Extinction Rebellion (‘XR’) are back in the headlines, inflicting on Cambridge a ‘Scouring of the Shire’-style small-scale re-enactment of their bid to grind the capital to a halt last year.
And once again, the story is accompanied by mounting public anger at a woefully inadequate police response which seems more interested in indulging the protests than maintaining public order.
In fact in some cases Cambridgeshire Constabulary even appear to be facilitating XR’s actions. Using emergency powers to close a couple of roads blockaded by protesters may well ‘mitigate disruption’, but it also lends the force of the state to their ultimate ambition of blocking a public highway – a move which paramedics have told the press could put lives at risk.
As yet, the people of Cambridge have confined themselves to a petition calling for an end to the roadblock, which has been signed by thousands. There has been no repeat of the attack on XR activists by commuters which seemed to spur the Metropolitan Police to action in 2019.
But that action still stands as a warning as to what can happen if the authorities fail to adequately enforce order, alongside the precedent and example it sets for other protest groups if boundaries are not properly enforced. This is worth keeping in mind because the logic of XR’s position is that they will escalate their actions – and they are already not only closing roads but council meetings – if their demands aren’t met.
In fairness, there have now been some arrests. But why are has the authorities’ response taken this form?
The local police appear to be citing a very broad interpretation of the protections afforded to the right to protest under the Human Rights Act and a ‘tortured’ reading of the College of Policing’s advice, which one observer points out “amounts to legalising almost all illegal activity if one can claim that it’s in the cause of a protest”. Meanwhile the Times reports that the police are caught between a rock and a hard place because the courts ruled in favour of a legal challenge by XR against the blanket ban employed by the police to bring an end to their campaign against London.
Given the Government’s intention to overhaul judicial review, this might prompt another round of criticism of the judges. But we should not forget that a Government with a comfortable overall majority has the basis to change legislation to authorise, and indeed mandate, more pro-active and effective police action against campaigns against campaigns of this kind.
Priti Patel doesn’t need to wait for the results of Michael Gove’s constitutional commission (which may well in any event prove disappointing) in order to draw up a Bill to that effect – indeed John Apter, the Chairman of the Police Federation, has called for such legislation. Nor to look at what powers Police & Crime Commissioners have to act on public anger about the performance of their local force in a crisis.
It ought to be perfectly possible for the Home Secretary to lend her full support to rank-and-file officers whilst bringing Government pressure to bear on their often timorous senior leadership.