Anti-monarchy arrests following the Queen's death show the limits of freedom of speech in the UK
Most republicans consider the British monarchy to be a regressive, anachronistic throwback to notions of eugenics, where one family, or to use the appropriately disturbing language, ‘bloodline’, is arbitrarily supreme to all others. For supporters of progressive politics, defined by a belief in total egalitarianism in every aspect of social and cultural life, any hereditary monarchy is thus antithetical to the kind of world we want to live in.
However, since Queen Elizabeth II died on 8 September, what has become abundantly clear is that the public voicing of these kinds of opinions is apparently intolerable.
The arrests of peaceful protesters began in Edinburgh, where crowds of mostly unionists and tourists had gathered for the proclamation of so-called King Charles III on September 11. A 22-year-old Scottish republican protester joined the crowds of royalists outside St Giles Cathedral with a sign reading ‘fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy’. Far from protecting the rights of the woman’s freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble, police characteristically arrested the woman, prompting applause from the crowd. The woman has now been charged with ‘breach of the peace’.
''Any self-proclaimed democrat, including those who are sympathetic to the British crown, ought to be disturbed by the stifling of republican sentiment by the police, with the tacit acceptance of governmental authorities. Freedom of speech obviously has its limits, but as soon as those limits are extended to encompass legitimate political opinion and peaceful forms of protest, the road to authoritarianism becomes ever shorter.''
This arrest was followed by three others, including a 74-year-old man, during the gatherings, all of whom were arrested on the same charge.
Particularly egregious was the arrest of a man who verbally heckled Prince Andrew on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The man shouted “Andrew, you’re a sick old man”, which is a reference to his alleged rape of then 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre, who had been trafficked and kept as a sex slave by notorious paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who was a close personal friend of the prince.
The fact that someone has been arrested and charged for heckling Andrew, yet he himself has never faced any justice, is more than just ironic. It is symptomatic of the nature of the institution, and the subservience of authority to it that protects him. Indeed, the Queen, quite possibly using taxpayer money, paid £12 million to ensure that the case would never come to trial and justice could be swerved for her son.
The fact that Andrew’s heckler and all other protesters were charged with ‘breach of the peace’ is deeply sinister. In Scottish law it applies to conduct likely to cause fear, alarm, or disturbance to others. How could this apply to peaceful protest?
These kinds of arrests have of course not been confined to Scotland. During the new king’s address to parliament, a young woman was surrounded by six male police officers and arrested for holding a sign with the slogan ‘Not My King’. In Oxford, at an event proclaiming the new king, a man was dragged away and put in a police van after asking ‘who elected him?’.
Similar to those in Scotland, the protesters in England were arrested and detained for behaviour that could cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’, which is a blatant misuse of powers to stifle even this small-scale peaceful dissent. Even protesters have been questioned by police for carrying blank pieces of paper upon which they might write republican slogans.
"Why are you strangling me? I didn't know!"— Lowkey (@Lowkey0nline) September 18, 2022
A teenager is manhandled by police for innocently rollerblading in the direction of the Royal convoy in London.
Any self-proclaimed democrat, including those who are sympathetic to the British crown, ought to be disturbed by the stifling of republican sentiment by the police, with the tacit acceptance of governmental authorities. Freedom of speech obviously has its limits, but as soon as those limits are extended to encompass legitimate political opinion and peaceful forms of protest, the road to authoritarianism becomes ever shorter.
And it’s not just a question of law enforcement. Civil society is joining in too, as is the media. Those of us who are republican and believe in diversity of thought might be a bit perturbed by the intrusiveness, uniformity and expectation of mourning, but official bodies like the English and Scottish Football Associations decided to cancel football matches due to the expectation that fans of particularly the Celtic and Liverpool, might express anti-monarchy sentiments during what they clearly believe ought to be forced mourning.
This is very much in line with the zeitgeist of Brexit Britain, where any dissent against the prevailing ideology is treated as treasonous and ought to be shut down. In line with the post-truth nature of Brexit, only opinions that conform to ideological fealty are considered worthy by England’s vast and almost uniformly right-wing media and ruling government.
Ironically, given these forces are often those who like to hysterically denounce ‘left-wing cancel culture’ and excessive ‘political correctness’, those who hold dissenting views on the Queen and monarchy are targeted for demonisation and ‘cancellation’.
In truth, what these people want to protect is the traditional values of Britain, namely racism, elitism, class hierarchies and anti-egalitarian structures like the monarchy, which is the ultimate embodiment all of these values. The sight of hundreds of thousands of people in London queuing to see the Queen’s casket was confusing to someone of my political and cultural background, but it was also a dangerous symbol of subservience.
Millions of people face an unprecedented, life-destroying cost of living crisis, which will lead to the deaths of people much younger than the Queen this winter. The fact that the royal family, who are worth an estimated £24 billion, will allow the public to pick up the astronomical cost of the funeral seems to have been passively accepted. Perhaps those who want to speak out are too scared to do so?
And perhaps that’s why there has been such a backlash against even the slightest criticism of the monarchy during this period. The fact that an unelected prime minister has been swept into office, one who seems to have no coherent plan regarding the cost of living crisis, means that mindless nationalism and the moral bullying of ‘mournography’ can be used to sweep these vital issues under the carpet.
The Queen might now have been buried, but one fears the glimpse of authoritarian intolerance for dissenting voices is now a fundamental and expanding reality of the UK.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.