In the last few days, there have been several reports of the police arresting, dissuading, or moving on various republican protestors from royal events. A woman in Scotland was arrested by police outside Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral, as solemn crowds waited for the arrival of Her Majesty’s coffin, holding a sign saying ‘Fuck imperialism. Abolish the monarchy.’ In Oxford, that great home of lost causes, a man was arrested for shouting “Who elected him?” as the city marked our new King’s accession. He blamed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, enacted in April this year.
Our modern day Voltaires rushed to denounce the actions of His Majesty’s constabulary. “No one should ever be arrested for what they think or say”, Brendan O’Neill intoned. Andrew Marr, liberated from the BBC, labelled it “outrageous”, and claimed such a move would have “alarmed” our new monarch. The French philosopher did not actually say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. But for those who wish he did, this is a clear case of right and wrong. One can almost hear the Free Speech Union swinging into action.
And yet I must say that I disagree. My initial instinct was the same as O’Neill or Marr’s, since free debate is essential to a functioning society. It is also deeply satisfying pointing out the hypocrisy of those left-wingers who want locked up every internet nobody who makes an off-colour joke or Christian preacher who takes the Bible a tad seriously on the question of homosexuality. Yet since I do not think Count Dankula is the Jan Hus of our age, I must admit that the actions of the police do have a clear legal and moral defence – and that the more I consider it, the more I think they made the right decisions.
First, the law. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has often been written up as a 300-page attack on people Priti Patel doesn’t like. That is unfair on both the former Home Secretary, and the legislation itself. As our Deputy Editor has detailed, the law targets (amongst other things) those forms of disruptive protests – hello, Extinction Rebellion! – whose activities threaten public order. It aims to stop weird-beards and Dance students from blocking roads, stopping trains, and prescribing who can or cannot enter a hospital.
Clearly, a budding Tony Benn making being a tit in public does not constitute an attack on public order. But the act also allows the police to arrest lone demonstrators on the basis that a single protestor – hello, Steve Bray! – can be disruptive and irritating. You wouldn’t want a racist mouthing off at the Notting Hill carnival, or a flag burner interrupting the wreath-laying at the Cenotaph. The public have a right to expect them to be removed. So too with a republican picking the one moment in the last 70-odd years where their actions are likely to cause widespread anger. Policing by consent includes acting to prevent public distress.
This invites the charge of double standards. How can I support the police in removing someone for protesting against the monarchy, when potentially defend someone making an offensive Tweet, criticising Islam, or preaching Leviticus with the spicy bits left in? That is because they are often being harassed and prosecuted under two New Labour laws – the 2003 Communications Act and the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act – or due to the College of Policing’s unlawful former guidance on the declaring of ‘Non-Crime Hate Incidents’.
These are what saw 120,000 people recorded by police between 2014 and 2019 for NCHIs, that saw a man arrested by anti-terror police for joking online about blowing an airport sky high due to cancelled flights, and a woman sentenced to an eight-week community order for posting rap lyrics. Like the 2010 Equalities Act, these are pieces of left-wing social engineering or the Blairite blob gone mad that have either been left on the statute book or allowed to run rampant through twelve years of Tory navel-gazing. These constitute a bigger threat to free speech than telling a gobby republicans to shove off.
Nevertheless, if one is still preoccupied by the liberty of these bargain-basement Cromwells to be pains in the arse, I can spell out the traditional approach to free speech in this country. Unlike the Americans, we do not have a codified constitution with a First Amendment preventing free speech from being abridged. As much as your average pub bore might argue that it’s a free country and he can say what he likes, this has not usually been the case.
This is the land of the Chatterley ban, and where the Lord Chamberlain censored plays until 1968. Where the last successful prosecution for blasphemy was in 1977, and where the laws regulating them were only abolished in England in Wales in 2008, and in Scotland in 2021. In the latter case, that was part of the same Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) act that sought to ban forms of speech and action on the basis that they could potentially offend various elements of the left’s hierarchy of victimhood. This not a land where unlimited freedom of speech or protest has ever been sacred, or is now. Even John Wilkes had to flee for Paris for breaking our sainted libel laws.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Most free speech purists suggest that limits should exist around the incitement of hatred or violence. I would have thus been within my rights to shout “Not my King!” in Westminster Hall yesterday, but not “Off with his head!”. That is even as King Charles III stood a few feet away from where his namesake was condemned to the chopping block.
Instead, the traditional tendency has been to put taste before an untrammelled ability for one to say, do, or write whatever they like. This reflects the basic instinct that, whilst free debate is important, there is also a time and a place. One does not shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, and few would defend your right to. Similarly, if I had smuggled myself into Westminster yesterday for the purpose of arsing around, the police would have been within their rights to remove me – or for someone next to me to sharply tell me to shut up. On balance, temporarily restricting speech is worth not ruining an event for millions – and potentially billions – of people.
As various restrictions on what we can say and do have been lifted, we have become a coarser and stupider society – for every Life of Brian, there is a Fifty Shades of Grey. So our willingness to pronounce on matters of taste has diminished, in fear of going the way of Mary Whitehouse. You cannot put that genie back into the bottle. No saucy if tedious tales of ladies and their gamekeepers will be banned any time soon. But the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act allows the police to use discretion in removing demonstrators, and this week they should do so – if they have to, since once can hope the examples above deter further outbursts.
Certainly, our new Home Secretary should look at the convoluted restrictions on who can say what and where. Yet for this week – if only for this week – we should throw one finger up at Voltaire’s ghost, shut these tedious protestors up, and allow Her Majesty to be honoured and our new King lauded in peace.