverty, has directed its ire at various free-trade agreements such as TTIP, CETA and TiSA? Free trade is the very epitome of a pro-freedom, poverty-reducing policy and a report published yesterday by CapX confirms this: record US export figures facilitated by the Trans-Pacific Partnership have “supported around 11.3 million American Jobs.” When many of those involved hold contradictory positions, should we be at all surprised when they resort to potentially damaging rhetoric to get their points across?
The upshot is the parlous state of civil liberties in Britain is something which all of its citizens should be worried about – but not for the reasons given by the protesters in Parliament Square.