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Fight for your right (to moan like hell)

This column first appeared in The Western Mail in October 2022

It’s not every day you develop a sense of kinship with a random Scouse footballer. But it was hard not to feel sympathy for Wrexham striker Paul Mullin this week. Poor, principled Mullin was given a dressing down by his club for deigning to wear – and post on Instagram – a pair of customised boots bearing the charming slogan “F*** The Tories”. 

The club’s head (Hollywood) honchos described Mullin’s fashion statement as an “unwelcome distraction” and quickly put their foot down to stop him from lacing up the boots again. Bosses at the Racecourse rushed to reassure fans that the club has “adopted a neutral position on many matters with a political dimension and intends to continue to do so going forward”. Hark! What is that I hear? Could it be the deafening sound of Wrexham fans everywhere exhaling a collective sigh of relief? 

I mean, it’s not as if the sadly-departed Minister for the extermination of urchins and chimney sweeps, Jacob Rees-Mogg, arrived for an official photoshoot at Wrexham FC in a £1500 chauffeur-driven limo a few weeks ago. Oh, actually….

(Side note: For a man who appears to have been preserved in aspic around the time the steam locomotive was invented, you’d imagine he’d be a bigger fan of travelling by railway. But I digress). 

Wrexham’s hard-line stance on players sharing political opinions seems somewhat arbitrary. For a start, Mullin is a Scouser. Apparently, they take your passport off you in Liverpool if you DON’T loudly disapprove of the Conservative Government on a semi-regular basis. The poor guy just wants to keep his Scouse citizenship! Can’t his employer cut him some slack? In a world where players regularly take the knee and wear rainbow laces, the man is just doing his bit. 

It would be nice, however, if we could agree on a consistent national stance on sports stars and their opinions. Do we want them to use their profile and platform to draw attention to critical social issues? Or would we prefer it if they collectively piped down? 

Take Global Britain’s national treasure ™ David Beckham, for example. He’s regularly to be found squeaking all over our airwaves about the monarchy being BRILLIANT. That’s acceptable, apparently. What about Marcus Rashford, heroically feeding hungry kids in the absence of a Government that gives a flying free kick about child poverty? Give that man an honours medal and a Pride of Britain Award! 

But a sweary boot-based protest message? A misstep too far, apparently. It’s all so confusing, and I have questions.

I must confess to a strong sense of solidarity with Mullin here. Wearing my “F*** the Tories” face mask to the supermarket was one of the more fun games I invented to pass the time during the pandemic. Which was fine because, luckily, I don’t have an employer. As my own boss, I fully supported my right to engage in garment-based public protest. The symbolism of a covered mouth emblazoned with a provocative political message is how to turn a last-minute dash for milk into radical performance art, people! 

But a more serious issue is at stake here: preserving our fundamental human right to protest. With the Government determined to make it harder than ever for people to gather and be heard, individual acts of protest might be the most effective method we have left of communicating our dissent to the powers-that-be.

Take the Public Order Bill, modelled on anti-terror law and aimed at crushing peaceful protest. The new laws are explicitly designed to give police greater powers to crack down on “guerrilla” protest tactics, citing disruptive protests by Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain as the reasons such draconian measures are needed. 

Among the proposed measures are new offences for “locking on”, disrupting transport and infrastructure, and “Serious Disruption Prevention Orders”, which can restrict people’s freedom by imposing conditions on repeat offenders. Police would also be given greater stop and search powers to prevent disruptive protests. 

Such laws would have made it impossible for the Suffragettes to employ the tactics that eventually won women the vote. This prospect should terrify every single one of us. Because once our fundamental human rights are stolen, it is often difficult – nigh on impossible – to win them back. 

It’s not just the big, disruptive protests the Government has in its sights. Recently, protestors expressing republican sentiments were arrested at events proclaiming the ascension of King Charles III. One arrested man shouted the most British sentence ever – “who elected him?”. As polite protests go, it’s up there with Father Ted’s “Down With This Sort Of Thing” sign, yet it was enough to get the poor history professor bundled into a police van.  

Last week, Just Stop Oil protesters threw tomato soup over Van Goghs Sunflowers masterpiece, provoking mixed reactions from the climate community. Commentators discussed “how far is too far?” on TV and radio, missing the point, surely?

Because effective protest is nearly always a disruption and outrage to those who disagree with the cause. If it isn’t, why bother? Disruption is the POINT of protest, no? If a protest isn’t a nuisance or uncomfortable, it is less likely to result in meaningful change. And protest, ultimately, is about change. It’s about challenging the establishment and the status quo through people power.

Do we want more people in prison for protesting for the poor, the planet, or for free speech itself? Protest is the ultimate form of free speech, and we must unite against dangerous and divisive attempts to make it harder.

Whether a slogan embroidered on shoes or organised gatherings, we need to fight like hell for our right to protest. It’s never been more critical. 

See you in the dairy aisle. I’ll be the one in a sweary t-shirt. 

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