Over the last twelve months, we have written consistently about the UK Government’s attempts to suppress protests and people’s rights to exercise freedom of speech.
The attempts to silence protests have come in the form of two main legislative instruments, passed by Westminster: The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and more recently, the Public Order Act 2023. Both have generated considerable discussion and controversy.
According to Liberty, the Public Order Act aims to increase the police’s ability to restrict and criminalise protest activity by introducing a range of new powers which allow, among other things, for:
- New and expanded use of stop and search;
- Orders that ban people from participating in protests and control their movement/ activity/ associations; and
- New offences that criminalise certain kinds of protests altogether.
Whatever one’s views on the impact of protests, or the potential disruption that they can cause in certain circumstances, restricting the right to protest sets a very dangerous precedent.
Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire was the setting for the Rebecca Riots, which were instigated by Welsh tenant farmers in response to the imposition of tolls (charges) to use the roads – a justifiable cause for protest, many would argue.
Wales also witnessed one of the first post-modern workers’ protests – the Merthyr Rising.
Not to glorify violent protests, however the point raised here is that the right to protest is intrinsic to Wales’ culture and heritage, and the right to protest should be respected and guaranteed within any modern, democratic society. To quote a former US President, making peaceful protest impossible makes unruly protest inevitable.
Indeed, we have been warning of the impact that the UK Government’s attempts to suppress protest might have here in Wales.
In Haverfordwest recently, it was reported that a local Yes Cymru activist had been pressured into removing the movement's flag that was hung from the window of his rented property.
Jim Dunckley, Secretary of Yes Cymru Hwlffordd said: "This is a perfect example of how freedom of expression is stifled in the British State, and why we need stronger tenants rights in an Independent Wales. Tenants should be free to express their views without fear of reprisal from outside interests. [The activist] has good relations with his Landlord, and agreed to take the flag down to save him any hassle. He's replaced the Yes Cymru flag with our National flag, but this intervention stands as a disturbing infringement on the right to freedom of expression, and should be challenged by Yes Cymru members locally".
The local member said: "It's regrettable that the Nope lobby is so scared of defending its position that they have to cancel a flag."
These are examples of the legacy of the Public Order Act and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Both legislative frameworks have not yet been in force for twelve months however the repercussions that they carry are clearly already being felt, where private citizens may feel emboldened to lobby to have political symbols or flags removed or “cancelled” due to their own political inclinations.
As the home of the Rebecca Riots, the Merthyr Rising and the Penrhyn quarry strikes, Wales has a unique history in the defence of its civil rights.
Recent legislative activity in Westminster on this front is just another example of the contempt held for Wales, and, shows a lack of understanding towards a country whose political culture differs from its own.
Only a truly independent Wales – governed by, and for the people of Wales – can safeguard our fundamental rights and freedom. Westminster has no interest in doing so.
This article was written by Jim Dunckley, Secretary of YesCymru Haverfordwest.