by Peter Hitchens
Wednesday, 14
September 2022
Debate
13:00

God save our republican protesters

Being for King and country means being for freedom of speech
by Peter Hitchens
The Royal Proclamation by Carfax Tower, Oxford

There are times when it is rather overwhelming to be a citizen of Oxford, that impossibly ancient city. Sunday was one of them. Amazed to have lived long enough to see my third monarch, I attended the Proclamation of the new King Charles III at Carfax, which has been the name of the crossroads at the heart of the town since before anyone can remember. Yellowing photographs are still displayed in our Town Hall of previous such ceremonies, the older ones containing men with majestic beards, firemen in polished brass helmets, county yeomanry with fixed bayonets on parade, and undergraduates in straw boaters. I suspect everyone present in these pictures has long ago found his way to the cemetery. 

And here I was, present at the identical occasion, surrounded by a casually-dressed crowd and the colours and shapes of another age. When it was over, the terrible buskers would switch their loudspeakers back on and the merchants of tourist tat would resume their trade. But for a few minutes we could step out of normal time into the slower, quieter rhythm of tradition, to acknowledge (all too briefly) the Sovereignty of God over all of us, and the breathtaking origin of earthly power and law. It was one of the moments when George Orwell’s summary of English continuity, in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ is still true:


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It stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
- George Orwell

And so here we all were in the September sunshine listening to the very same words as the other crowds had heard in 1901, in 1910, in 1936 and in 1952. And then an unscripted voice called out. I could not make out the words, but they were obviously some sort of protest. Almost immediately, other voices called out, including one in the authentic tones of the British common people, advising “Shut up, you berk!”, an utterly obscene insult whose true brutality is concealed by rhyming slang (you will have to look it up if you don’t know).

Soon afterwards we were all asked to exclaim, with heart and voice ‘God save the King!’ and I think we did so with that bit more force and power because of the protest. I thought complacently that the episode was a beautifully English moment in which liberty, dissent, protest and tradition were happily mingled. Only later did I discover that the shouting man, Symon Hill, had in fact been arrested and handcuffed by the police. He has given a full account of the matter here.

The strangest thing in his account is his complaint that some of those attending the Proclamation were ‘in clothing more suited to the sixteenth century’. I am puzzled as to why he thinks there is anything wrong with people getting up in the clothing of the 16th century if they want to. In Oxford we are happily surrounded by architecture from that era and from much earlier, which is startlingly superior to the things we build today. Why live in Oxford if you don’t have at least some liking for the past? We have a lot to learn from the 16th century, and I do not find the clothing styles of the 21st century especially appealing. But that is republicans for you, faddish, and all-too-often using the foolish argument that the new is automatically better than the old. 

But I am hugely pleased that republicans exist, and that they have the guts to raise their voices against monarchy, just as I am pleased that monarchists are available to call them rude names — and I am furious that any ‘security’ person or police officer thought it necessary to move or arrest Mr Hill. Dissent is the essential ingredient of freedom, and dissenters do not have to be correct to be valuable. As J.S. Mill puts it in his mighty condemnation of censorship, a people loses greatly by suppression: 

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
- J.S. Mill

I have had great pleasure in arguing against republicans over many years. It is they who have taught me both that I love constitutional monarchy with a deep heartfelt passion, and that there is a rational, factual case for it which is as modern, democratic, freedom-loving and open to human progress as any republican view.

I have so far seen no evidence that Mr Hill did anything which merited the treatment he says he received. I am especially appalled at the use of handcuffs, a public humiliation and a serious deprivation of liberty which needs a lot of justification. The area police force have said that ‘a 45-year-old man had been arrested on suspicion of committing an offence under section five of the Public Order Act, which prohibits disorderly behaviour’. This interestingly contradicts Mr Hill’s version, in which he says that the highly controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act 2022 was used. But unless there is some other evidence that we have yet to hear, I still struggle to see why an arrest, let alone the use of manacles, was justified.

Republican protestor Symon Hill

 The police added: ‘He has subsequently been de-arrested and is engaging with us voluntarily as we investigate a public order offence.’ Surely they mean ‘alleged public order offence’, as no trial has yet taken place? And the odd phrase ‘de-arrested’ catches my eye. The sad fact is that once someone has been arrested, especially in public, he will always have been arrested. As it is a physical action rather than a legal or judicial procedure it cannot be undone. What does it mean?  

An arrest is not a formal charge and contains no imputation of guilt, though it has to be justified by real necessity and officers are not supposed to make arrests unless they have good grounds. Does it in fact mean that the police thought better of their action and so let him go? In which case, it would suggest that they too accept that they went too far. I shall watch with interest for the outcome of their investigations. 

But in the meantime, it strikes me that one man shouting in the midst of a public ceremony ‘Who elected him?’ and another responding ‘Shut up, you berk!’ is a long way short of an outbreak of disorder. And, given that the police in Oxford are more or less absent most of the time, it is rather startling. Indeed, recent figures show that nearly 70% of reported crimes in Oxfordshire are closed by the police with no further action. 

I suspect most of those present that afternoon were mildly monarchist and had gone to see the ceremony out of curiosity more than because of any political passion. I certainly would not have wanted or expected any heckler to be carted off or handcuffed, unless they had incited violence or engaged in serious conflict with other members of the crowd. Proper British policing always used to consist of calming things down, not escalating them. An arrest is a failure. 

The original standing instructions given to English police officers stated that ‘by the use of tact and good humour the public can normally be induced to comply with directions and thus the necessity for using force, with its possible public disapproval, is avoided’. In this, they were quite distinct from the police of the European continent, where gendarmes were accustomed to use force as a first resort and where the presumption of innocence was in practice non-existent. 

Police would never have been allowed to exist in the Britain of the 19th century if they had not been restrained and tactful. And, as I look at those ancient photographs of Royal proclamations in the Oxford of long ago, with their walrus-moustached constables and their orderly, self-restrained, Christian crowds waiting in the rain, I see a paradox and I offer it to Mr Symon Hill. 

When Britain was more monarchist, it was more free. We almost all forget now that the radicals of 18th century France, as they demanded change in their absolutist state, regarded Britain’s constitutional monarchy as the exemplar of political liberty. It is in the centuries since that Britain too has acquired a large and strong and interventionist state.

And as we have accepted the idea of the egalitarians, that crime and disorder are caused by poverty and inequality, and the ideas of the radicals that we all harbour reactionary thoughts, we have stopped assuming that nobody is guilty until an impartial jury says so, and instead begun to assume that we are all guilty (of privilege, racism, sexism, various phobias and various kinds of hate crime) unless we can show we are not. And so we have given more power to the police, and made the people less free. When I say ‘God Save the King’, I am also saying ‘God Preserve English Liberty’. And if Mr Hill feels he is not as free as he would like to be, he should not blame the King, but the reformers.   

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday

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Matt M
Matt M
2 months ago

 But for a few minutes we could step out of normal time into the slower, quieter rhythm of tradition, to acknowledge (all too briefly) the Sovereignty of God over all of us, and the breathtaking origin of earthly power and law. 

I would like to see more of Peter Hitchens on UnHerd.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t always agree with his views, but in this article he hits several very important nails bang on the head, and with erudition.
I’d have liked him to have commented on the similar outburst of isolated indignation against Prince Andrew in Edinburgh just a day or so ago.

james goater
james goater
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

So would I. Hitchen’s views are always well-expressed and never dull.

R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago

What a wretched display by our overzealous, incompetent plods. They’re not good for anything other than stamping out dissent it seems. A shame that they were not quite so willing to spring into action in Rotherham and countless other English towns against predators and rapists.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 months ago

I’ve supported the right to demonstrate although I’ve never found it necessary to use it in my 65 years. However it has now been usurped and abused by Leftist groups in the form of the various “… Rebellion” groups, Black Lives Matter, and Student Unions determined to censor university events and speakers of whom they disapprove.
Due to senior-level cowardice and anti-government views, the police have failed to properly act on these breaches, and so opportunistic politicians are now proposing further encroachments into our already violated and endangered civil liberties.
The responsibility for all of this lies with the political Left, whether it be the illiberal and undemocratic “liberals”, or the pitiful “activists” who attach themselves to any passing cause, like headlice.
The political Left should hang their heads in shame. They have become today’s political bullies, and are behaving in a cowardly, weak, and and intolerant way, just as bullies always do.

Ragged Clown
Ragged Clown
2 months ago

I do find it odd that this kind of over-policing has occurred several times across the country. I wonder if they were issued with instructions to put aside the conventional approach to policing.

John Kimon
John Kimon
2 months ago

Here’s the thing: British republicanism is not a ‘fad’ and there was not a time in the past when Britain/England was more monarchist than it is now. English/British history is more interesting than this, and it shows that the monarchy has always been contested political terrain.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 months ago

Those who like Peter Hitchens think that nothing has changed in the way the British police operate should watch the following:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh9wYKACR0c
Then there is the attempt by this Tory Government to introduce Patel’s Public Order Bill. Soon it will be illegal to demonstrate.

Daniel G
Daniel G
2 months ago

I don’t think he’s deluded enough to think nothing has changed in British policing. In fact, quite the opposite as he has frequently criticised them.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

Gestaplod have no Officer, Warrant Officer, Non Commissioned Officer system, appalling training and zero on the ground command and control or ” orders group chain”, and fight tooth and nail against having one. One just has to look at the ” Thumb up bum, mind in neutral shit shower” , as one’s Colour Sergeants used to say, news footage of plod in action post bomb incidents/ terrorist threats, riots or insurrection. This is not only not remotely amusing, but reflects a very sinister and politically seditious infection of our police forces, in addition to the masonic lodge ‘ play’…..

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 months ago

One of his major points is that policing has changed entirely. Which article were you reading, or did you just see it was Peter Hitchens and so go off on one ?!

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter Shaw

Yes, I thought exactly the same.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago

Of course everybody supports free speech, including the readers of Unherd – except when it comes to using certain politically incorrect words deemed offensive – oh wait, that means it isn’t free speech anymore! And don’t do it about any religions except Christianity either.
All or nothing – if you think protest using speech that offends should be allowed about republicanism on the basis of free speech then you should also support people who protest using speech that offends about other races and sexualities.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 months ago

Republicans have a right to protest and the police should only be involved if physical altercations with other members of the public occur, in which case the police should keep the two sides separate but take no further action.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 months ago

I’m a firm believer in Free Speech. People who speak freely are not guaranteed protection from the consequences of their free speech though.
So if peoples’ free speech and the way they present it is potentially seen as behaviour liable to cause a breach of the peace then they should be arrested for their own sake and that of others. Let the courts decide.

Kevin L
Kevin L
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

It seems to me that the police were allowed a lot of discretion and erred on the side of arrest even when there was practically zero chance of a breach of peace. I’m thinking in particular of the barrister who was threatened with arrest for holding a piece of paper outside of Parliament though there were several other respectful protests where inappropriate arrests were made.

I’m a little shocked that the police should be allowed to arrest people on a whim and “let the courts decide” or that you would advocate for the kind of policing more common in totalitarian states.
Surely there should be some recourse for people who were arrested by over-zealous police officers when they have committed no crime.
Kevin L (formerly Ragged Clown)

R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

“People who speak freely are not guaranteed protection from the consequences of their free speech though.”
That is what the right to free speech is all about. That is what makes it a right in the first place. If a right does not protect through enforcement, it isn’t a right but a mere ideal.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

The classic riposte is that the ‘right’ of free speech does not allow you to falsely shout “Fire!” in a cinema where the stampede for the exits my cause other people harm.
Similarly you might be sued for libelous comments about someone in most jurisdictions.
Was Symon Hill’s speech likely to cause a breach of the peace? I guess we will find out if he is prosecuted and found guilty, or not.

Andrew E Walker
Andrew E Walker
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

“I guess we will find out if he is prosecuted and found guilty, or not.”
Breach of the peace is not a criminal offence, and you cannot be prosecuted for it. Those arrested for such breach may be brought up before the magistrates, who if they deem it necessary, will bind the miscreant over to keep the peace for a given period.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 months ago

As some have argued, any form of government needs a ruling class, an elected aristocracy.
A British republic in the 21st century would be an uncertain beast. It would either lack the visceral thrill of the French Directoire (and the impressive uniforms of the Council of Ancients) or have it in double measure. It would either have none of the religious fervour of Cromwell’s protectorate or outdo it in fanaticism. Slumber or nightmare. Or from a constitutional monarchy to an absolute democracy. And perhaps a federated Commonwealth. From snark to leviathan.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

just look at late 19th Century Britain and its staggering success when it was run by both hereditary peers and politicians from The Lower House? How has Britain advanced from this? what is better, bigger, richer, more powerful about Britain now?

Kevin O'Loughlin
Kevin O'Loughlin
2 months ago

This argument always amuses me. ‘I have freedom of speech so I can say what I want.’ Well that’s fair enough. However I believe that all of the people who shouted abuse at the funeral procession and who held up signs pointing out their opposition to the event and who were arrested should give thanks that they were. All, I believe, were arrested for a breach of the peace. Not a criminal offence but a tool used to prevent further disturbance. There was and still is a huge crowd consisting of thousands of people gathered in London to pay their respects to the deceased Queen and her family. A man, in the middle of this crowd, starts shouting abuse at the mourning Royals. A police officer, hearing this, has a decision to make. Do I allow his, ‘freedom of speech’ or do I remove him from harms way because I would suspect that the crowd would, likely, have beaten him to a pulp. The statute says, actions by which a breach of the peace may be occasioned. I think this would apply here don’t you. So the people removed, took action whereby a breach of the peace may well have been occasioned and were handcuffed and taken away. Later they were either released or bound over by a magistrate. They don’t even have to accept the bind over they are just released. So their choices are, be taken away in one piece by the Police or in bits by an ambulance. Thankfully the correct choice was made for them. Free speech indeed.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

the National Socialist prickipality of nu britn… Instead of DDR why not be done with it and have the BDR?… we are nearly there..

Terry M
Terry M
2 months ago

When Britain was more monarchist, it was more free.
This misses the point. With monarchy the people have no voice in the government. It’s not government of the people, by the people or for the people. Power corrupts after all.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 months ago

Republicans should be free to protest against the monarchy just as Remoaners were and still allowed to protest against democracy.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 months ago

I agree completely with Mr Hitchen’s point of view in this matter. As to the man who shouted at Prince Andrew as the Prince followed his mother’s coffin: that was a totally ill-chosen moment, but I suppose that grossly bad manners are not a criminal offence.