South West Conference, Exeter

March 2023

Members of the Salisbury group attended the conference in Exeter

It was good to get back to having a conference after a two year hiatus because of Covid. It was extremely well attended with over 60 people coming from all over the region including Penzance in the west and ourselves and people from Southampton in the east. To open, there was a video from Agn├Ęs Callamard, the Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Among the speakers was Tom Davis who addressed the subject of protecting the protest. A series of bills have been introduced by the present government, some in advanced stages of enactment, which individually and collectively will have a serious effect on the rights of citizens to protest. There is no direct right to protest but it is inherent in the right of free speech and the right of assembly. It is sometimes forgotten that the protests of people in the past have brought much needed social change to our nation. Women would not have the vote without it; workplace laws would not have happened without it. The riots after the Peterloo massacre brought change and the Great Reform Act. Throughout our history there has been protest, sometimes violent, in an attempt to force change.

Recently, Extinction Rebellion have mounted a series of protests in their campaign to promote more attention to climate change and, in their view, insufficient and inadequate action by the government to tackle it. Many have objected to the inconvenience their actions have caused. Almost certainly, the succession of bills have had as a focus, giving police the means to frustrate these protests. For example, introducing the crime of ‘locking on’ to make it an offence to glue oneself to the pavement or link arms. Have we forgotten that the suffragettes chained themselves to railings?

Tom said the Public Order bill, currently weaving its way through parliament, was “deeply, deeply, concerning”. The police will be able to prevent people from attending protests in certain circumstances. The intention appears to be to so limit the ability to protest to those which no one notices. It is disappointing to note that Sir Keir Starmer is supporting some of the measures.

It seemed appropriate that another speaker was a journalist from Nicaragua. She is currently at the University of York, but were she to return to her country she will be arrested. Nicaragua is the only country in the Americas which has no newspaper she said. All have been shut down by the government. Daniel Ortega runs a brutal regime, any protest results in arrest and long sentences. The prisons are dangerously overcrowded and violent. The Pope recently described the state as a dictatorship resulting in Ortega cutting off diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Photos show a quick demonstration in front of the Cathedral and people getting ready for the conference at the Mint in Exeter. Photos: Salisbury Amnesty

All praise to the Exeter group of Amnesty for hosting and organising this event.

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