Britain likes to consider itself the cradle of free speech – until someone heckles Prince Andrew
Vocal antipathy towards any number of things is a cornerstone of The Great British Way. Shame the authorities don’t agree.
Yesterday, police arrested a 22-year-old man in Edinburgh after Prince Andrew was heckled as he walked behind the Queen’s coffin. “Andrew,” the shout was heard, “you’re a sick old man.” Hand on heart, I’ve heard worse. And if Prince Andrew hasn’t, he certainly will. Money and position and expensive lawyers can insulate you from a huge number of consequences in our imperfect world, but if some boy in the streets wants to go full Emperor’s New Clothes on you, you might just have to suck it up, even if it is bad manners in the circs.
Oh, hang on. You don’t actually have to. The man – he looks like a boy – was cuffed and later charged. There could be more to it than currently meets the eye, but it is arguably not hugely encouraging that a heckle may be deemed illegal when burglary effectively isn’t any more. Then again, do remember that this year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act increased the minimum term for various serious sexual assaults to four years, and the maximum term for assaulting a statue to 10 years. If women are going to get sexually assaulted, we should strongly consider doing so while dressed as a living statue of Winston Churchill. That way we can seek the full force of the law as applied to inanimate materials, as opposed to the lesser versions typically offered to female flesh and blood.
So yes: the mores and codes of UK society can seem esoteric – but please consult your Bumper Book of British Etiquette for precise guidance on how to behave on all occasions. There is a time and a place for shouting at men who have paid out many millions of dollars to settle sexual assault cases, you will note, and the experts say it’s not while they’re walking behind their mother’s coffin alongside some bereaved siblings who haven’t paid out many millions of dollars to settle sexual assault cases. And fair play to the experts. However, a breach of etiquette is not a breach of law. If we started arresting people for not showing decorum, our courts system would collapse. Sorry – collapse more.
Arguably, vast and vocal antipathy towards even suspected wrong ’uns is a cornerstone of The Great British Way. Come to that, vast and vocal antipathy towards any number of things is a cornerstone of The Great British Way, which is why it really ought to be expected that a section of people won’t be that crazy about the whole 10 days of events mourning the Queen and transferring the crown to her son, and may even decide to make their voices heard publicly about the subject in a variety of ways. In fact, if people feel only one emotion is state-sanctioned, they may feel far more minded to give vent to others. They may be in the minority, you or I may disagree with them, and they may even have ghastly manners – but so what? How their protests are handled by the police tests not just the latter’s responsibility with their powers, but our democracy itself.
Unfortunately, we are only a few days into the official mourning period, and various tests are being failed. The man in Edinburgh was slammed down on to the pavement by two members of the public who appeared keen to go further. Instead of arresting him for his words, perhaps it would have been better for the police to speak to the two guys who physically floored him?
This isolated incident, in police parlance, is not an isolated incident. In Oxford, a man was arrested then de-arrested for shouting “Who elected him?” at the local proclamation of the new king. In Westminster, a police officer was filmed demanding the details of a man who had held up a blank sheet of paper. The man (a barrister) asked what would have happened if he’d written “Not My King” on it, at which point the officer requested his details, “because you said you were going to write stuff on it that may offend people around the King … it may offend someone.” Hmmm. Thank you, PC Brains. The idea that the UK is a cradle of free speech is one of those comforting stories the country likes to tell itself, when all manner of things from the libel laws to teachers being hounded to the Daily Mail devoting its entire front page to outrage that a comedian mocked Liz Truss says differently.
Clearly, the task of policing London when hundreds of thousands of people are descending on it to pay their respects to the Queen will be complex and sensitive. But quashing public dissent can backfire in ways even those with power cannot foresee. As a 12-year-old, Prince Harry was made to walk a very long way behind his mother’s coffin at the suggestion of Tony Blair’s Downing Street, who thought his presence would serve as a human shield against members of the public who might otherwise feel moved to shout dissenting things at Prince Charles. The plan seemed to work in that very specific and limited way, on that very specific and limited day – yet caused untold damage to the child for many years thereafter. In not unrelated developments, that child went on in due course to cause untold damage to the very monarchy that the original plan was intended to protect.
Was it worth it? I rather think not. Then again, heavy-handed stifling of dissent never is, and the sooner the authorities wise up to that one, the better for everyone in our democracy. At the moment, shows of strength simply look like signs of weakness.
Britain likes to consider itself the cradle of free speech – until someone heckles Prince Andrew. (2022b, September 14). The Guardian. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/13/britain-free-speech-heckles-prince-andrew