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In the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, thousands gathered to mourn her demise, and a deluge of grieving monarchists descended on London to pay tribute. Of course, despite the repeated line that “the nation is in mourning,’ not everyone gathered in support of the late monarch; a growing republican minority have been vocal about their position in recent weeks. While 22% of the population now support the transition to an elected monarch, this percentage jumps to 31% in the 18-24 age bracket. Despite growing support to move away from the current constitutional monarchy, many opposing voices have been stifled in recent weeks.
Over the last few weeks, a number of anti-monarchy protesters have been arrested for holding placards and banners reading “Not my king” and “F*ck imperialism.” This has opened up discussions about the right to protest in 2022, with growing concerns that the crackdown on anti-monarchist protests is a result of the passing of the Policing, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Act which clamped down on protest rights and afforded the police more powers.
With the Act creating a hostile environment for peaceful protest, many are concerned about the implications for free speech, the dilution of democracy and a creeping police state.
In the last few weeks, anti-monarchy protesters have voiced their opposition to the monarchy citing various reasons: Republicans have cited their fundamental objection to the constitutional monarchy, some have cited the monarchy’s ties to imperialism, colonialism and racism, while others have highlighted the alleged criminal behaviour of royal family members, for example, Prince Andrew being accused of paedophilia. Although one would assume that protests of this nature are enshrined as a right under the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, a number of people who gathered in protest of the monarchy were arrested.
One woman who was protesting the ascension of King Charles with a sign that read “Not my king” was escorted from the Palace of Westminster, and another was arrested for holding a sign saying “Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” outside St. Giles’ Cathedral, the site where the Queen’s coffin was due to arrive, a 74-year old man in Edinburgh was similarly charged in connection with “a breach of the peace,” and a 22-year-old was arrested for calling Prince Andrew a “sick old man,” while in Oxford, another person was arrested during a reading of Charles’ proclamation for shouting “Who elected him.”
Barrister Paul Powlesland also filmed himself holding a piece of blank paper in Parliament Square. Powlesland then asked a police officer what would happen if he were to write “Not My King” on the blank piece of paper, and the officer replied that he would be arrested because someone “might be offended.” Speaking to PA news agency, Powlesland said: “It feels like a very odd time, when there does seem to be… using the respect that is due to the Queen and her death, as a way of silencing any dissent over Charles’s accession.”
Responding to the video, where an officer can be heard demanding Powlesland’s personal details, deputy assistant police commissioner Stuart Cundy said that the public “absolutely have a right of protest” and outlined that this is something that they have been making clear to “all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place.” He added: “However, the overwhelming majority of interactions between officers and public at this time have been positive as people have come to the capital to mourn the loss of Her Late Majesty the Queen.”
While most of those protesting were arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 or the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act of 2010, in which certain limitations on protests are outlined, at least one person was arrested in connection with the new Policing Act, which was passed by Parliament on 26 April 2022. The Act, which has been the subject of ongoing controversy and opposition since first proposed back in March 2021, allows police to arrest protestors for “public nuisance,” likewise, under the Act, protesters can find themselves subject to arrest, charge and fine, if found by police to cause “serious annoyance,” or “serious inconvenience,” terms which have been left deliberately ambiguously defined.
It’s not the first time that anti-royalist protestors have been arrested at royal events; back in 2011, protestors were arrested at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate, and earlier in 2022, 23 protestors were arrested for demonstrations related to the Golden Jubilee. However, while royal event protest arrests are nothing new, the Policing Act has introduced a swathe of unprecedented and draconian powers, as well as a broad interpretation of the law for police officers. Speaking about this, Maria O’Sullivan, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, and Deputy Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University said: “In the context of the period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, the wide terms used in this legislation (such as “nuisance” and “distress”) gives a lot of discretion to police to arrest protestors who they perceive to be upsetting others. For instance, a protestor who holds a placard saying “Not my king, abolish the monarchy” may be seen as likely to cause distress to others given the high sensitivities in the community during the period of mourning.”
The mourning police who have arrested anti-royalist protestors in recent weeks almost conjure up images of North Korea’s hardline regime punishing those who did not cry enough at the death of dictator Kim Jong-il. Comments from liberty charities, nonprofits and legal experts have echoed their concerns about the state of protest in the UK in the wake of these arrests. The Secret Barrister, for example, tweeted: “FREE LEGAL OPINION: This would not constitute an offence under the Public Order Act. And it is deeply troubling that any police officer would think that it might.” Meanwhile, Liberty, an organisation that challenges injustice, defends freedom and campaigns for fair treatment, tweeted: “It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression.”
Expanding on this statement, Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said: “Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a fundamental right. Being able to choose what, how, and when we protest is a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy. It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression.
Beck added: “From restrictions on protest in the Policing Act to further attacks in the Public Order Bill – which rehashes the draconian measures thrown out of the act, including protest banning orders and expansions of stop and search powers – the government is making it harder for people to stand up for what they believe in. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the government safeguards our protest rights.”
Privacy group, Big Brother Watch, responded to the recent heavy-handed dealing with protestors and said that it believed the arrests were likely to be “unlawful”: “As millions come together to respect Britain’s traditions and national identity it is important to remember that the right to freedom of speech is the foundation of British democracy and to disrespect it at this moment, when our country is under an international lens, would be to flagrantly disrespect the values that define our country.”
In recent years, the UK has passed a number of pieces of legislation that have worked towards eroding freedoms. As Sacha Deshmukh, the Chief Executive of Amnesty International, recently stated, there has been a “dangerous drift” toward ever more authoritarian laws and policies. Speaking about how the national situation had worsened under the leadership of Boris Johnson, Deshmukh said: ”From the Rwanda refugee policy to draconian new curbs on peaceful protest and attempts to remove key protections by scrapping the keystone Human Rights Act, Boris Johnson’s time in office has been an unmitigated disaster for human rights.”
Adding to this, the charity’s leader said that one would hope that under the new leadership of Liz Truss, there would be a “clean break” from the Johnson years and that some of the more extreme policies should be reviewed and in the case of the excessive policing powers awarded under the Policing Act, repealed. However, unsurprisingly, it looks like little will change under Truss, and in fact, further draconian legislation could be passed during her premiership, including The Public Order Bill. Garden Court Chambers, a barristers’ chambers committed to fighting injustice, defending human rights and upholding the rule of law, has outlined that this new bill contains measures that first appearing in 2021, during the passage of what is now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, but which were defeated in the House of Lords. In other words, what the government were unable to cram into the Policing Act, has now resurfaced in the guise of new legislation.
Seemingly targeted at protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, the bill would see locking on and being equipped to lock on to others, objects or buildings become an offence punishable by up to six months imprisonment and an unlimited fine. The legislation would also usher in an expansion of stop and search powers and allow police to seize articles “related to locking on.” Alongside these offences, additional offences for “interfering with key national infrastructure” would be introduced, with a sentence of up to 12 months in prison and an unlimited fine. If passed, ‘serious disruption prevention orders’ would also come in, banning individuals with “previous protest-related offences” from attending further protests or from being involved in organising them.
Looking ahead, it unfortunately, appears that Truss will continue Johnson’s authoritarian legacy. This is something that has been echoed by Malte Laub, an international political economy lecturer at King’s College London, who says the PM has also articulated support for “recruiting more police officers, more border guards, and she has voiced her – to put it mildly – unease about the European Court of Human Rights.”
While these are undeniably difficult times for millions, and these increasingly authoritarian legislative changes seem to come as blow after blow, protestors are undeterred, and the passion to fight back is strong. Now more than ever, we need to hold the government to account.
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