Being for King and country means being for freedom of speech
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:
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:
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.
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