Free speech cannot only be a respected British tradition when everyone agrees with what’s being said – obviously. The Queen has died, and it is absolutely right that people be allowed to grieve. But it must also be remembered that this is a time when we are seeing a change to the head of state. Now, as King Charles asserts himself in that role, is precisely the time when people should be allowed to voice dissent at this unelected position.
Over the past few days, however, we have seen some troubling incidents. One protester was led away by the police after holding up a placard that stated “not my King”. A 22-year-old woman, who held up a poster saying “fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy”, was arrested and a man was arrested and then later de-arrested after shouting “who elected him?” – both at public events proclaiming Charles III as King. A barrister was spoken to by police for holding up a blank sign outside parliament – and, while not arrested, it smacks of Russian police arresting protesters for doing the same earlier this year.
Weighing in this morning, Keir Starmer told BBC Breakfast viewers that the right to protest is a “great British tradition” but said protesters should “respect” people mourning the Queen. “People have spent a long time waiting to come forward to have that moment as the coffin goes past or whatever it may be, I think respect that,” he said. “Obviously we have to respect the fact that some people disagree. One of the great British traditions is the ability to protest and to disagree. But I think it can be done in the spirit of respect.”
His comments followed reports yesterday that Labour MPs had been told by the party leadership not to post anything on social media aside from tributes to the Queen and what they have been asked to share by the Parliamentary Labour Party, and not to do any media except to pay tribute in local outlets.
One Labour MP told LabourList the instruction was advice on protocol, and not a mandatory order. But the message has caused concern, nonetheless. Not only because now, as we usher in the new King, is exactly the right time to say that you disagree with doing that very thing – but because the advice would suggest that MPs should not comment on anything else currently going on in the world, whether that be the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis that won’t simply let up for a ten-day mourning period, or the shooting of an unarmed Black man by the police.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.