By Sam Hadfield
Now, we’ve all been seriously annoyed in the past. However, it’s never been a criminal offence to be annoying – until now. But that’s what the terrifying Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill (PCSC) being forced through parliament does.
The bill’s most questionable clause (among many, see here) is clause 59, section 2a. It makes it an offence for someone to do an act which causes serious harm to the public” – fair enough.
But then we get to the really insidious part. The bill goes on to define a “serious harm” as including being a “serious annoyance”. That’s new. And, you might notice, incredibly vague.
Some people will try and say this bill does not make the UK more authoritarian. They’re wrong. The bill centralises and expands power to the UK government to silence sections of the population.
But what’s just as significant is how the Conservatives are pushing this through and why they are doing it.
The first strategy is not talk about authoritarianism at all. They’ll talk about everything else – how it stops protests which are *not primarily violent or seriously disorderly’ . How it increases sentences for child murderers, sex offenders, killer drivers and those who attack emergency workers. But they refuse to talk about the actual issue here.
When someone does penetrate their shield of silence, they opt for a line of refuting anything bad without really engaging.
“This bill pushes us towards being more authoritarian,” someone will say.
“No it doesn’t, the police must still act within the law,” comes the Conservative response.
They’re either oblivious to the circularity of that argument, or unconcerned with it.
It’s a game of ignorance and misdirection so nobody sees the ugly heart of it.
What is the government’s strategy here?
Well, what always seems to happen whenever there is an issue like this, a Conservative pipes up saying ‘x thing is a disgrace’. For protests, it was Priti Patel, a few months ago.
The immediate effect of this is that people start talking about protests. In other words, the very act of protesting becomes “political”. Protesting was fine so long as it was about kosher stuff: the environment, racism, public spending cuts.
Now protesting about anything is questionable as the very act is up for debate. All protests get put into the grey area of politics – a political culture war where the actual problem is irrelevant. And culture wars are all about brand loyalty.
Brand loyalty is an arena the Conservatives know well. It is where they are at their strongest.
Conservative culture is at its height in the popular discourse. Everybody knows their arguments: privatise to increase efficiency, cut trade union rights, regulation and taxation are sins.
These are foundational principles for Conservatives, and the media ensures everyone knows it. Our familiarity breeds our agreement. It is easy to recognise and so easy to be loyal to.
This is also where the left is at its weakest. Nobody knows what the Labour Party stands for.
Are they socialists? Absolutely not. Kicking out Corbyn saw to that.
Are they centrists? I’d guess – but, if there’s one thing everyone agrees on right now, it’s that we need change. Faith in our political system and institutions has never been lower. Centrism isn’t going to solve that.
Labour has no principles right now – no identity. And in a culture war between the well-rooted Brexit Tories and the baseless Labour, there’s only going to be one winner.
The Conservatives will keep moving once-sacred principles of democracy like the right to protest and freedom of speech into the arena of culture war, and they know who is going to win.
Given this we might ask ourselves why the Conservatives care about this bill?
We know the formal reason – the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matters protests scared them. They want to stop anything like that happening again.
But, again, we can ask why. Why did those protests scare them so much that they write legislation specifically to stop XR 2?
This brings us to Conservative ideology: they don’t see climate change, or systematic racism, or child poverty, or wealth inequality as problems the government should solve. They’re all just outcomes of a perfect system of organisation: the deregulated capital-maximising system (or, capitalism).
The free market will solve these problems. The goal here isn’t to save lives or maximise human welfare or even stop us all from dying in a climate meltdown. The goal of Conservative ideology is to allow corporations to make more money. Existential threats like killer viruses and food shortages just present more markets to exploit.
Large-scale protests are complete anathema to this. They pressure the government to solve problems. But they also hinder companies’ profit-making abilities by damaging buildings, clogging up infrastructure and wasting worker’s time. They stop money-making.
Conservative ideology sees the accumulation of capital as the purpose of everything (apologies to Douglas Adams). Any problems which capital cannot answer just go ignored.
And when you can’t ignore a problem anymore (i.e. the climate emergency is here and people really won’t shut up about it), then the only viable solution is to crush the problem with any and every tool in the book.
Time for all of us to get seriously annoyed in a meaningful way.