Why the squatter camp should stay
I was pleased to see John Rentoul’s post about the encampment in Parliament Square. Alongside my deep unease about the eviction order is a sense that possibly there’s a more compelling argument underpinning the top line of those who endorse it, which is, roughly, that this is a public space that ought to be available to all, and the protesters’ presence there is an imposition on everyone else. I’ve been hoping to read someone sensible’s fuller thoughts on the subject, partly because I couldn’t believe it would honestly just be because it’s annoying, and so it’s helpful that John laid it all out. But I find myself no more convinced.
There’s one important point that I absolutely agree with. There’s a lot of terrible crap talked about free speech by people who confuse anyone’s right to say anything with an obligation for the rest of us to give them the time of day. If an idiot says something moronic or offensive and no-one chooses to print it in a newspaper or air it on television, that’s not a violation of their human rights, and it’s definitely not a reason to start misquoting bloody Voltaire. John calls it the Did Magna Carta Die In Vain confusion. He’s right. It’s a load of old tosh. Likewise, the removal of Haw and his cohorts from Parliament Square will not prevent them from continuing to spout in other arenas. I don’t think their eviction will threaten our parliamentary democracy.
It is nonetheless a mistake. When I said so on Twitter, that renowned venue for fleshed-out debate, I asked (in the faintly embarrassing shorthand that the form imposes) why ‘the eyesore-nuisance arguments trump the right to protest outside Parly’; actually, though, I think that was the wrong way of putting it, and John’s right to pick me up on the imprecision, partly the result of the 140 character limit, partly the result of my own woolly brain. The point is not so much that that right is absolute, in all circumstances, and no other considerations should be balanced against it. The point is that the real, meaningful harm being caused by the presence of the protesters is completely indiscernible. What damage, seriously, are they doing, apart from to the grass? Does it count as harm if the tourists that swarm around the square aren’t able to congregate in the middle of it, or MPs can’t have a nice lunchtime sandwich there? I find the tourists’ presence a massive pain in the arse, to be honest, if I ever try to get a tube at Westminster; should they be barred from the area? I really hate it when Jehovah’s Witnesses deliver me leaflets to my front door about my impending doom; should they be turned away at the top of the street?
In a way it’s a problem of tone as much as of principle. The point of John’s position, I guess, is that sometimes quality of life concerns (to use a dismal phrase) beat a freedom of speech argument, especially if you think the argument (or the speech) is specious. This was, after all, ‘a pleasant patch of green in a historic site that could be enjoyed by visitors’. Well, honestly, balls to that. There are plenty of other pleasant patches of green in the vicinity. I might feel differently if they were on someone’s doorstep, or disrupting parliament in session, but this is Parliament Square, as public a public space as I can think of, and one with obvious symbolic value – there may not be much historical precedent for the site being a particular hotbed of protest, but it’s very hard to ignore the significance it’s accrued over the last nine years.
The eviction may be legally justifiable, but that’s not the same as it being sensible. The law also allows for the exercise of discretion, and I would have thought any wise politician (or lobby correspondent) would be keenly aware of the unfortunate symbolism of removing members of the public from the sphere of the mother of parliaments for no more substantial reason than that they’re a bit of a nuisance. I personally can’t abide the personalised BLIAR-type screeds that these people think should replace reasoned argument, but I don’t particularly mind if they make our representatives a bit uncomfortable. The public should make MPs a bit uncomfortable; it’s right that they be aware of the weight that their decisions carry, that everything they do is consequential. Setting aside the particulars of Iraq, I think it’s a good general principle that no-one should take us to war without knowing that some mad people might camp out for nine years and be slightly irritating if they do it. And if that seems too high a price to pay, no-one should think that the solution to that problem is simply to get rid of them.Tagged in: Brian Haw, parliament, Parliament Square
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