Voices: It might be rude of protesters to try to disrupt the coronation – but I’d die in the last ditch for their right to do so
Being contrarian is an essential part of the British character. Liking things is a sucker’s game – this great nation was built on the principle that if we see something, no matter how objectively good it may be, it is our duty to find some small aspect of it to complain about.
That’s why it’s so strange that a narrative has emerged in recent years that protesting – the kind of historical agitation that dates back centuries – is somehow not in keeping with our national character.
Nothing could be further from the truth: there were England riots as far back as 1715, when High Church mobs attacked over 40 Dissenting meeting-houses; not to mention the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, the Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834, the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 or – more recently – the Brixon riots, the London riots... I could go on. It seems ludicrous to me to suggest that the kind of dissent that we’re usually so keen to embrace in this country is somehow “anti-British”.
It’s a gathering of people dressing up, making twee signs with not-that-clever puns and complaining a lot. It’s as British as Doctor Who. It’s wrong and new to suggest that protests in this country have ever been anti-British. There has always been an “awkward squad” – those who helped bring about advancements such as votes for women and an end to anti-gay legislation like Section 28.
So why, then, have the police just arrested Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic – one of the country’s leading anti-monarchist protest groups – despite the group by all accounts not actually breaking the law? Some might say it is pretty damn rude of him to turn up at the coronation when 95 per cent of the country are cheering it on, but hell – that is his healthy right.
According to Harry Stratton, a director at Republic, the police arrested Smith and five other organisers after searching a vehicle full of placards the group had made in advance of today’s coronation.
Police later said on Twitter that they had arrested four people on suspicion of causing a public nuisance, and three people on suspicion of possessing articles to cause criminal damage, though it is unclear if any of these refer to Smith’s group, nor what constitutes “public nuisance”.
The police have been clear about their low tolerance for disruption in the run up to the coronation, tweeting that they “will deal robustly with anyone intent on undermining this celebration”. It seems that they’ve made good on their word so far, curtailing protests before they’ve even had a chance to get off the ground (police have also arrested several members of climate activist group Just Stop Oil in the run up to the ceremony).
On the one hand, a disruptive protest at an event like this has the potential to be more than just embarrassing, but actually quite dangerous. In the case of a group like Just Stop Oil, a more performative form of protest involving throwing paint or handcuffing themselves to something could very well escalate, causing panic or even harm.
If some 22-year-old hippie had tried throwing a tin of beans over the King mid-ceremony, well of course they would have received a slightly more robust response than being tackled to the ground by a museum security guard on minimum wage.
On the other hand, protest is a fundamental part of the democratic process, and this country is supposed to lead the world in matters of democracy. Protest is a fundamental part of being British because democracy is a fundamental part of living here. It is a stress test for our laws and leaders, ensuring that they are able to stand up to the scrutiny of their biggest detractors.
By cracking down hard on the right to protest – not only with today’s crackdown but more generally, with the introduction of legislation like the Public Order Bill – you create the impression that you do not have confidence in your own ability and right to rule.
This is especially important when it comes to something like the coronation of King Charles, who has gone out of his way to set himself up as a king by and for the people, whose rule is to be defined more by public consent than by hereditary right. I might want to fight to the death in the name of the King, but I would also die in the last ditch for the right of those to protest against him ruling over us. That is my right, too.
If you’re going to be for the people, you have to be for all the people – even the ones who don’t like you. That’s true of Charles, but it’s doubly true of the police. A key part of the job is to put aside your personal values and to act in the best interest of the public, and like it or not, protesters are members of that same public.
Acts of protest are part of the public’s intervention in the democratic process. To treat it otherwise is to undermine that process.
Today is a day for celebration, and if the police wish to preserve its integrity, they will need to preserve their own first.