The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Kingdom Law

By David Harris; Sarah Joseph | Go to book overview
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13
Freedom of Assembly

THÉRÈSE MURPHY


INTRODUCTION: AN HISTORICAL SNAPSHOT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM

'Moral panics' and 'folk devils' became part of popular academic vernacular in the early 1970s1 and the frequency of their deployment has not waned since. A current, but quintessential, example of the genre is that which surrounds 'law and order' in the United Kingdom. This particular moral panic started with a creeping unease in the 1980s and is now full- blown with the enactment of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. At the core of this panic is an image of the past--particularly, those years in the immediate post-Second World War period--which is clothed in the glories of a golden age.2 This past carries with it a vision of life in a South-of-England village idyll where community triumphs and the Queen's Peace is unruffled. The image is nourished by the now-remarkable power, and electoral significance, of 'law and order' politics. The political purchase of this politics is enhanced by the absence of debate on the appropriate substance of the concept of 'order' in a modern liberal democracy. The preponderance of synonyms for the word 'order' exacerbates the problem because such synonyms increase the appeal of order', but reduce the odds of substantive definition.3 This appeal factor can be seen in Lord Scarman's official report on the 1974 Red Lion Square disorders. Scarman began with 'first principles': 'our fundamental human rights' include 'without doubt, the rights of peaceful assembly and public protest and the right to public order and tranquillity'. He then penned a paragraph which never fails to capture the imagination:

Civilized living collapses . . . if public protest becomes violent protest or public order degenerates into the quietism imposed by successful oppression. A balance has to be struck . . . that will accommodate the exercise of the right to protest within a framework of public order which enables ordinary citizens, who are not protesting, to go about their business and pleasure without obstruction or inconvenience. The fact that those who at any time are concerned to secure the tranquillity of the streets are likely to be the majority must not lead us to deny the

____________________
1
The terminology stems from Cohen, S., Folk Devils and Moral Panics ( Oxford, 1972).
2
See generally, Townshend, C., Making The Peace: Public Order and Public Security in Modem Britain ( Oxford, 1993).
3
Ibid., ch. 1.

-439-

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