The Home Secretary and the Suffragettes


The Home Secretary and the Suffragettes


By Sailesh Mehta
1 April 2021

It is in the nature of all Governments, whether democratically elected or autocratic, to amass more and more power until its citizens say “enough”. Ministers of State do not like protesters. Bad ones crush all dissent; good ones allow just enough steam to escape before the whole thing explodes.

Bristol’s “Kill the Bill” demonstrations have again focused attention on the relationship between demonstrators and the police, coming shortly after the criticism of the police handling of the vigil for Sarah Everard. It also highlights the relationship of the citizen’s right to protest against the Government’s need to control dissent.

The Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to give the Home Secretary and the Police more powers to ban, curtail and crush protests. If a demonstration is deemed too noisy or too annoying, the police will be able to restrict it. Parts of the Bill create new powers of stop and search, as well as trespass provisions that may lead to increased police enforcement against minority communities. It gives the Home Secretary power to legislate by decree, without the usual Parliamentary scrutiny. The Second Reading of the Bill was voted through by a huge Tory majority and is likely to become law after a pause, when recent memories of violent arrests of female protestors at the Sarah Everard vigils have faded.

The Home Secretary has made no secret of her disdain for protestors. Her tough stance on law and order plays well to the Conservative Party base and to the media that supports it. It begs the question how she might have reacted to historic protest movements that changed the course of human liberty for the better.

In March 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi started his salt march it was a non-violent protest against the British Raj’s salt laws. Thousands of Indians joined him along the 240 mile route. This simple act of dissent led to wide-scale civil disobedience and the imprisonment of 60,000 protestors including Gandhi. English media was virulently against the peaceful marchers. The large scale of the demonstrations made it impossible for police officers to control them. These were unlawful demonstrations against unjust laws and Gandhi’s actions were deemed to be seditious. Modern policing techniques, backed by existing legislation, would have been able to control the marches from the outset, set the route, make mass arrests (including “kettling” them for hours without food or water, and manage the media. But the contentious question is whether our Home Secretary would have resisted the temptation to ban the protest and whether the Police would have used force to crush it.

In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. This incident sparked nation-wide protests led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The violence inflicted on thousands of peaceful protestors horrified the world, filled up every prison and eventually led to changes in US segregation law. Would Priti Patel have sent in baton-wielding police officers and vicious dogs to break up these unlawful but justified protests, or would she have exercised restraint and chosen not to use the new powers under the Crime Bill?


Sailesh Mehta

Sailesh Mehta is a leading advocate who has defended and prosecuted in some of the most serious and important cases over the last 30 years. His practice ranges from serious and organised crime to high-profile regulatory cases. He sits as a Recorder of the Crown Court.

In their fight for women’s voting rights, the Suffragettes regularly broke the law to raise awareness for their cause. Politicians and right wing newspapers called for the police to crush their cause, of which Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and Emily Pankhurst were leading figures. A commentator noted during the November 1910 “Black Friday” protest : “I saw a policeman grab women by the collars, shake them and fling them aside like rats.” Would the police today have behaved in a similar heavy-handed way towards peaceful female demonstrators? Would the Home Secretary have supported such police violence if the Suffragette movement was happening today? We will never know whether she encouraged the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to go in hard against the peaceful vigil organised in memory of Sarah Everard who was kidnapped and killed when walking home at 9.30pm on 3rd March. What we do know is that a message was sent to all police chiefs making the Home Secretary’s position clear: she wanted them to stop people gathering at vigils.

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked protests against the brutal treatment of black people by the police. Mass demonstrations, often declared unlawful, spread to every major city in the USA and across the world. They led to much soul-searching, discussion and changes in legislation. The Black Lives Matter protests that swept the UK were described by our Home Secretary as “dreadful”, stating for good measure that she did not agree with the silent and peaceful gesture of “taking the knee”.

The problem with allowing the police and the Home Secretary more power to ban and control protests is that each small step taken towards stifling dissent does not make the dissent disappear – it simply bottles it up for the future.

An index of the freedoms we enjoy is the extent to which legitimate protest is tolerated by the State. The extent to which we tolerate injustice without protest is the exact measure of legislative control that will be imposed upon us. Dissent and protest are a healthy safety-valve for every democracy. The more the Home Secretary clamps down on legitimate protest, the weaker she makes our democracy.

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