Sunak’s UK government faces criticism over suppression of republican protests during coronation

A demonstration arranged by the anti-monarchy group Republic was reduced to the bare bones by new public order legislation, pre-emptive arrests and fences to block off protesters

Rafa de Miguel
Charles III
Dozens of people protest against the monarchy during the coronation in London on Saturday, as the royal procession passes by.SEBASTIEN BOZON (AFP)

The chief enemy of republicanism in the United Kingdom has long been Britons’ widespread indifference to the monarchy. It is an attitude that the Metropolitan Police sought to capitalize on as it cracked down on even the slightest hint of public disorder during King Charles III’s coronation in London. In the aftermath of the celebrations, however, questions have been raised about law enforcement’s actions in its eagerness to protect the image of a historic event — notably, the arrest of several activists ahead of the coronation. “We […] have a duty to intervene when protest becomes criminal and may cause serious disruption,” Met Police Commander Karen Findlay has said in defense of her forces. “This depends on the context. The coronation is a once in a generation event and that is a key consideration in our assessment.”

The argument that the coronation was an exceptional occurrence, having not taken place since Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, has been used to justify a series of police actions that have sparked deep concern among human-rights groups. “The reports of people being arrested for peacefully protesting against the coronation are incredibly alarming,” says Yasmine Ahmed, the director of Human Rights Watch UK. Sacha Deshmukh, the chief executive of Amnesty International UK, added: “The coronation shouldn’t become yet another excuse for undermining people’s basic human rights in this country and we’re awaiting more details over these concerning reports of arrests.”

Three days before the coronation, in a move whose timing raised suspicions among many activists — but, Rishi Sunak’s government insists, was coincidental — new legislation aimed at controlling public protests was signed into law. In the last four years, actions by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have sought to block roads and other transport networks in the U.K.’s chief cities. Their sit-down protests have come at a huge cost to the British taxpayer, the country’s Home Office says: more than €50 million, with thousands of police officers mobilized and over 750 arrests made. The new Public Order Act gives law enforcement greater powers to intercept individuals or groups suspected of setting out to cause disorder or carrying dangerous objects. It also includes stiffer penalties for protesters who try to attach themselves to objects or buildings in a bid to disrupt city infrastructure.

Despite the promises made by Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat, who in the days leading up to the event pledged that protests would be respected, his department opted to send a pre-coronation letter to certain groups, warning them of the new legislation. The tactic was denounced as “intimidatory” by many activists, including Graham Smith, the leader of the anti-monarchy organization Republic. For months, his movement had been preparing a large protest for the day of the coronation, under the slogan “Not My King”. Although republican sentiment remains in the minority in the U.K., the group had secured tens of thousands of signatures of support on its website, as well as thousands of pounds in donations, and expected at least 2,000 people to attend its demonstration in Trafalgar Square, located on the royal procession route.

Pre-emptive arrests

The tone of the letter sent by Tugendhat’s department, and the commotion it caused, discouraged many who were considering joining the protest. The definitive blow, however, was struck at 7 a.m. local time on Saturday, when a group of police officers appeared on St. Martin’s Lane, near Trafalgar Square, and arrested Smith and five other members of his group without explanation. When they were detained, the activists were preparing to remove protest placards from a van and hand out warm drinks among those who were starting to arrive. They were held until 11 a.m., shortly before the royal procession departed Buckingham Palace. “I’m now out of the police station,” Smith tweeted. “Still waiting for my colleagues. Make no mistake. There is no longer a right to peaceful protest in the UK. I have been told many times the monarch is there to defend our freedoms. Now our freedoms are under attack in his name.”

Monarchy’s popularity on the slide

Although the majority of Britons still back the monarchy, support has waned in recent years. According to the latest YouGov poll, at least 25% of the population would prefer to choose their head of state at the ballot box. And among 18 to 24-year-olds, just 36% are in favor of the status quo. “Growing up, I thought that republicanism was impossible,” Alexander Larman, the author of The Crown in Crisis, a book about the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII, tells EL PAÍS. “Now, I can see that there is the possibility of an evolution that occurs over the next generation, or two generations, whereby the royal family no longer have any public funding or responsibilities, and occupy no greater place in the national consciousness.”

The U.K. is in a cost-of-living crisis, and has gone from a queen revered by Britons of all ages to a king who inspires resentment among some older people — over his disastrous divorce from Lady Di — and indifference among the younger generations. The conditions are there for organizations like Republic to flourish, but Sunak’s government showed on Saturday that it will stand in their way. “Some argue that the coronation is not the right place to make a political statement,” Brendan O’Neill wrote in The Spectator, a magazine that the most hardened conservatives always carry under their arm. “I disagree. The coronation itself is a political statement. It is a loud, noisy, pomp-filled declaration that Britain remains a monarchy and that Charles, by divine right, is our King. This is the perfect event for republican dissent, for the peaceful expression of an alternative view.”

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