David Davis has “skin in the game” on the right to peaceful protest. “My grandfather was arrested for leading a demonstration,” the former Conservative cabinet minister told me, before proudly recounting the story: a march in North Shields in the 1930s to demand more support for the unemployed; the police charging at the crowd; the arrest of the activists deemed “responsible”. His grandfather was given a choice between promising not to make any “inflammatory speeches” in the next six months or a prison sentence. He chose prison.
This family connection might help to explain why Davis, 74, has made civil liberties the cornerstone of his political career. In 2008 he resigned not only as shadow home secretary but as an MP, forcing a by-election in his constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, which he won. The trigger was the narrow passing of New Labour’s counterterrorism bill, which sought to allow the detention of terrorist suspects for 42 days without charge. But his shock resignation was also a more general protest against the creeping authoritarianism of the state under Tony Blair – the bid for mandatory ID cards, heavy-handed public order legislation, increased surveillance – which Davis called “the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government”.
Fifteen years later it is a Conservative government that stands accused of breaching civil liberties. New voter ID mandates have been introduced, despite minuscule rates of electoral fraud and the clear risk of disenfranchising voters. The Online Safety Bill, currently being scrutinised in the House of Lords, proposes a series of restrictions on how we interact online. And two sweeping pieces of legislation – the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023, which came into force days before the coronation of Charles III – have restricted the right to peaceful protest. The result of the new rules, hastily forced through parliament, is already clear: 52 arrests over the weekend of the coronation of people police were concerned were going to “disrupt the event”, including three volunteers working with Westminster Council to keep people safe at night, a royal “superfan” mistaken by police for an environmental activist, and six members of the anti-monarchy group Republic who had cleared their protest with police in advance.
Davis was tempted to say “we told you so”. When the legislation was going through its final stages he suggested a “pause” in view of Louise Casey’s excoriating report on the Met and police abuse. But “the Home Office, Ms Braverman, was not interested in that. And we had what we had.”
While not unsympathetic about the scale of the task facing police forces during the coronation, Davis is still scathing: “It was an operational failure, bluntly.” But even more sinister than police incompetence is the way the Public Order Act was used to interfere with peaceful protest. “The right to put up placards is virtually absolute in British democracy,” Davis told the Today programme after the coronation, calling for the Home Affairs Select Committee to scrutinise the Public Order Act urgently.
That hearing took place on 17 May, the day before I met Davis at his Westminster office. Several of his Conservative colleagues on the committee, particularly Tim Loughton and Lee Anderson, the deputy Conservative Party chairman, were hostile towards the idea that anyone should have the right to disrupt such a momentous event, even by doing something as harmless as using a megaphone.
Davis disagrees. “The right to demonstrate carries with it a certain amount of implicit right to disrupt,” he said. That does not mean no restrictions on protests at all (“There’s the right to demonstrate, which is not the right to wreck people’s lives”), but he argued that existing law prior to the recent legislation made that distinction clear. The government didn’t need to pass new restrictions to combat protest tactics such as “locking on”; it certainly didn’t need to make it an offence to carry a bike lock or luggage strap in the vicinity of a demonstration, or give police new powers for stop and search without suspicion.
Davis, twice a Tory leadership candidate and winner of a Liberty Human Rights award in 2010, has not been shy about criticising his party’s recent record, calling the Online Safety Bill “catastrophic” and “a censor’s charter” and the Voter ID mandate “an illiberal idea in pursuit of a non-existent problem”.
But he resisted the suggestion that the Tories have given up on civil liberties: “Look at the back benches, there’s a whole load of us.” Both Labour and the Conservatives have always had authoritarian factions, he maintains – fellow Tories agreed with Blair on ID cards in the 2000s, and there are Labour MPs who (perhaps quietly) support stricter anti-protest laws today. It’s just that right now, within the Conservative Party, the authoritarians are winning.
Davis would urge his colleagues, especially the newer ones, to think long-term. “Every law we write must be written on the presumption that it will be a government very unlike ours who will be in charge at some point in the future,” he argued in the Times in December 2022, as the Public Order Bill was making its way through parliament.
“The younger the MP is, the less they like to believe that,” he told me this month. “It’s natural. You think we’re Tories, we’re not going to misuse this… I’m afraid [realising] that just comes with time. You can’t put people through an accelerated learning programme. I wish we could!”
With nearly four decades of political experience, Davis has had time to learn. “You see the state misbehave,” he explained. Take Blair’s ID card scheme, which initially polled well with the public. As the estimated costs rose, public support fell. And when HMRC lost two CDs full of child benefit data in 2007, the notion of handing over vast amounts of personal information to the state suddenly seemed a lot less appealing. “I kept saying, if they’re going to have ID cards, you’re going to have all this data behind it and that data’s going to be misused. You can’t trust the state. I was arguing you can’t trust the state because the state will actively misuse it, but the public thought they’ll just lose it. So that’s what happened. Same with the Public Order Bill. We’ve now had a living example. I bet you many more Tories are now on my side of the argument than would have been three weeks ago.”
Davis has a reputation for optimism – as Brexit secretary, his belief that the UK could outnegotiate the EU often felt unjustified, almost naive. On the question of whether Britain is becoming a de facto police state, Davis’s Tiggerish confidence is based on two things: faith that “the pendulum will swing back” in time, and more immediate safeguards against what he calls “short-term electoral authoritarianism”.
“We’re never going to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, despite all the waffling on about it. It’s not going to happen. So there’s always that backstop,” he said cheerfully. “And our judges – I sometimes think our judges make terrible mistakes, but broadly speaking their hearts and minds are in the right place.” The UK’s judges (denounced as “activists” by various leading Conservatives) and the European Court of Human Rights are not the type of safeguards you might expect a right-wing Brexiteer to champion. But in this fight it seems you take your allies where you can find them. And the trend, Davis believes, isn’t quite as bleak as it seems.
“It’s a permanent direction of travel. It’s always been going on, and it’s always required people to push back on it. And ironically, given that we are supposed to be the idealists in this, what tends to happen is that actually it’s the facts that bear us out.”