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The Conservative government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman has continued to push an authoritarian agenda that threatens long-standing civil liberties in the UK. Their policies targeting protests, free speech, and dissent should deeply concern all who care about human rights and democratic accountability.
Eroding civil liberties and democratic accountability
The Conservative government’s pre-emptive spin around the Palestine solidarity marches follows a broader pattern of creeping fascism. Casting peaceful protesters as extremists or public threats echoes the playbook of far right populists and authoritarian regimes, not liberal democracies. This kind of inflammatory language often precedes actual crackdowns on dissent. It appears to be part of an ongoing attempt by the Tories to expand state powers, shrink the space for activism, and undermine accountability through fear and division.
Along with other troubling policies enabling greater monitoring and restrictions of speech, the government’s discourse reflects a slide toward illiberalism and intolerance of opposing views.
The inflammatory coverage from right wing tabloids this week regarding the upcoming free Palestine march seems intended to stoke anger and fear among their conservative readership. Describing the protesters as a “mob” plotting to “wreck” Remembrance Day commemorations frames them as violent extremists rather than concerned citizens exercising their rights. This plays into the hands of reactionary forces who wish to restrict dissent and expand state powers. Portraying diverse activist groups, including many peaceful campaigners, as dangerous threats appears designed to justify curtailing protests.
One area facing alarming government overreach is the erosion of protest rights, which has been a priority for Braverman’s Home Office. She recently provided guidance to police, asking them to treat common expressions of solidarity with Palestine, like chanting “Free Palestine,” waving the Palestinian flag, or targeting war memorials, as potential criminal offenses. This directive followed Braverman’s letter urging police to leverage public order laws to crack down on pro-Palestine protests, with the next one planned for Saturday, Armistice Day. Braverman continues with her attempt to “criminalise dissent.” Continually labelling the solidarity marches as “hate marches” can only be viewed as a cynical attempt to shut down legitimate protests with the use of “hate speech” laws.
Despite the Home Secretary’s concerns, I see no credible evidence that any groups or individuals intend to target the Cenotaph (apart from the far right). The scheduled protest route does not pass Whitehall, where the memorial is located. Public safety must be paramount, but restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly should be proportionate and not limit civil liberties based on unsubstantiated risks. By most accounts, a peaceful march is envisioned; only a handful of arrests have been made at previous marches, and it seems extremely unlikely that protesters, regardless of their views on the complex Israel-Hamas conflict, would seek to desecrate Armistice commemorations. Officials should not presume malicious intent without clear justification. With reasonable precautions by organisers and police, the march can proceed freely on Saturday without public disorder.
Authoritarian creep toward state control
Police have imposed harsh conditions on recent protests that seem intent to deter participation. For instance, restrictions like preventing deviation from march routes raise concerns about freedom of speech. As Liberty notes, these powers could allow arrests simply for leaving a march to use a toilet.
In addition, Braverman empowered police to restrict protests causing “more than minor” disruption after Parliament explicitly rejected this vague standard as part of the Public Order Bill. Liberty is challenging Braverman’s move as unlawful, arguing she violated the separation of powers to provide police with “almost unlimited powers” to shut down protests.
The attempt by UK officials to restrict the upcoming pro-Palestine march echoes France’s controversial ban on similar protests. After Hamas’ October 7 attack, France’s Interior Minister prohibited demonstrations supporting Palestinians, claiming public order concerns. However, human rights groups denounced this blanket ban as a disproportionate violation of free assembly rights. As Amnesty International stressed, restrictions on peaceful protests should only be a last resort when concrete threats exist. Moreover, this punitive approach failed, as pro-Palestine protests have continued in France despite the ban. Like in France, the UK government is alleging broad risks to stifle a protest, which appears to be an overreach threatening civil liberties.
The targeting of direct-action groups like Just Stop Oil under the Public Order Act has similarly chilled protest rights. The broad offence of “public nuisance” has been used recently to arrest and charge hundreds of climate activists. The recent backlash against a Just Stop Oil protest near the Cenotaph War Memorial demonstrates the danger of overzealous crackdowns on activism. Politicians quickly accused the environmental group of “disrespecting the monument”, but it emerged that protesters were moved to the memorial site by police during arrests. While civil disobedience inherently risks public anger, false assumptions about protester motives undermine constructive dialogue on issues like climate change. Government restrictions create hair-trigger reactions against activism, even when the reality is more nuanced. This polarising effect continues the broader pattern of authorities undermining legitimate demonstrations.
Even schools have faced the government’s authoritarian creep, with students expressing support for Palestine facing potential surveillance and questioning under the discriminatory Prevent counter-extremism programme, which disproportionately targets Muslims. This practice deters open discussions about international issues and student activism.
Securing convictions under the vague definition of “glorifying terrorism” has also enabled the abuse of anti-terrorism laws to punish political speech.
On top of this, government ministers have smeared opposition to Israel as antisemitic, extremist and racist. Braverman denounced recent pro-Palestinian marches in London as “hate marches,” mirroring the rhetoric of Israel’s fascist government.
Rather than foster an inclusive democracy, the government’s authoritarian policies undermine the rights enshrined in international law and Britain’s own Human Rights Act. As Liberty rightly warns, these troubling measures often target marginalised communities first before expanding more broadly.
In addition to violating basic liberties, the government’s actions are eroding accountability. Liberty is suing Braverman for unlawfully introducing anti-protest powers through a statutory instrument after their explicit rejection by Parliament. This tactic circumvented legislative scrutiny and the democratic process.
Even the homeless are not exempt from Braverman’s draconian proposals. Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent announcement to penalise homeless people for pitching tents in public spaces reveals a callous misunderstanding of poverty. Framing rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice” is offensive and inaccurate. Homelessness stems from a severe lack of affordable housing, insufficient mental health and addiction treatment, and weak social safety nets. Criminalising tent use will only exacerbate the challenges homeless individuals face. Rather than blaming vulnerable groups, the government should invest in long-term solutions like affordable housing, drug rehabilitation programmes, and universal healthcare. Policies should aim to lift people out of homelessness through compassion and care, not punishment.
The government’s authoritarian approach has also extended to restricting trade union rights, most recently with proposed minimum service levels during strikes. Legislation currently moving through Parliament will mandate minimum staffing levels in sectors like health, education, transport, and nuclear decommissioning during industrial action. This represents a significant infringement on the freedom to strike and collectively bargain.
Critics argue the minimum service levels are excessive and will make legal strikes futile. Unions say the policy is unworkable and fails to address the root causes behind disputes over pay and working conditions. Imposing minimum staffing against workers’ will violates international standards on collective labour rights. The move limits one of the few remaining avenues for ordinary citizens to have their grievances heard. Using the law to restrict strikes continues the broader pattern of this government, undermining civil liberties to insulate itself from dissent.
Parallels to far right populism
Such policies parallel the rise of far-right populist movements globally. However, this erosion of civil liberties and human rights protections cannot be justified in a country that claims to be a liberal democracy. Peaceful opposition, freedom of conscience, and open debate should never be crimes.
The government’s authoritarian attempts to restrict protests and dissent are deeply troubling, as they undermine fundamental liberties and weaken our democracy. Officials must urgently change course to uphold freedoms of speech and assembly. Those on the left cannot acquiesce to this erosion of our rights. We must persist in mobilising to support the Palestinian people, bringing motions to our unions, and resisting Tory oppression through lawful means. Though the road ahead may be difficult, we cannot succumb to draconian limits on activism. The left must unite to defend our hard-won rights using every nonviolent tool available. If we persist creatively in speaking truth to power, these liberties can be preserved for future generations. But we must act now before it is too late.
Dissent Matters – Keep Protesting, Keep Marching!
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