The Right to Protest: Powerful or Pointless?
Banners. Chants. Marches. The right to protest is universally recognised as the demonstration of free speech. But to what extent is it useful in causing changes to be made – politically and socially?
Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom in July of this year incited mass protesting in major cities including Glasgow and the capital of the UK. In London alone, reportedly 250,000 people took to the streets to show their opposition to the US president’s politics and the luxury afforded to him of being allowed to visit the UK. (Evening Standard) An incredible amount of British hostility to the possibility of a visit earlier in Trump’s presidency put a halt to his previously planned visits. But with the change in the political situation of the UK and need for stronger ties with foreign allies in the face of Brexit, Trump’s visit received the go-ahead. If anything, this proves the lack of influence protests in Britain have over political decisions.
The petitioning of the Mayor of London led to permission being granted to fly the now-infamous Baby Trump Balloon next to the Houses of Parliament for the duration of his visit. This shows the influence of the general public over the more trivial elements of domestic policy. If something as simple as a balloon can cause controversy then there is little to suggest that the people could have any say in the tougher more complex areas of foreign policy.
However, the significance of these protests was merely to represent British public opinion against the leader of the free world and his policies.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, US domestic policy has not been affected by the copious numbers of protests and protesters – as seen with the most recent go-ahead from the Supreme Court over the contentious Executive Order 13769, often referred to as the Muslim Ban. Again, this evidences the lack of power western populations have over their own countries’ foreign policy, let alone any other nation’s.
The Trump-era has incited a form of civil outrage that has become a Western phenomenon. But it has also introduced a new wave of domestic policy where the phrase “America first” proves that no civilian nor foreign government has the capacity to outmanoeuvre Trump’s policies outwith the political establishments of the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the Supreme Court.
There is little anyone can do but watch as Trump holds the presidency as a businessman, and negotiates as such. He doesn’t care what his competitors do unless it puts America at risk, and he does nothing unless it benefits the United States. An interesting strategy that appears to work, thwarting all forms of protest and activism in its wake. Yes, people can voice their opinions on the foreign and domestic policies Trump condones, but it simply seems to egg him on, as he enjoys the controversy and attention he receives.
People of the West are given political power when their parliament deems it fit, for elections and votes, but not on the supposedly less significant elements. It forces us to call into question the trust we hold for our political system, our parliament and our representatives. If they do not listen to us when we talk, then we are powerless. Other avenues of holding our leaders responsible are fruitless unless following the predetermined paths.
Thus, the public only has guaranteed power on election day. The message we are given is vote for us, and let the grown-ups handle it.
Is this enough? Should we look to change our electoral and parliamentary systems? The structure of Westminster was never intended to suit this age of nuclear-powered countries, each with their own independent agendas. Women were not allowed to vote, let alone hold a seat in parliament and pass legislation. The creation of the Scottish Parliament proves the need to revolutionise our government, and do so quickly. How much influence a nation should have over its own foreign policy is yet to be determined.
Until then, our rights only have influence when those in power, those who we have elected, decide to listen.
At the time of writing, Alice Robson is a second year History and Social Anthropology student at the University of St Andrews. She is particularly interested in international human rights and global intersectional feminism.