The British are not entirely sure
Several events were easy to predict after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. We knew that the late monarch’s face would miraculously appear to her subjects in a piece of toast, or a pancake — or as it turned out, in banks of clouds. We knew that Prince Charles would wave a wand and make the Duchess of Cornwall the Queen Consort. And we knew that somebody, somewhere, with absolutely no respect for this sombre occasion, or the common decency that ought to attend it, would shout abuse at Prince Andrew.
He was following his mother’s hearse through the streets of Edinburgh when a 22-year-old man called Rory screamed: “Andrew you’re a sick old man”. (Prince Andrew has repeatedly denied being a sick old man.) Rory was then dragged away, filmed explaining himself on Twitter, and “arrested in connection with a breach of the peace”.
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Rory joins a small, marginal collection of anti-Royal shouters and placard-holders this week, arrested in similar circumstances. The Met police said people in London “have a right to protest” — yet they also escorted a protester away from parliament. He was holding up a blank sheet of paper.
The protestors have found themselves defended by Zarah Sultana MP, Zoe Williams, and others whose swords do not exactly fly from their scabbards when freedom of speech is at stake. William Hazlitt’s test for a political progressive was whether they could admit that Edmund Burke, the godfather of British conservatism, was a great man. A fairer test in today’s climate is whether those currently defending these republicans would do so in more… difficult cases.
The protestors — inappropriate, indecorous, wasp-at-a-picnic irritating — belong to a larger pattern. A teenager jailed for sending a racist tweet to Marcus Rashford. The man handed 150 hours of community service for posting “grossly offensive” words about Captain Sir Tom Moore during the pandemic. A police officer jailed over racist jokes in a WhatsApp group. The gender-critical feminist charged over allegedly transphobic tweets in Scotland.
None of these people are necessarily sympathetic. All of them have been dragged by the law for offences that are relatively lightweight — particularly when you consider that rapes are barely prosecuted, and 5% of burglaries are solved. Tweets and placards are more visible though.
“It’s a privilege to see how we all behave”, Naga Munchetty said on BBC Breakfast earlier in the week. Well, quite. Some behaviour is acceptable. Some will put you in prison. People do not have a “right to protest” as the Met claims. They do not have a right to say stupid things, rude things, and poorly-timed things. Especially not after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into force at the end of June. The British have Prince Andrew. They don’t have free speech.