Who’s to blame for the violence at the Clapham Common vigil?

Though politicians bear a degree of responsibility, the crucial failure was at the top of the Metropolitan Police. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Who is to blame for the scenes on Clapham Common, south London, where the vigil for Sarah Everard and all women lost to violence ended with clashes between protesters and police, saw women arrested and forced to the ground, and police officers punched, kicked and spat at?

One argument is to blame the protesters: which requires you to believe that the difference between the peaceful, socially distanced vigils in cities such as Nottingham is that the women of London are just a little bit more prone to violence than the women in Nottingham, an argument that lacks credibility or seriousness. 

[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]

Another argument is to blame the elected politicians: with a handful of exceptions, politicians across the House of Commons have been slow to recognise the need to explicitly secure an opt-out for protest within the lockdown regulations, and have instead given a great deal of latitude to individual police forces, a mistake that the Conservative government is set to repeat with its new policing bill, which will pass huge discretionary powers over protest to the police. 

There’s a lot of truth in that, and that is one reason Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Keir Starmer are all opting to hide between the looming reports into the incident: because they know that their decisions last March mean they are at least at risk of being found to be co-authors of Saturday’s events.

But it’s not the whole story: thanks to the efforts of the women behind the Reclaim These Streets campaign, who went to court to find out, we now know that the coronavirus laws do contain an implicit guarantee of the right to protest. That implicit guarantee meant that socially distanced vigils did go ahead in parts of Britain and they did not end with the disturbing scenes we saw at Clapham Common. So something went wrong that can’t wholly be blamed on elected politicians, although they do bear a share of the blame.

At least part of the problem was the decision to ban the vigil rather than to work with its organisers, as well as the Metropolitan Police’s decision to police the vigil in Clapham Common more strictly than Nottinghamshire Police opted to police the vigil in Nottingham, and more strictly than Police Scotland opted to police Rangers fans’ title celebrations in Glasgow. 

That, inevitably, led to the scenes at Clapham Common. It’s not a failure that can be pinned on the women involved, nor one that can solely be blamed on the elected politicians or the police given the task of enforcing it. The crucial decision came from the top of the Metropolitan Police: and the question we should ask ourselves is why London’s police force cannot, at the very least, treat a vigil with the sensitivity that Glasgow’s police managed to extend to a league triumph.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

Free trial CSS