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Police at Sarah vigil were trying to enforce a rotten law


THE vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard descended into disorder, with the police intervening to make a number of arrests. The hows and whys of such incidents are rarely immediately clear and are even harder to discern when everything is taking place in the dark. Inevitably, some of those attending the vigil were at least as interested in pushing an anti-male feminist agenda as they were to pay respects to Sarah Everard. But photographs of the event show many of those who attended wearing face masks; putting aside views on their efficacy in reducing Covid spread, they are not a symbol of lockdown rebels and wanton lawbreakers.

The police are catching a lot of flak for their supposedly heavy-handed treatment of vigil attenders and there are, inevitably, calls for the Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, to resign. There are many reasons why Ms Dick should not be head of the Met but this is probably not one of them. On Saturday night, the police were enforcing the law. The legal position was confirmed by the courts which had denied permission for Reclaim the Streets – the original organisers of the vigil – to hold the event and Reclaim the Streets formally cancelled it to avoid the potential £10,000 fine that awaited them if it went ahead.

The real problem is that the Covid-driven restrictions on outdoor assembly are nonsensical and oppressive. As I wrote in TCW last week, there is no evidence of significant spread of Covid outdoors. A fundamental freedom – the right of peaceful assembly – has been taken away without a scrap of scientific evidence to support it. The best that could be said to support it is that the evidence on Covid spread outdoors is limited, but the burden of proof should lie on the state when it wants to remove civil liberties. I’ve attempted to debate this point with Conservative Party members on private Facebook groups (my other hobbies include tilting at windmills), to be met with either silence or abuse; the latter always a sign that one has won an argument though less satisfactory than some form of discussion.

The police have been put in an impossible position with the Sarah Everard vigils: trying to apply a law that is unworkable. Outside London, they decided to turn a blind eye to these clearly illegal gatherings, judging that attempts to enforce the law would do more harm than good. Within London, the police routinely ignore groups of more than two gathering to sit on benches, picnic in the park, shake hands and hug because they know these laws are unenforceable. The law is an ass and as Ken Marsh, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, stated: ‘Police don’t want to police this . . . We have had enough of this. It is not policeable. It is not manageable.’

However, the Clapham Common vigil was always going to be too large and too high-profile to ignore. As the Met police have cracked down on every Covid protest organised by Piers Corbyn (who attended the vigil as one of the crowd), they could not be seen to ignore this large gathering without being blatantly inconsistent. The police had already tied themselves in knots on enforcing these laws when they bent over backwards to accommodate Black Lives Matter marches last summer; their behaviour on Saturday evening will only exacerbate this problem.  And whatever the motives of some of the attendees, the images of big burly policemen manhandling women attending a vigil will not be explained away convincingly. The public’s perception of the police, damaged in numerous small ways through the enforcement of lockdown laws, will be further diminished.

The solution would be to allow organised vigils and protests with a limit on numbers that avoided packing people together like sardines whilst permitting those with a point to make to do so. One could debate what such a number might be. However, such a quintessentially British compromise is not going to happen whilst the government remains under the Svengali-like spell of its advisers in Sage. Sonia Elijah has set out in TCW here and here how this collection of supposed experts has driven policy on tiers and lockdown. Given that Sage has provided little or no evidence to support many of its recommendations, it’s no surprise that it took no account of the impact of controls on our civil liberties. Its behavioural scientists may have been expected to consider what Covid control measures might do to the psychological health of the population but they’ve only been pleased to discover how easy it is to frighten people into doing what they want.   

Keir Starmer has tried to jump on the bandwagon (of course), sharing the anger and upset at the police’s behaviour and stating the vigil should have been permitted.

The hypocrisy is off the charts: Starmer has supported lockdown, including restrictions on outdoor gathering. Like everyone else who has supported these controls, he has to take responsibility for their inevitable consequences, of which the events on Saturday evening are but one.

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Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk is a former accountant, former Tory councillor and current chairman of Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Party Association.

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