OPINION - Met Police: tolerance for Coronation disruption will be low
The right to protest lies at the heart of British democracy... I think. It is set out in Magna Carta, or the European Convention of Human Rights, or the Hunan Rights Act – one of those places, I’m sure. To be honest, I only thought about it after a somewhat jarring tweet by the Metropolitan Police, who said, as part of a long thread regarding the King’s Coronation:
“Our tolerance for any disruption, whether through protest or otherwise, will be low. We will deal robustly with anyone intent on undermining this celebration.”
On the one hand, the Met is in a bit of a lose-lose situation. It has been tasked with policing this absolutely enormous public event with global interest, heaving with world leaders, jewels and large crowds. If ‘Just Stop Oil’ protestors were to chain themselves to the royal carriage and bring the procession to a halt, it would not be a good look for the force. On the other hand, isn’t the point of protest to be disruptive? Also, ‘undermining’?
There has long been an inherent tension between the right of the protestor to disrupt, and that of everyone else, be they commuters or kings, to go about their day. Striking that balance is difficult but fundamental to who were are as a country.
The government wants to shift that balance. The Public Order Bill, which recently received royal assent, is the response. It contains new measures to bolster the police’s powers to respond to what ministers call “disruptive and dangerous protests”. These include introducing a new offence of obstructing major transport works, powers to manage public assemblies and an extension of stop and search.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called the Bill “deeply troubling legislation that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations regarding people’s rights to freedom of expression”.
This sort of thing hasn’t come from nowhere. As the lawyer Adam Wagner points out, the Met’s ‘low tolerance’ approach mirrors how assembly was treated during lockdown, most notably with the ‘Reclaim These Streets’ protest, the police’s approach to which was later found to be unlawful.
Again, the Met is in a tough spot. It will be roundly criticised for any disruption to the Coronation. But the theoretical right to peaceful protest – including to gather, scream, disrupt and even tie oneself to things – is worthless if it is outlawed in practice. At the same time, our ability to throw a big, state-funded party, while also allowing dissenters to boo, seems like one worthy of showing off.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend anyone attempt to bring the Coronation to a halt. You might raise awareness of your issue, but you’d annoy a heck of a lot of people in the process and likely alienate them from the thing you care about. But the judgement of whether or not it is worth holding a peaceful protest ought to be made by individuals, not the state.
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