This weekend saw multiple arrests across Britain, illustrating the UK government's increasingly authoritarian approach to peaceful protest
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth, there’s a new monarch in town – and while a majority of the British public still supports the royal family’s existence, not everyone else is pleased. For a start, Charles isn’t the most popular royal even among people who are into that sort of thing (a poll earlier this year found that almost half of the British public wanted the line of succession to skip a generation, preferring Prince William to become King). But for many, the issue is less who happens to be the King and more that we shouldn’t have a hereditary and unelected head of state in the first place.
Amid the lavish displays of public mourning, this weekend saw rumbles of dissent across the UK. Rather than being accepted as a normal part of living in a democracy, some of these protests were met with harsh resistance from the state, with several members of the public being arrested for exercising their freedom of speech.
The trouble began in Scotland. Yesterday, an official event in Edinburgh to mark Charles’s ascension to the throne was met with heckles by a group of protestors. One journalist for the Herald decried the “disrespectful booing” on display, which is fair enough – if you absolutely must boo at an event like this, at least have the common decency to be respectful about it! You’d be hard-pressed to argue that this behaviour did not fall under the bracket of “peaceful protest” or that booing at a political event is not a fair and unambiguous expression of freedom of speech. Sadly, Edinburgh’s police force didn’t see it that way, and decided to detain a number of the protesters on suspicion of “breach of the peace”. While they were later released without charge, the Scottish Community & Activist Legal Project accused the police of being “heavy-handed” in its response.
Later that day, in Edinburgh, a 22-year-old woman was arrested for carrying a sign which read “Fuck imperialism, abolish the monarchy”. This is a sentiment which should not be considered beyond the pale in a democratic society and, whether or not you approve of the strong language, swearing is not actually against the law in the UK. The woman was later charged “in connection with a breach of the peace.” A 74-year-old man was also reportedly arrested in Edinburgh on the same charge – though whether he was holding a sweary placard is still to be confirmed.
Meanwhile, down in Oxford on the same afternoon, a history teacher was arrested for shouting “who elected him?” during an accession event. Following this remark, Symon Hill, 45, was told to “shut up” by members of the crowd and responded, “a head of state has been imposed on us without our consent”. At this point, Hill was reportedly approached by three security guards, before being hand-cuffed and arrested by the police, who “dragged [him] off” to a nearby van and provided him with “confused answers” when he asked under what grounds he was being detained. A police statement, issued later in the day, clarified that Hill was “de-arrested” but remains under investigation for a “public disorder offence”.
NEW: The 22-year old woman who was arrested after holding up this anti-monarchy placard at St Giles' Cathedral has now been CHARGED “in connection with a breach of the peace", @PoliceScotland confirm.— Darshna Soni (@darshnasoni) September 12, 2022
Will appear at Edinburgh Sheriff Court at a later date. pic.twitter.com/gFdBkoISB6
According to a blog written by Hill last night, he was in fact arrested in relation to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – a piece of legislation which was passed earlier this year amid (clearly well-founded) concerns that it would allow the state to crack down on dissent. “If fear of arrest deters people from expressing their views,” he wrote, “then these vile laws and draconian atmosphere will have significantly reduced free expression and harmed democracy, whether or not people are charged.”
As of now, these are the only arrests which have been confirmed, but outside parliament earlier today, a protester holding a sign with the slogan “NOT MY KING” was filmed being led away by the police. This spate of incidents has to be understood in a wider context: the UK is becoming more and more authoritarian in its approach to the right to protest. It’s also telling that few right-wing defenders of free speech have kicked up a fuss about any of this (I can excuse inciting violence against vulnerable minorities, but I draw the line at being impertinent about His Majesty the King!)
According to Bruno Min, UK Legal Director at criminal justice watchdog Fair Trials, people should “have every right” to demand a different system of government through protest. “It should be unthinkable that in a democracy, the police have any role arresting people for publicly speaking out against the accession of a new king,” he tells Dazed. “Fair Trials is concerned that the right to protest in the UK is being severely undermined by recent increases in police powers, including the recent Policing Act, which gives police broad discretion to stifle protest, and which the police apparently referred to in at least one of these arrests." To make matters worse, even more draconian measures have been outlined in the Public Order Bill, which could curtail the right to protest even further. "We urge the UK Government to drop these proposals, and take action to protect dissent and public debate in the UK," Min says>
Update (16.51): This afternoon in Edinburgh, a heckler was arrested for shouting that Prince Andrew was a "sick old man" as the hearse carrying the Queen's casket passed along the Royal Mile. Presumably, the heckler was referring to Andrew's friendship with pedophile and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, along with the allegations of sexual assault against the Prince himself. Last year, Andrew paid an out-of-court settlement to his accuser,Virginia Giuffre, with no admission of liability. The heckler – who was assaulted on camera by two members of the public –faces being charged in connection with a breach of the peace.
Update (17.12): Lawyer and climate activist Paul Powlesland held up a blank piece of paper at Parliament Square and was asked for his details by a police officer, who then informed him he would be arrested if he wrote: “Not My King”. In video footage captured by Powlesland, the police officer says that the message “may offend some people.”