A Conservative government has been in power for less than a week, and already our fundamental human rights are under threat.
It has been announced today that the Queen’s Speech will contain plans for banning orders intended to limit the “harmful activities” of extremists. The detail of the plans are chilling.
They are part of a strategy to promote “British values” including freedom of speech and democracy, yet they’ll actually prevent people from exercising those very values. According to the proposals, anyone who undertakes activities that cause harassment, alarm or distress, could be faced with a high court order requiring them to submit anything they plan to publish online, in print, or even on social media, to the police.
That means actions like placing 200 body bags on the beach in my constituency of Brighton Pavilion, as Amnesty International did last month, could be prevented, and Amnesty subjected to police censorship. That act was distressing because it brought home the reality of the suffering endured by migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. But it was also powerfully important in raising awareness, and encouraging moves to prevent further tragedies.
The planned banning orders for “extremists” are particularly concerning. They are intended to hit not only organisations that incite hatred on the grounds of gender, race or religion, but also those who seek to “undermine democracy”. Does that mean campaigners like the Electoral Reform Society, who call for an overhaul of our democratic systems as they stand, could be outlawed? The phrasing is simply too vague to rule it out.
The national extremism database currently includes the names of people who have undertaken such “extreme” activities as organising meetings on environmental issues. That suggests people like me, who push for strong action on climate change, could be outlawed if we so much as come together to plan a protest. The right to protest is vital to a functioning democracy. Theresa May’s claim that she will be promoting the British value of democracy by preventing people from planning and staging protests – just in case they cause alarm – would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
David Cameron said today: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society”, before promising to promote such tolerant values as “Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality”. He uses a veil of tolerance in order to introduce an intolerant law.
I agree with the Prime Minister on the importance of all of those British values he seeks to promote. But we do not promote them by legislating for police censorship and control orders on people we disagree with. Our values are upheld when we are able to hear, and to challenge, views that run contrary to our own. The Green Party would actively promote values like democracy, freedom of speech, equality and tolerance by enabling people to exercise them.
We call for the reinstatement of funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We demand that the cuts to legal aid that have curtailed people’s access to justice in the face of discrimination be reversed. We want Britain to fight for human rights overseas. And we would never scrap our Human Rights Act.
One of the definitions of “harmful” contained within the Conservatives’ plans is anything that may create a “threat to the functioning of democracy”. But more than groups of radical thinkers, more even than civil disobedience, it is legislating our rights away that poses the greatest threat to the functioning of our democracy. When the police must read an environmentalist’s tweets before she posts them, and groups of people who disagree with how our society operates are prevented from meeting, our democracy is broken. If we are to live by our “British values”, we must be given more freedom to speak out, to organise, and to stand up against attacks on our rights.