Officially, according to Scotland Yard, it is still a free country. The British people “absolutely” have the right to protest.
But if you decide that you are not happy to be a loyal subject of King Charles III, or that you disagree with his ascension to the throne under an outdated hereditary monarchy, you better shut your mouth. The message that people are allowed to protest – even as the nation mourns the death of a 96-year-old king – does not seem to have reached ordinary officers.
About a dozen people are known to have been arrested, or forcibly removed, after disrupting the Queen Elizabeth II memorial parade or events marking Charles III’s proclamation. There have been at least five arrests in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, as a week of memorial events kicked off after the Queen’s coffin arrived in the heart of Balmoral Castle, where she died last week.
Among them is a 22-year-old woman who was arrested on Sunday for holding a sign that read: “Damn imperialism. Abolish the monarchy.” A 22-year-old man walked out of the crowd after shouting, “Andrew, you sick old man,” while The funeral procession – with Prince Andrew in a prominent position – was making its way down the Royal Mile. Both face charges of “breaking the peace”.
In Oxford, 45-year-old Simon Hill was on his way home from church on Sunday morning when he saw a group of local dignitaries, many in ceremonial attire more “sixteenth century fit”, gathering outside the city’s Carfax Tower.
They were there for a local party to announce Charles III’s ascension to the throne – at which point Hill, who had not planned any protest, simply shouted: “Who elected him?” He was arrested, threatened with charges, then stopped and taken home in a police car.
But the most surreal “protest” came in London’s Parliament Square on Monday as Paul Paulsland, a 36-year-old climate activist and lawyer, held up a piece of paper. That was enough provocation for an officer to confront him and demand an explanation.
The activist responded that he was considering writing “Not Mine” on the newspaper, resulting in a Pythonesque language exchange where the policeman threatened to arrest him for a hypothetical message that could (again, hypothetically) cause an insult and then again and again and illegally demand his personal details.
Paulsland, of course, was literally borrowing a page from Russia’s anti-war protesters, who waved white papers after being warned against referring to Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as a war. They were pushed out by Putin’s thugs regardless. Paulsland, the attorney, decided not to write anything on his newspaper after all because he had to work the next day and wasn’t able to spend a night in the cells.
Speaking to reporters after the showdown, Paulsland said: “I’m not really a Republican, or I wasn’t before this week. Like most Britons, I was vaguely hesitant about the monarchy. But this week, and what’s going on, it made me a Republican.”
“Among the many things that make me proud to be British is our freedom of expression. It is one of our most precious and sacred rights and far more precious to me than the royal family.”
After Paulsland’s tweet about his meeting went viral – his video has been viewed more than 1.2 million times – Scotland Yard felt compelled to issue a statement: “The public is fully entitled to protest and we have made this clear to all officers involved in the exceptional policing operation currently in place.”
In their defence, the police are arguably caught up in national hysteria like the rest of the country after the death of the king who ruled for 70 years. The ceremonial aspect of the royal handover and the Queen’s funeral – known as Operation London Bridge – was planned long ago and in meticulous detail. But it is clear that many other institutions were at a loss as to what to do.
Football matches, for example, were immediately suspended, but cricket was allowed to continue. Bars and restaurants are as packed as ever, but any “official” remote event has been cancelled. One supermarket chain even silenced the beeping at self-service checkout as a “sign of respect” – but forgot to tell its customers, who were left shopping again and again.
But activists fear the crackdown on royalist protesters is part of a more subtle pattern in British police. Hill, the Oxford “protester”, said he was arrested under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, a controversial law passed by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government that civil liberties groups say places impossible limits on political protests.
What other liberties can be suppressed in the name of monarchy? Hill asked in a Blog post about his ordeal. “If the fear of arrest discourages people from expressing their opinions, these vile laws and harsh atmospheres will greatly reduce freedom of expression and harm democracy, whether people are charged or not.”