When ministers and police argue the ability to protest is based on ‘context’ like TV viewing figures at the King’s coronation, it ceases to exist, says Josiah Mortimer
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This weekend we were faced with a blunt reality. The right to protest in the UK is dying faster than you can say ‘stone of destiny’.
We’ve all seen the pictures now: of peaceful republican protesters arrested and hundreds of placards seized, as the world witnessed the coronation of King Charles III.
First, the Met Police doubled down on their actions. Now, bowing to pressure, they have apologised. Republic’s Chief Executive Graham Smith is right to not accept it as not good enough.
The appointment of a new Met Police commissioner, it seems, has done little to change the culture of the discrimination-riddled, protest-busting institution. Six Republican protesters were arrested barely after Saturday’s demonstration had started. That’s despite the group pledging to be peaceful and civil – as indeed they were. The Met police strategy appears to be “arrest protesters, answer awkward questions later.”
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The Met Police first claimed it had acted “proportionately” based on the scale of the event. After all, the eyes of the world were watching.
But those same hundreds of millions of viewers globally have just witnessed the sorry state of basic rights in Britain, and the childish insecurity of the state. The arrests are not the sign of a proud democracy, but a paranoid oligarchy.
“Conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” was one of the Orwellian charges levelled at the protesters. What of right-wing groups like the Free Speech Union? Not a word. Unsurprising when groups like the Taxpayers’ Alliance – usually so quick to slam “public sector fat casts” lavished praise on the £100m publicly-funded party for the King.
The official opposition, less forgivably, is missing in action. Labour’s West Streeting said, effectively, that Labour would not have time to repeal the Public Order Act, rushed through just days before the coronation. It does not give hope for the restoration of our rights. The rising Greens and Lib Dems are among the parties leaping on Labour’s failure to defend a fundamental right.
With large numbers of people questioning the Met Police’s actions, it’s time for not just answers from the Commissioner, but accountability. Who made the call to arrest peaceful protesters? It did not appear to be rogue officers acting alone. Perhaps it is the logical outcome of a law – the Public Order Bill – slammed by rights groups the world over as draconian and unjust.
Westminster council leader, Adam Hug, wants to know why even non-protesters were caught in the net. Three of the council’s ‘night stars’ were arrested while on duty ahead of the event.
The reason for the arrests? The Mail on Sunday had a week earlier proclaimed a “vile plot” to use rape alarms to scare the police horses on the day. Its sources were those working in “security” around the event. No doubt the Met Police was among them – the force which then went on to cite the Mail on Sunday’s coverage as its justification for the arrests. It was client journalism laid bare, a circle of rumours.
Shortly after being released around midnight on Saturday, Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, issued a statement declaring the right to protest in the UK “no longer exists”.
When the right is contingent on arbitrary, political decisions made by ministers and senior police officers, it ceases to be a meaningful right at all.
The Home Office appeared to work hand in glove with the police – as you’d expect. Last week they sent an intimidating letter to Republic outlining the measures in the new Public Order Bill, allowing the police sweeping new powers to arrest peaceful protesters.
When questioned by Byline Times about how protests would be policed at the coronation, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister told reporters: “The right to protest is fundamental – that will not change. The PM hopes people will come together and recognise this is a momentous day of unity.” It seems the latter trumped the former: enforced unity over basic freedoms.
On the broadcast round on Sunday, government figures claimed the police were operationally independent and washed their hands of responsibility. But culture secretary Lucy Frazer also backed the force, saying that it was important the “context” of the coronation being viewed worldwide was taken into account.
But rights are supposed to be universal, not based on TV viewing figures. Surely the “context” here is that the UK can no longer preach to despotic states about their clamping down on peaceful protests? David Davis – the only Conservative MP to vote against the Public Order Bill – was right to say on Tuesday (May 9) that the right to march with placards should be pretty much “absolute”.
The world has seen what the so-called mother of democracy tries to get away with. Despots will be taking notes.
The Sunday Times’ editorial described King Charles’ role as a defender of the constitution. Why then has he not spoken up about the arrests made in his name? He won’t of course, and the question almost seems laughable. Claims that King Charles can be an guardian of a free constitutional monarchy don’t wash. In Smith’s words: “What is the point of a head of state who will say nothing and do nothing to defend the people?”
These arrests were not about protecting people from harm. There was no prospect of violence or serious disruption. They were about protecting a lucky few from embarrassment. It has ended – or perhaps just begun – with more egg on their faces than envisioned.
Yes, the events surrounding the coronation of King Charles III have exposed the precarious state of our right to protest in the UK. But we’ll need more than just a few questions in City Hall or the Home Affairs Select Committee. The weekend’s events have exemplified the need for a new movement. Not to defend, but to win back the right to protest.
Let it be a wake-up call to all of us.
If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Byline Times’ Chief Reporter Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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