Priti Patel marches in where Michael Howard feared to tread

March against the Criminal Justice Bill – July 1994, Trafalgar Square, London
Photo By Altlondon, licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA

Editor’s comment: The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill may have been quietly pushed aside for the moment, no doubt waiting for the furore to die down, but it is very unlikely that the crackdown on dissent is off Patel’s agenda at all. Rachel Marshall reminds us of events almost two decades ago

There is little more terrifying to the establishment than counterculture movements. In the early 1990s some of the Tory government’s greatest fears were rave culture and the ‘New Age Traveller’. The response spearheaded by Home Secretary Michael Howard was 1994’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA), and this week we saw its successor in Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC) – a similarly wide-ranging, hateful and controversial piece of portmanteau legislation.

 Hippie vans
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Here’s some background on the CJA. The 1980s was a tumultuous decade for protest and unrest: anti-nuclear demonstrators at Greenham Common, the Brixton and Toxteth riots, major strike action by shipworkers, printers and, most notoriously, miners, pitted police against communities and trades unions. The hugely unpopular Poll Tax saw a large protest in Trafalgar Square turn into rioting, such was the strength of the anger. Even Live Aid introduced a generation to a form of activism.

 Poll Tax Riot 31st March 1990 Peaceful March by James Bourne at Creative Commons

At the same time, new youth cultures were developing with an inclination to drop out of a Thatcherite world that increasingly put wealth and consumption ahead of the environment and community. The ‘New Age Travellers’ on the road, the squatters living in communes in unoccupied houses, the environmentalist campaigners fighting the Newbury and Twyford road developments and the ravers enjoying the buzz of secretive illegal dance parties.

The CJA also included some of those Tory law and order greatest hits that Patel was singing from the despatch box as she introduced her PCSC bill this week: tougher sentences, cracking down on youth crime, helping the police to do their jobs; but for many it was simply an assault on those with a non-conformist ethos or lifestyle, dressed up as benevolent protection for the wider population.

Doubtless it was upsetting and frustrating for a farmer to find his land taken over for an impromptu festival, and inconvenient for a family heading down the A303 for their holiday in Cornwall to be held up by ‘The Convoy’. Of course, it may also have been something of a financial inconvenience for the pub industry to find that MDMA-fuelled ravers only wanted a bottle of water, not expensive lagers.

Public antipathy towards hippies provided the perfect cover to introduce a broad range of curbs on the wider traveller community, as well as the rights to assemble and to protest. The Bill also included some other rather terrifying provisions: an amendment to the right to remain silent, which allowed inference to be drawn from a suspect saying nothing; the introduction of stop and search powers.

The PCSC bill catalyses similar public annoyance with the tactics of Extinction Rebellion (which escalated some transport delays ‒ hardly an unusual occurrence in London), into a rationale for crushing almost any form of peaceful protest. 

In 1994 there was great unrest against the CJA, and largescale protests led with the battle-cry “kill the bill” – a phrase heard from protestors again this week. Reading the press from the time, there were warnings of the damaging effects of the criminalisation of trespass, fears for the traveller community and outrage at curbs on the right to silence. It all feels like a huge case of déjà-vu. Howard’s bill passed into law in November 1994, albeit in a somewhat watered-down form, and elements have been challenged in the European courts. Is Patel trying to finish off the job that Howard started, with a supine Tory majority that might wave it through in all its horror and with an anti-ECHR campaign to secure its impact?

Back in 1994 there was bemusement and hilarity at the fusty old men defining rave culture as music “characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”: perhaps the most bizarre clause on our statute book. Granting the Home Secretary the power to make subjective definitions as to what is “aggravating” or a potential cause of “serious unease” is a far more sinister prospect. 

No justice, no peace banner
Photo by john vicente on Unsplash

We all hit an age where we start to see the fashion of our youth coming round again, and here is the reprise of the early 1990s legislative response to the anti-establishment-isms of today. Much has changed in 30 years, not least the seismic difference the internet and social media has made to the world; but some things are still the same. The CJA’s tougher sentences for young offenders haven’t eradicated youth crime, restrictions on protest haven’t made problems and disagreements go away, defining the “series of repetitive beats” that constitutes a rave hasn’t avoided the next tuneless musical genre – in fact, drill music instils the same moral panic that acid house once did. The only thing that will improve these issues is root and branch societal reform to address the causes of crime and to improve tolerance of different lifestyles. And, sadly, that’s somewhere this government is never going to go.

Postscript: A peculiar little episode happened a decade ago when in 2009 Devon Police broke apart a birthday party in Exeter using CJA powers, fearing that it was an illegal rave. In fact it was 15 people tucking into a barbecue. What insignificant thing might you be doing next year that Priti Patel considers to be aggravating?

You may wish to sign this petition demanding that our rights to peaceful protest are not curtailed.