Linda Butcher: Effective or not, protest is a fundamental right

Demonstrations can be better than other tactics at achieving certain objectives, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

In June, tens of thousands of anti-austerity protesters took to the streets in several UK cities, continuing this country's long and important tradition of peaceful protest. But do these protests achieve anything, and how many have ever achieved their goals?

Several of those interviewed for the 2014 documentary We Are Many said that although the 2003 protests against the Iraq War didn't stop the invasion, they might have made subsequent governments think twice about the use of military force.

Demonstrations can be better than other tactics at achieving certain objectives. For example, there's a sense of scale and camaraderie from seeing that a vast number of people feel as passionately as you do about a cause. You might meet others with whom you can campaign more closely. Demos can also be used when "insider" communications have broken down. Ultimately, they can give supporters a sense of empowerment and solidarity.

For some, demos are a last resort, and there are potential pitfalls. A gathering of hundreds or thousands of people has its own dynamic and is not necessarily under anyone's control. Everyone who attends a demo will have their own views about the issue and will make their own choices about what actions they take. That you're the organiser doesn't necessarily put you in charge of anyone or anything.

At SMK we believe that the right to protest is fundamental, but it faced a challenge from London's Metropolitan Police earlier this year. They suggested that campaign groups would have to pay for private firms to oversee their protests, covering the costs of traffic management. A number of campaigns and organisations reacted collectively, saying: "We believe any demand to pay to be able to demonstrate constitutes an unacceptable restriction on the right to protest. We will therefore continue to organise and support public protests in the same manner that we have in the past, without paying for traffic management."

Claire James, from the Campaign Against Climate Change, told the BBC: "This issue extends beyond any one specific concern or campaign. It touches on the basic rights of everyone, everywhere. If you can't afford to pay, you can't afford to protest."

One of my most memorable moments at SMK was in 2011, when we presented one of our campaigner awards to the now late Hetty Bower, a veteran anti-war protester and marcher who was 105 years old at the time. Hetty's acceptance speech challenged and inspired everyone in the room, leaving us with this call to action: "We may not win, but if we do not protest we will lose."

Bearing Hetty's stirring words in mind, SMK will continue to campaign for the right to protest and to do so freely.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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