Monday, 22 July 2013

Policing, protest and popular culture

[This originally appeared, without  hyperlinks, on the Young Lawyer blog]

April was marked by the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and if ever an event divided opinion, this was surely it. Reconciling the death of an old lady and the acts of an administration under her watch in the 1970s and 1980s was a difficult one. From both sides of the political spectrum came eulogies and attacks, debates about the cost and nature of her funeral, the extent of her legacy and her impact - indeed the issue came to dominate so much that some argued that surely ‘Thatcheration point’ had been reached.

In terms of popular culture, one contentious response to Thatcher’s death was the campaign to get ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ to number one in the charts. Notwithstanding it stalling at number two, itself an echo of The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen being kept off the top spot during the Silver Jubilee, and the fact that there were many far better protest songs (Robert Wyatt’s magnificent version of Shipbuilding perhaps, or even the mighty Pete Wylie’s own take on what would happen when she died)*, it raised issues around the futility of  banning items of popular culture. Whatever the merits of the campaign and the choice of song itself, the rather limp response by the media to it, in terms of trying to police popular protest, spoke volumes of the difficulty in trying to censor or stop such activity, especially in an age when swift and widespread dissemination is easily facilitated.

Outside of this very particular protest however, the issue got me thinking about the policing of protest more generally. I touched on protest briefly, and somewhat obliquely, in my very first blog, when I mentioned Peter Hain and the Stop the Seventy Tour Campaign, and the role the various sport related protests had in removing the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, there was much discussion about whether there were going to be actual protests during the funeral itself and whether any such protest could be legally curtailed. There are of course a number of legislative provisions that could potentially impact on the right to protest, including the Public Order Act 1986 amongst others, but it is important to appreciate that as a counterweight to provisions that regulate protest are corollary powers under the European Convention of Human Rights that give the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Of course, the relationship between the right to protest and the right to regulate it is a difficult one to balance, but balance it is what the courts must do, and is what the police must have in mind when making decisions as to how a specific event should be policed, something that has proved problematic in recent years when the Metropolitan Police in particular have resorted to tactics such as kettling and a somewhat complicated flow chart has been drawn up to help constabularies when deliberating upon their approaches. In the event there were very few protests at the event and the day passed off peacefully and without major incident, but it was interesting to see the issue of the parameters of peaceful protest raised again, as the extent and nature of these powers is likely to carry on being problematic.

*I should have also mentioned in the original posting of this, but time constraints did not allow me, that Darren Hayman also wrote a song about this, including the Ding-Dong refrain, a number of years ago – an unofficial (I think) video here and solo material from Darren and also back catalogue of Hefner can be purchased here. He’s one of our most original artists and his work on the English Civil War, including his new album Bugbears, is well worth seeking out.

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