Editorial: What does freedom of speech mean in Britain today?
Just a year after the British public celebrated the Queen’s last jubilee, in May this year we had the first coronation in a generation. More bank holidays, more prosecco, more nobles in outlandish outfits. (Let the Church not make sarky comments on that score.)
A controversial part of the coronation service was the ‘homage of the people’, where viewers at home were invited to join the congregation in swearing allegiance to the King. The Archbishop of Canterbury called ‘upon all persons of goodwill … to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King’. Persons of goodwill responded: ‘I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law.’
A poll in the Sun beforehand found that 53% of its crown-friendly readers were unwilling to take the oath; 78% in the Mirror. James Cleverly, as Secretary of State for the Commonwealth, described it as ‘a very generous invitation’ to the public to join in coronation vows for the first time. Those with a sense of history might recall how such measures were used in the past to punish people for having allegiances outside the established Church. Lambeth Palace stressed that people were free to decline and it was not an ‘expectation or request’.
This made for a striking comparison with what else was going on between the King and the people at the same time. The UK government’s Public Order Act was marched briskly into law, gaining the King’s signature days before the coronation.
Under the cover of flag-waving, the law introduced prison terms of up to 12 months for protesters who delay road or rail transport. It allows police to stop and search possible would-be protesters without having grounds for suspicion. While the Metropolitan Police is in crisis, its reputation in tatters after the Casey report, the government has given it more power over the public, with less accountability.
The police wrote to republicans before the coronation, warning them of their new powers. Six members of the anti-monarchist group Republic, including the CEO Graham Smith, were arrested on arrival in Westminster on coronation day. Twenty people were arrested for wearing Just Stop Oil T-shirts or carrying flags, including a woman described by the press as a ‘royal superfan’ who was standing too near them. She was held for 13 hours; Smith for 16.
The previous night, three night-time safety volunteers were arrested. As part of their work they were distributing rape alarms, which the police said could be used to disrupt the coronation.
What does freedom of speech mean in Britain today? It means the freedom to publicly declare allegiance to the King, or to keep silence. Those seem to be the two safe options open to us.
This article was published in the June 2023 edition of Reform