From the Sex Pistols blasting their 1977 republican anthem “God Save the Queen” whilst floating down the Thames on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, to the attempt by activists to organize a “zombie picnic” to shower the 2011 royal wedding in “maggot confetti,” expressions of anti-monarchy sentiment continue to be a part of British political culture. Unfortunately, so too are clampdowns on these expressions of civil disobedience.
Despite being one of the highest-selling singles in the week it was released, the BBC banned the Sex Pistol’s anthem from airing on its channels and police arrested members of the band after their performance on the Queen’s Jubilee. Over thirty years later, the planners of the zombie picnic would meet the same fate.
During the UK’s twelve days of official mourning since the Queen’s death, police have continued this tradition and used arrests, or the threat of them, to suppress expressions of anti-monarchist sentiment. However, this time they have clamped down on instances of anti-royalist expressions, much less organized than that of the Pistols or zombies.
In Scotland, police arrested two protesters. The first was arrested for holding a sign with “Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” scrawled across it, the other was detained for shouting, amidst a crowd of onlookers observing the procession of the Queen’s coffin, that Prince Andrew was “a sick old man.” In Oxford, police arrested a third protester for shouting “Who elected him?” at the new King. Law enforcement informed another protester holding a blank piece of paper that he would be arrested for a public order offense if he wrote “Not My King” on it.
From the perspective of civil liberties, these episodes and others like them are deeply worrying. Britain’s police have at their disposal an increasingly varied legal toolbox which empowers them to intervene in political protest. These powers only increased under Boris Johnson’s government.
A key component of this toolbox is the antiquated concept of “breach of the peace,” which has existed for many hundreds of years in Britain. As with many executive powers linked to the monarch, there is a certain haziness regarding its correct application. Breaching the peace is a criminal offense in Scottish law, but not criminal offense in England or Wales. Nevertheless, police officers in the UK have powers of arrest to prevent a breach of the peace.
What it really means to breach the peace has never been defined in detail in the UK statute books. Though it is generally accepted that a breach of the peace can occur when harm is actually done (or likely to be done) to a person or their property. Alternatively, a breach may occur where a person is in “fear of being harmed” through an “assault, an affray, a riot or other . . . disturbance.” Police have arrested a number of anti-monarchist protesters explicitly on the grounds that they had breached the peace.
The second key source of police powers to intervene in political protest stems from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. This makes displaying writing, signs, or other images deemed threatening, abusive, or likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress to a nearby person a criminal offense. In Scotland, a similar offense exists in the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.
A third source is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, recently rushed through Parliament by the Johnson government. The Act created a number of new powers for police to intervene in protests, including where they are considered noisy to the point of causing “serious disruption,” and where they are “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.”
Cutting across these three sets of powers are a number of defenses and protections, most importantly, the right to peaceful protest. This right is entrenched in British law by the Human Rights Act 1998, which recognizes as part of UK law the human rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The right to peaceful protest is included in the right to freedom of assembly (Article 11 of the ECHR), and also receives protection via the right to freedom of expression (Article 10 of the ECHR). The existence of these rights mean that the police are only allowed to intervene in peaceful protests where this is considered necessary and proportionate to prevent disorder or if doing so is in the interest of another public interest referred to in the ECHR.
Following criticisms of the arrests of anti-monarchists on social media, it was precisely the right to protest that the police sought to emphasize. In a statement, London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MET) stressed that the “public absolutely have a right to protest.” The MET had, the statement claimed, “been making this clear to all officers involved.”
For many, this may be a welcome clarification, but for others, there is little comfort in a response invoking the right to protest after arrests for exercising this right have already taken place across the country.
This “act first, ask questions later” approach led police to violate the rights of people who gathered for a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, a woman kidnapped and murdered by a Metropolitan Police officer. A similar approach may also have led to the death of Chris Kaba, a black man recently shot and killed by armed police.
The fact that the police felt the right to protest is something they had to make clear “to all officers involved” is concerning. This framing suggests that many police officers do not already assume people automatically have this right, and that they believe the role of the police is to clarify in which contexts this right exists.
This veers toward a system of state consent for protest, which fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the right to protest and the broader right to freedom of expression. While protest rights are by no means absolute, and in particular are limited by protections of other human rights, their exercise should not require permission from the state.
The broader framing of the anti-monarchist arrests in the public had fed into another thread of an unhelpful narrative around the right to protest, which is that protest should show respect by not seeking to offend others. For example, the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, emphasized that any anti-monarchist protests should be done in the “spirit of respect,” and not “ruin” the moment for the people who traveled to mourn the Queen.
Again, this framing seems to impose a condition on political protest, i.e. that it does not offend, that misunderstands the nature of the right to protest — people have a right to peaceful protest regardless of whether it causes offense.
To the extent that law enforcement is treating the right to protest as conditional, this fits with an increasing tendency for police to be more emboldened to intervene in the name of “public order.” This step change is reflected in the 36 percent increase in the number of public order offenses in the last year, compared to the pre-pandemic year to March 2020. Between March 2021 and March 2022, over 470,000 Section 5 public order offenses were recorded in England and Wales.
The state sanctioning of a more forceful approach to protest by the police has not only come in the form of the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, but in the even more repressive, Public Order Bill, currently being considered by Parliament. The bill will criminalize a huge range of peaceful behavior currently associated with political protest in the UK, handing the police the power to impose banning orders which would completely remove an individual’s right to protest.
Together the Police Act and the Public Order Bill are creating what UK politicians have themselves termed a “hostile environment” for peaceful protest in the UK.
These attacks on the right to protest are part of a broader assault on human rights currently in motion in the UK. The new prime minister, Liz Truss, has signaled that she would be prepared to remove our ECHR rights entirely, though she has delayed a “Bill of Rights Bill” which was set to weaken UK human rights protections further.
The arrests that have taken place during the UK’s period of mourning should not, then, be seen as exceptional. They are instead part of a broader pattern of strengthening the powers of law enforcement and weakening civil liberties. Regardless of whatever uncertainty surrounds Charles III’s future reign, in the coming months and years one thing is certain: struggle to defend hard-won civil liberties will be at the forefront of British politics, including those liberties at risk as republican sentiment finds its expression across the nation.