Tories’ new Public Order Act criminalises protest and is the latest injustice emanating from Westminster – Tommy Sheppard
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On May 6, I attended a rally at Calton Hill called by the campaign group, Our Republic. There were several thousands there. They had come to oppose a hereditary monarchy and proclaim support for Scotland becoming a self-governing country with an elected head of state. It was good-natured, passionate, and entirely peaceful, the mood enhanced by recent polling showing most Scots under 35 support this republican ideal.
Elsewhere, in Princes Street Gardens, a smaller number of people met to support the monarchy and celebrate the coronation. Both events were discreetly and minimally policed. Both passed without incident. And so, the good people of Edinburgh were able, in their diverse ways, to meet and express their views on this historic event.
That is as it should be. But I fear that if the provisions of the Tories’ new Public Order Act applied to Scotland, things might have turned out differently. In London, the Met used new powers in that Act to deliberately undermine the right of assembly and protest. At 7am, the police arrested Graham Smith, the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic’s chief executive and five key organisers preparing for a rally. There was no one around, no peace to be disturbed.
They were arrested, in part, for “going equipped to lock on”, an offence in existence for four days at the time. The equipment in question was string which had been used to bundle together some “Not my King” placards.
I suspect the Home Office and the Met were acting to try to save the new King from the embarrassment of seeing some of his subjects not joining in the festival of deference and obedience. In reality, they embarrassed themselves and tarnished the reputation of the UK around the world.
A country that claims to uphold freedom of expression and the right to protest around the world declines to do it here. You cannot complain about dissidents being locked up in Moscow or Beijing whilst you lock up your own dissidents in London.
So why does this matter to us? Well, Edinburgh is full of active and engaged communities. Many of our citizens will from time to time feel moved to protest about the injustices they perceive around them.
While we remain part of the UK, the root of many of those injustices lies at Westminster. Whether it’s opposing foreign wars, campaigning against new weapons of mass destruction, arguing for fair treatment for women pensioners, or rethinking Brexit, the focus is on London. Many of my constituents have made the journey there to protest over the years and many will do so in the future.
But now when they cross the border at Berwick, they need to be aware that their rights to protest will be severely curtailed. The balance of power on the streets of London between protestors and the police is a very different equation than on the streets of Edinburgh.
The Public Order Act is about criminalising protest and demonising those who take part. It is about suppressing opposition and undermining freedoms that Scotland and England have taken for granted for centuries. It must be repealed. Of course, if decisions about wars, international trade, pensions and nuclear weapons were made in Edinburgh, we could save ourselves the trip to London.
Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East