Is England sliding further towards authoritarianism?

Stronger policing powers, harsher sentences and higher fines. Democratic protest is under threat from Westminster, as the sentencing of a Just Stop Oil activist this week shows. Andrea Brock and Nathan Stephens-Griffin write.

A Metropolitan Police officer approaches Just Stop Oil activists as they demonstrate on Highbury Corner in north London on November 30, 2022.
 (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Politicians in the UK are usually quick to condemn human rights abuses in other parts of the world – including the imprisonment of non-violent human rights, feminist, and environmental defenders in Qatar, Iran and Egypt most recently. Our political class points to and celebrates the actions of protesters abroad, while ignoring the creeping authoritarianism of new policing legislation – the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC) and the Public Order Bill, currently in the House of Lords – at home. Despite campaigners and activists long raising alarm bells, the two bills have gone through parliament almost unopposed politically, with devastating consequences.

On 29 November, Just Stop Oil (JSO) protester Jan Goodey was the first to be sentenced for ‘causing a public nuisance’ under a new statutory offence enacted under the PCSC Act. While not causing any physical harm to anyone, he was sentenced to six months in prison for his part in a protest on the M25 motorway in November, where traffic was brought to a standstill to demand an end to new gas and oil licences. 

Governments, state friendly media and the police the world over try to sideline the legitimacy of protesters' political motives and conscious objections to injustice, to portray them as nothing more than criminals mindlessly threatening 'ordinary' people's lives

The criminalization of ‘public nuisance’ is particularly dangerous because it can involve anything and everything linked to ‘noise’, causing ‘serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity’. Notably, all these these could apply to disruptions of any kind. Isn’t that the whole point of protest?

Widely criticized by researchers and environmental and human rights defenders, the prosecution of Goodey under the new legislation sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for protest and freedom of expression in England. 

According to the Network for Police Monitoring:

Governments, state friendly media and the police the world over try to sideline the legitimacy of protesters’ political motives and conscious objections to injustice, to portray them as nothing more than criminals mindlessly threatening ‘ordinary’ people’s lives. 
Often, as with pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the spectre of ‘public nuisance’ is used by an authoritarian state to arrest and prosecute demonstrators. Across the global South, environment defenders are imprisoned for demonstrating in ways that involve neither violence nor the threat of violence. Police powers are strengthened and official statements become more strident and aggressive. 
If any of this is starting to sound alarmingly familiar, it’s not surprising. Ministers and media commentators are willing, sometimes, to champion human rights and condemn tactics used against protesters abroad when it suits their interests. When it comes to people demanding their voices are heard here in Britain, however, the same rules never seem to apply.

As the PCSC Act was passing through Parliament, there were widespread ‘Kill The Bill’ protests across the country, including in Bristol where several people were convicted of the elevated charge of ‘riot’. Since the protests there in 2021, 47 people have been charged, and so far 15 protesters have been sentenced to a combined total of 75 years in prison. Media coverage of what happened in Bristol has been dominated by images of burning police vehicles and false headlines about police officers being injured, with little coverage of why the protests took place, and the state’s treatment of activists. This framing suggests that police charges are fair and proportionate, but this is dangerously misleading. 

Many protesters were themselves victims of police brutality, and police retracted many of their initial claims about injuries they sustained (but only after they had been reported on widely). They, like Goodey, are being made examples of. These are political prosecutions, motivated by ‘revenge policing against those who would dare challenge them. 

And let’s not forget the brutalization of women who gathered at Clapham Common to peacefully mourn Sarah Everard, a young woman murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police Officer Wayen Couzens in 2021

At the same time, we are seeing the ramping up of policing powers through the court system, or what campaigners have criticized as privatization of protest law. In the last few years, judges have been granting ever more expansive corporate injunctions against named individuals as well as ‘persons unknown’ to criminalize otherwise legal protest a-priori – topped by the most recent injunction of the entire High Speed 2 Railway line that turns trespass and protest from a civil into a criminal matter. Designed to protect people from domestic violence and stop stalkers under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, these mechanisms are now a key tool that is used by the state and corporations to defend and enforce ecologically destructive projects. The use of injunctions will be made even easier in the new Public Order Bill which grants Ministers of State the power to impose injunctions on protests that might cause ‘serious disruption’ to key infrastructures – to be defined by the minister of course. 

This expansion of the use of injunction has gone hand in hand with the extensive use of bail conditions for protesters, harsher criminalization and policing, longer prison sentences, and higher fines. These political responses are all part and parcel of the clampdown on protest, as people are demanding serious political change.

Jan Goodey’s imprisonment is as communicative as it is punitive. According to the prosecuting magistrate the sentence is intended to ‘deter’ future protests of a similar nature. But non-violent protest is a human right, and short term disruption caused by environmental defenders pales in comparison to the widespread ecological chaos we are already facing.

Harsher policing and criminalization will not mean an end to protest, as people are realizing that the government is not going to enact the changes we need. As law and policing are evolving, so will protest tactics.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC) was applicable in the United Kingdom. The Act’s jurisdiction applies only to England, and not to Scotland, Wales and Northern Island. 

Andrea Brock is a lecturer and political ecologist at the University of Sussex. Nathan Stephens Griffin is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK.