You would need the patience of a saint, or a dyed-in-the-wool eco-warrior, not to have been even slightly irritated by the recent activities of Just Stop Oil protestors. Whether it’s young people throwing soup over some of the world’s most valuable paintings or twenty-eight-year-old Indigo Rumbelow reduced to yelling at a television interviewer, these are committed dissenters who are willing to undergo a great deal to promote their cause. If success is measured by column inches, they are certainly doing well.
It is hardly a surprise that a Conservative government, with a notably hard-line home secretary, should be eager to take action to curb the protestors’ activities. And many of us might think that the government has a point. The right to protest is vital, but it is not carte blanche. Suggestions that Just Stop Oil protests have impeded the work of the emergency services are, if true, unacceptable.
Last week, the prime minister, joined by home secretary Suella Braverman and her policing minister Chris Philp, met with senior police officers to discuss the issue. There is a lot to talk about; in November, the think tank Policy Exchange published a report which highlighted what it called the “legal and policing quagmire” against which these protests are set, and recommended new legislation and changes to doctrine at the College of Policing.
More profoundly, this matter goes to the heart of some of our deepest-held values and beliefs. How do we balance public safety and the maintenance of law and order, vital to the working of the state, against the cherished ability to raise our voices in protest when we see what we think are obvious wrongs? There is no quick answer, nor is any solution perfect.
Rishi Sunak seems to have already chosen a side. He described Just Stop Oil as a “selfish minority” whose activities were “completely unacceptable”, before pronouncing, in phraseology which would have delighted Lady Thatcher, “My view is that those who break the law should feel the full force of it, and that’s what I am determined to deliver”. Uncompromising, clear, focused: the prime minister does not want the electorate to doubt for a moment how he feels.
More worrying was what he went on to say. Pledging to support the police, as any responsible government should in principle, he added “I’ve said to the police whatever they need from government they will have in terms of new powers”.
That should cause us to stop and think a little. “Whatever they need”? Presumably judged by the police themselves? This is not how policy is made. Nor, if they are thoughtful and responsible, should senior police leaders want it to be so. The police derive their legitimacy from the oversight and authorisation of the democratically elected government. They should not be given the freedom of the legislative and regulatory cupboard.
We need to see this in the round. Braverman is the same home secretary who, weeks ago, was telling law enforcement that “initiatives on diversity and inclusion should not take precedence over common-sense policing”. Only a year ago, Sunak came out and said that there was a problem with public trust in the Metropolitan Police. Under these circumstances, what kind of cognitive dissonance allows politicians to offer these same police officers whatever legal powers they request?
The truth is that Just Stop Oil should be only a small part of a much wider conversation within government, and between the government and the electorate. What do we expect of our police, and how do we train, equip and resource them to do it? What are the fundamental values we want law enforcement agencies to defend and promote, and how do we instil these? Protestors come and go; one day Rumbelow will be merely a pub quiz question like her spiritual predecessor Swampy.
Instead, ask yourselves this: do you have confidence in the police? Do they reflect your vision of a free and orderly society? Are you in a position to give them the support they need to do that job? If the answer is no, then we need a lot more than a few legislative tweaks to make a difference to how our communities are policed.