It only took a few days for the Metropolitan Police to backtrack over the arrests of the six members of Republic who were peacefully protesting at the King’s coronation on Saturday. On the evening of May 8th, all six were informed their bail had been cancelled and no further action would be taken. The Met issued a statement saying they regretted “that those six people arrested were unable to join the wider group of protesters in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere on the procession route”. In the meantime they had been deprived of their liberty for 16 hours.
Initially the Met had been bullish. They claimed they had received “intelligence” that protestors were going to disrupt the event and, after all, this would have been embarrassing when the spectacle was being showcased on the world’s stage.
On May 3rd, the Met had warned that their tolerance levels would be low and that they would deal robustly with anyone looking as though they were going to cause a problem. Confident in the knowledge that their powers had been enhanced by the Public Order Act (2023), believed to have been rushed through the parliamentary process, and which received Royal Assent on March 2nd, they arrested the six Republic members when they carried out a search of their property. The six were detained for having items, luggage straps, which could potentially be used for “Locking On.” The 2023 Act had introduced this as a new offence (with a maximum of a 51-week custodial sentence).
On Saturday, the Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, argued that the police got the “balance right” between allowing protest and enjoyment of the King’s Coronation. However, far from protecting the reputation of the UK, the actions of the Met appear to have caused serious damage.
The headline from CNN, which is widely read in the USA and across the world, said: “Something out of a police state. Anti-monarchy protesters arrested ahead of King Charles’ coronation”.
Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, is calling for a “full inquiry” into who authorised the arrests during the “disgraceful episode”. He said the speed at which the Met dropped its case against the group “demonstrates they were very quickly aware they had made a very serious error of judgment and there will be action taken again. I’m obviously relieved they dropped it so quickly but very angry they even went down this road, robbing people of their liberty for absolutely no reason.”
Protesters explained at the time that the luggage straps were being used to secure their placards and insisted they couldn’t be used for a person to “lock on” to a fence or railing.
The Labour Party has prevaricated as usual. Two shadow ministers have refused to say if Labour would scrap the powers. Speaking on his phone-in show on LBC radio, David Lammy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was asked by a caller if a Labour government would repeal the Public Order Act. “We can’t come into office, picking through all the Conservative legislation and repealing it,” Lammy replied. “It would take up so much parliamentary time. We need a positive agenda.”
Andrew Gwynne, the Shadow Public Health Minister, told Sky News that a Labour government would “look very carefully at this legislation” and that the police appeared to have been “heavy-handed” in their approach on Saturday. But he refused to commit to scrapping the Act.
There is no doubt that these arrests are a direct attack on our democracy and the fundamental rights of every person in the country. A press release from Republic said that “each and every police officer involved on the ground should hang their heads in shame. They showed no judgement, no common sense, and no basic decency. This was a heavy-handed action which had the appearance of a pre-determined arrest that would have occurred regardless of the evidence or our actions.”
We can only wonder whether there was a vengeful Home Secretary puppeteer pulling those strings. It is, of course, an absolutely textbook case of why granting the police sweeping new powers is a bad idea. The police have been forced to apologise and take no action on this occasion. But the draconian powers are still in place ready to be used on the next not so high profile person or group trying to exercise their basic democratic rights.
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