Picture the scene. A million people on the streets. Loud music playing. Large groups congregating around sound systems. Trucks and people on foot moving at less than walking pace. Food stalls blocking shop doorways. All normal life is suspended – most shops closed, stations shut, buses diverted, roads blocked, traffic jammed solid.
You have to admit, Carnival is disruptive. That’s kind of its point. A polite parade that you scarcely notice doesn’t deserve the name of Carnival.
As from 14 June, that happy bacchanalian chaos is potentially illegal. Police now have the power to deal with anyone involved in a disruptive “public procession” or “public assembly”, thanks to a hastily introduced, badly drafted law that evaded proper scrutiny.
The snappily titled Public Order Act 1986 (Serious Disruption to the Life of the Community) Regulations 2023 were introduced to thwart Just Stop Oil protestors chaining themselves to railings and jamming traffic by sitting in the road. The tactic was effective, propelling JSO’s cause on to the front pages, but it made the organisation some powerful enemies. Fuming drivers lobbied MPs, the government panicked and a new regulation was hastily cobbled together. It was slipped in by a back-door method (“a constitutional outrage”, according to Labour peer Lord Coaker) to ensure there would be no consultation or time for proper scrutiny and debate. Another win for Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
The law, introduced on 14 June, gives police power to act in “cases in which a public procession [or public assembly] in England and Wales may result in serious disruption to the life of the community”. The regulation suggests this might include an “obstruction” that prevents or hinders people carrying out day-to-day activities such as travelling, or obtaining food, water, energy, fuel or money, or accessing a health facility, school/college or place of worship.
In other words, if the 2,000 people jumping up to your sound system prevents old Joe taking his dog for a walk in the park or if your carnival creates a slow-moving crush of revellers that makes it impossible for Mrs Kumar to nip over the road to buy a pint of milk and a packet of fags… you could be breaking the law.
These scenarios are probably not what legislators had in mind when they passed through the ‘Aye’ (yes) lobby in Parliament. However, the regulation nowhere mentions protests or intentions – it’s a blanket ban. It’s entirely up to local police officers how they wish to interpret or enforce the new law. We just have to hope that local police commanders can distinguish between a disruptive protest and a disruptive community celebration.
Can we rely on hope, though? As any glance through the history books – or even our own memories – shows, Carnival’s relationship with the police has been an uneasy one, both in Britain and the Caribbean. When behaviour has become too loud, lewd or threatening, the police have moved in to “take control of the streets”. Heads were broken and blood flowed during the Canboulay Riots of 1881 and again at the clashes at Notting Hill in the mid-1970s. Captain Baker and his successors have left a legacy of distrust that has never entirely dissipated, so the prospect of police in Britain being handed such a powerful ‘weapon’ that can be used at individual officers’ discretion is likely to make many people uneasy.
The irony is that demonstrations are already being planned against the new regulation. As the old saying has it, ‘Legislate in haste, repent at leisure’.