With the drawing to a close of the General Election campaign, the nation’s focus returned to Westminster only to find that parliament had some new neighbours. Joining Brian Haw’s long time anti-war encampment in Parliament Square is now a hotchpotch of fresh protestors declaring everything from solidarity with Greek workers and support for the return of our troops to justice for the victims of alleged crimes by freemasons.
These new arrivals cement Parliament Square’s regrettable new reputation as a magnet for the semi-permanent expression of every bizarre cause and grievance going. Rather than continue its historical role as a credible auditorium for the profound and respectful invocations of the people, this grand public space has descended into a squalid vanity project of the radical.
I am now receiving several letters and emails daily from local constituents concerned about the state of the Square. They have witnessed St James’s Park being used as an open lavatory, the flower beds of Parliament Square an impromptu dustbin and a group of policemen standing impotently by the statue of great wartime leader, Winston Churchill, adorned in a T shirt bearing the slogan, ‘Bring Our Troops Home’. I add these letters to the pile of worries that had already been expressed by residents over the frequency and conduct of mass protests in central London which have brought with them the diversion of major road arteries, the drone of police helicopters and loudspeakers, litter-strewn streets and damage to homes.
Everybody tolerates and accepts the open expression of political protest – it is a cornerstone of our democracy. But balancing rights and responsibilities is also crucial to a peaceful, tolerant and cohesive society. This traditional balance is now out of kilter. If some of the behaviour being displayed over the past couple of years did not go under the banner of demonstration, its perpetrators would surely be penalised with an ASBO.
To the counter-protests of Westminster City Council, the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Evening Standard in their Parliament Square campaign, can now be added the voice of Brian Haw himself who has exclaimed, ‘I didn’t come here in 2001 to talk about all of this’. There is, in fact, now a legal provision banning all unlicensed protests, permanent or otherwise, in Parliament Square. Mr Haw has managed to slip under this legislation as he was a fixture at the time of its passing. However it is hard to see why his new neighbours have escaped the law thus far.
I well understand the difficulty the government faces in protecting the rights of all when those rights conflict. Police are also understandably hamstrung in view of the past year’s controversies over the policing of protests (I think primarily of the handling of the G20). But at the very least a clear and uncompromising message must be sent out:- Under British law it is acceptable to demand a voice through peaceful, controlled and confined protest. It is not acceptable to block public spaces, urinate in public, drop litter, be relentlessly noisy, and dig up and damage public land. I shall be writing to Met Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, to ask how we can best set about that task.
If protestors vociferously demand consideration of their grievances, perhaps they might take a moment to consider the legitimate grievances of those who object to their annexing of this magnificent public square.