Can We Really Claim To Be A Democratic Society If We Cannot Protest the Monarchy?

George Scotland

Following Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death last week, there have been growing concerns among freedom of speech activists. This comes after several incidents of people being arrested for exercising what should be their fundamental democratic right to protest against the monarchy. George Scotland asks if a Britain which arrests people for voicing opposition to her leaders can still claim to champion free speech and democracy.

On Sunday, 45 year old Symon Hill was arrested on suspicion of a public order offence at an accession proclamation in Oxford for asking, “Who elected him?” Police say he was subsequently de-arrested. Another stood at Buckingham Palace’s gates peacefully brandishing a blank piece of paper before being reprimanded by the authorities because of the suggestion they might write #notmyking on it.

These are perfectly legitimate positions, in my opinion, if you are sceptical of the concept of succession and rule supreme purely on the basis of accidental birth. On Monday in Edinburgh, a 22 year old woman was charged in connection with the ‘breach of peace’ allegedly for holding up an anti-Imperialism and anti-monarchy sign.

On the same day live on national television, a 22 year old man heckled Prince Andrew, allegedly saying he was a “sick old man” as he walked behind the hearse of HM. Videos then circulated on social media of police officers pulling the individual from the crowd and taking a rather heavy handed approach with him.

Britain […] cannot be considered what it proudly espouses to be if her citizens are being unnecessarily harassed

People online were quick to react, though they had mixed responses. Seemingly some members of the public are suffering with amnesia concerning Prince Andrew and his questionable connections to Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell and the £12 million settlement to his accuser Virginia Giuffre

While some espouse arguably legitimate concerns of the timing being inappropriate, with the procession coming through Edinburgh, was this man not perfectly within his rights to exercise his freedom of speech without being treated heavy handedly by the police? In my opinion, Britain, which champions herself as a beacon of free speech and democratic principles, cannot be considered what it proudly espouses to be if her citizens are being unnecessarily harassed for frankly speaking their truth to power.

In reality they are wholly disproportionate and the situation is being exploited

More broadly, this suggests to me that as a member of the Royal Family, Andrew holds an incredibly privileged position and is protected from any accountability or challenge. I find this more concerning than a potential ‘breach of peace’ considering some of the past allegations made against him. Refraining from the risk of conflating two issues within the criminal justice system, someone being arrested for voicing their concerns about a member of the establishment and that very member of the establishment seemingly being able to evade accountability demonstrates an astronomical power gap within the system.

The death of Her Majesty the Queen is a moment of national significance in which the police have legitimised the use of unjustified force as supposedly necessary. In reality they are wholly disproportionate and the situation is being exploited, leading to abuses of power. Rather than helping to navigate the public through tough times, in certain situations they have been responsible for the curtailment of civil liberties. Do the cases of protestors being arrested or questioned by police legitimise what some of us have always been uneasy about – that the Royals and the elite are treated as less bound by the laws of the land than us ordinary subjects?

My main concern is not being able to challenge the validity of those within the loftiest and most affluent spheres of British society

This curtailing of civil liberties has very much been the case concerning freedom of speech in relation to the Monarchy which we have witnessed over the past few days. Writing this makes me sound like a staunch libertarian which I profess not to be; I certainly believe in rules and regulations. However, my main concern is not being able to challenge the validity of those within the loftiest and most affluent spheres of British society.

For whatever reasons, be it relating to institutional reservations or personal behaviour, people should have the right to criticise the monarchy and thus they need freedom of speech. When they are chastised for doing so, this is inherently undemocratic and damages the reputation of these values that Britain claims to uphold. For someone who considers themselves more left leaning, I was pleasantly surprised by an unlikely social media alliance between Tory MP David Davis and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn responded to Mr Davis after he wrote to Scotland’s Police Chief expressing his concerns about the maltreatment of the Republican protesters.

I fundamentally agree and recognise that Queen Elizabeth II was a remarkable and well respected Head of State

One can speculate that the calls for this curtailing of freedom of speech are emanating from more traditional and right wing factions, who are naturally more inclined to support the monarchy. For perhaps the first time, they are caught between the complex repercussions of total free speech and their claimed support of it, because what is being said is supposedly offensive to the Royal Family they revere. Perhaps, too, the left, who many on their own side would agree have a range of views on the limits of free speech, are finally coming to terms with the need to prevent the detrimental effects of expressing a controversial view.

Going back to the main and perfectly legitimate counter argument that regardless of what you think of the existing Royals, these protesters have timed their protests inappropriately, I can indeed sympathise with that. I fundamentally agree and recognise that Queen Elizabeth II was a remarkable and well respected Head of State who served her country until the very last moment and even became emotional Friday night while watching a BBC documentary about her. I may even pay my respects by visiting Westminster Abbey, to see her lying in state.

In a democratic society the right to freedom of speech is absolute and has no time frame

However if we were to apply those standards of ‘it not being the right time or place’, when would be a good time? After the funeral? Yes, that would be more considerate. But surely in a democratic society the right to free speech is absolute and has no time frame as to when it can be exercised. Freedom of speech, means freedom to express yourself when you want, free from constraints. Are we not creating a temporary authoritarianism where people cannot express a view on something they fundamentally disagree with? These are dangerous lurches when people are supposedly legally unable to express themselves in relation to institutions and the rulers of which they are made up.

Can Britain claim to be upholding democratic principles when those challenging the status quo are exposed to an environment not too dissimilar to authoritarian regimes of the 20th century whose leaders developed a cult of personality? It may be a stretch, but can we claim to be free if those expressing legitimate concern about heredity birth right are treated like outcasts, or worse still, criminals. The barrister that was ambushed by the police for holding a blank piece of paper upon the gates of Buckingham Palace has been compared to an incident earlier this year when a woman was arrested in Putin’s Russia for holding a blank sign amid a brutal crackdown on dissent over the invasion of Ukraine. 

Those that obstruct free speech are creating a fundamentally undemocratic environment

Freedom of speech is certainly tricky, like the arguments how far does it actually extend before it causes irreversible harm. George Orwell famously opined on the subject, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they don’t want to hear.” Furthermore, John Stuart Mill wrote, “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that pursuing our own good in our way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs”.

This ideal is certainly harder in practice than it is theoretically as every society has different laws and cultural norms they adhere too. These cultural taboos are understandable in relation to making a nuisance during a period of national mourning for our Monarch, but that doesn’t make them sacrosanct. In our present time, Orwell and Stuart Mills are more important than ever because those that obstruct free speech (like the cases of the monarchy and the police) are creating a fundamentally undemocratic environment.

George Scotland

Featured image courtesy of drown_in_city via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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