Wednesday briefing: How the police overstepped with republican protests

In today’s newsletter: People have been arrested for marginal acts of protest following the Queen’s death, raising worrying questions about police conduct

Good morning. There’s no precedent for how Britain should mourn a monarch who reigned for 70 years, so it is not surprising if – alongside a widespread public feeling that the Queen’s death is a moment of great sadness – there are pockets of uncertainty, absurdity, and even dissent.

In the last couple of days, as the initial shock of her passing has waned, another story has emerged alongside expressions of respect: an uneasy sense that the public is being told what it feels without much room to talk about more complicated responses than grief alone.

That feeling – more marginal, but no less sincere – came to a head yesterday after reports that multiple protesters have been arrested or warned by the police for shouting or holding up signs that question not the Queen, but the institution of the monarchy itself.

Today’s newsletter, with protest law expert Tom Wainwright, is about the concerns raised by those arrests – and what they’ve revealed about parts of the national mood that have been difficult to see. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Health | The UK government could scrap its entire anti-obesity strategy after ministers ordered an official review of the policy, the Guardian can reveal. The review could end measures including the ban on sugary products at supermarket checkouts and restrictions on pre-9pm advertising of junk food.

  2. Queen Elizabeth II | The Queen made a final journey home to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday night as her coffin was received by her family in a small private ceremony before being handed back to the nation for her official lying in state.

  3. Ukraine | Ukraine consolidated its control of the Kharkiv region on Tuesday, raising flags on towns and villages occupied by Russian troops for six months, and reclaiming areas seized by Moscow on the first day of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

  4. Policing | The family of Chris Kaba, a 24-year-old unarmed man who was shot dead in London by the Metropolitan police last week, have said they were not told of his death until 11 hours after it had happened.

  5. Film | French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard, who pioneered the French New Wave of cinema in the 1950s and 60s, died peacefully at 91 in Switzerland. Peter Bradshaw paid tribute to a “genius who tore up the rule book”.

In depth: ‘Who elected him?’

Anti-royalists in Edinburgh on Monday.
Anti-royalists in Edinburgh on Monday. Photograph: Robert Perry/Getty Images

In Edinburgh, a woman with a sign that said “fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” was arrested shortly before an event proclaiming Charles as king, and a man was arrested after heckling Prince Andrew as the Queen’s cortege drove past. In Oxford, a man was arrested after he shouted “Who elected him?” at another proclamation. And in London, a woman was moved on by police after holding up a sign that said “Not my king”, while a man said he was told that if he wrote the same message on a blank piece of paper he was holding, he could be arrested too.

By this morning, a total of four people had been charged in Scotland. Tom Wainwright, a barrister and co-author of The Protest Handbook, says the cases fit into a longstanding pattern of overzealous policing of peaceful demonstration.

“The trend has been to crack down on protest for a long time,” he said. “It’s difficult to think of a piece of legislation other than the Human Rights Act which has enhanced the right to free speech, and there have been dozens that restrict it.”

Inevitably, that old chestnut, the Streisand effect – whereby an attempt to suppress something only makes it more visible – is coming into play: yesterday, protesters (pictured below) held up blank pieces of paper outside St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, where the Queen was lying at rest.

Anti-monarchy activists with blank signs in Edinburgh on Tuesday.
Anti-monarchy activists with blank signs in Edinburgh on Tuesday. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

One index of the appetite for making sense of all this: as I send this email, the five most read articles on the Guardian are all about less positive aspects of Charles’ accession, from Pippa Crerar’s exclusive about redundancies at Clarence House to the news that British Cycling has U-turned on its advice not to ride a bike during the Queen’s funeral.

As Marina Hyde writes: “If people feel only one emotion is state-sanctioned, they may feel far more minded to give vent to others.” On the one hand, Morrisons turns down the volume of its checkout beeps; on the other, the New York Times publishes a column urging readers to “mourn the queen, not her empire” and finds itself the subject of an article arguing that it “hates Britain”.

Here’s what else you need to know about the picture around the arrests.


Why the protesters were arrested

The arrests and warnings appear to have drawn on two powers in England, with slightly different parameters in Scotland.

In England and Wales, under section 5 of the public order act, “officers must have reasonable grounds for suspicion that the act would be likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”, Wainwright said.

“But it has to be more than trivial. ‘Distress’ is real emotional disturbance, not being offended. I don’t think there’s much evidence of that, but officers may take a very conservative approach.”

The other possibility in the English cases is the police’s “common law power to take action to prevent a breach of the peace”, he said. “With that, they can act if they have a hypothetical view that a protest will lead to scuffles or violence and so on. But you have to take into account whether the protester is behaving unreasonably.”

In Scotland, protesters have been charged with a breach of the peace, but that’s not the same thing as it is south of the border: “It’s broadly similar to section 5, it has to be disorderly behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.”

Wainwright sets the English cases in the context of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which allows police to shut down “disruptive” or “noisy” protest. (It doesn’t apply in Scotland.) One of the protesters, Symon Hill, said he was told he was arrested under the act, only for a police statement to subsequently say he had been suspected of a section 5 breach. (He was later dearrested.) In any case, the new act “has fed a sense that protest is only allowed if it doesn’t really draw any attention”, Wainwright said. “The bigger message police have been getting from the government is to clamp down.”


How the news was received

Very few observers were ready to defend police conduct over the arrests, with criticism from left and right over what many saw as a free speech issue. The more controversial – but maybe equally telling – piece of the story is about how the protests sit alongside other aspects of the last few days that range from the peculiar to the alarming.

As well as Morrisons’ deferential beeps, the Bank of England has delayed its interest rate decision; Norwich City Council closed two bike racks; Center Parcs U-turned on a decision to evict holidaymakers on the day of the funeral; and Hammersmith and Fulham postponed a car-free day.

At the other end of the scale, TalkSport pundit Trevor Sinclair was suspended for asking why black and brown people should mourn the Queen, and Novara Media writer Ash Sarkar was one of a number of social media users to report an increase in racist abuse. Some other funerals have been postponed, and thousands of hospital appointments have been cancelled.

None of these incidents directly explain overzealous policing – but they might help to form a picture of a climate in which critics of the monarchy are unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt.


What to expect in the days ahead

The funeral procession of King George VI at Marble Arch, London in 1952.
The funeral procession of King George VI at Marble Arch, London in 1952. Photograph: Express/Getty Images

If the demonstrators holding up blank pieces of paper in Edinburgh are any guide, there is every possibility of further protest. The National Police Chiefs’ Council says it has now “issued guidance”, and in London, the Met has said that “the public absolutely have a right to protest and we have been making this clear to all officers” – but that position may come under more pressure between now and the Queen’s funeral on Monday.

There is a precedent for a more vigorous approach on the day of the funeral itself: “There were a number of examples of pre-emptive arrest at the royal wedding in 2011,” said Wainwright. “My concern is that we’ll see it’s not just about a couple of officers making bad decisions – it’s a message coming down from above.”

Critics of inappropriately-timed expressions of republicanism have occasionally tried to cast them as a product of a loss of deference, or possibly the fault of Netflix’s The Crown. They might read Sam Knight’s justly celebrated 2017 long read about what to expect in the days after the Queen’s death, which recounts an incident after the death of George VI (his funeral procession is pictured above).

“A Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage,” Knight wrote. “‘Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?’ one 60-year old woman asked. ‘It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.’” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker’s crass remark started a fight. Transpose the bar in 1952 to the internet 70 year later, and the last few days don’t seem so novel, after all.

What else we’ve been reading

Nurses in PPE at Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley in 2021
The NHS is still coping with the awful impact of Covid. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA
  • Devi Sridhar looks at an odd phenomenon this summer: higher than expected deaths in England and Wales. So what’s going on? Nimo

  • Now that Russian troops have been driven from Kharkiv province, accounts are beginning to emerge of their occupation. Isobel Koshiw and Lorenzo Tondo tell the story of the frontline town of Balakliia. Archie

  • As someone who finds it difficult to eat healthy food without breaking my bank account or generating loads of waste, I will definitely be taking some tips and tricks from Clare Finney’s guide to the food staples you need to create a well-stocked, ethical and affordable kitchen. Nimo

  • If he wasn’t a novelist, Andrew O’Hagan could have made it as a sketchwriter. His account of the aftermath of the Queen’s death for the London Review of Books is full of memorable lines: “Modern journalism loves the idea that a nation has a heart and that a heart can break.” Archie

  • When YouTube first formed, problems quickly arose with its algorithms: bizarre, sometimes violent and disturbing footage, was being targeted to children. In this brilliant long read, Mark Bergen chronicles the 16-year-long journey to make the video-sharing platform safe for its youngest users. Nimo


Football | Joel Matip secured a 2-1 victory for Liverpool against Ajax in the Champions League with an 89th minute winner. Tottenham Hotspur were stunned by two late goals to lose 2-0 to Sporting Lisbon, while Bayern Munich beat Barcelona 2-0.

Boxing | Anthony Joshua has accepted terms for a proposed world heavyweight title fight with Tyson Fury, his management team have announced. Fury, the WBC champion, made the offer to his British rival last week.

Football | Wales manager Rob Page has invited actor Michael Sheen to meet with his players after a rousing motivational speech directed to the squad went viral. In a clip from panel show A League of Their Own, Sheen said that “a red storm is coming to the gates of Qatar” that “crackles with the spirit of ’58”.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 14 September 2022
Guardian front page, 14 September 2022 Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian leads this morning with “Johnson’s junk food rules under threat as Truss targets read tape”. The front-page picture is the Queen’s hearse arriving at the palace. “Home to her family” says the Daily Mail, with a different view of the same scene, while the Telegraph calls it “The final homecoming”. The Mirror says the Queen was “Led home by lights of love” as crowds formed a roadside honour guard. “Welcome home, ma’am” says the Sun, while the Express says the Queen is “Home … for one last time”.

“We’ll walk with Gran” – the Metro says William and Harry will follow the Queen’s coffin with King Charles as it is taken to Westminster. In the i it’s “The Queen returns home”. The Times has “A last night at the palace” and shows the coffin being carried by Queen’s Colour Squadron troops at RAF Northolt. A rehearsal for today’s procession of the coffin to Westminster Hall is on the front of the Financial Times, while its lead story is “Businesses face delays to access £150bn energy support package”.

Today in Focus

Liz Truss opens a debate on UK energy costs in the House of Commons.
Liz Truss opens a debate on UK energy costs in the House of Commons. Photograph: PRU/AFP/Getty Images

Will Liz Truss’s energy plan keep Britain warm this winter?

The prime minister’s energy plan may have been overshadowed by the death of the Queen, but its implications for households and businesses – as well as the national debt – will be huge. John Collingridge explains what it all means

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson - Blanket Coverage

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Men at the Yemen coffee festival in London.
Men at the Yemen coffee festival in London. Photograph: Jeremy Stern/Mokha Institute

Despite the fact that coffee beans have grown in Yemen for more than six centuries, coffee farmers in Yemen are often ignored in the global market. To address this problem, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American coffee aficionado, organised a Yemen coffee auction in London. A group of farmers in ceremonial clothing came to the capital, with 28 samples for tasting and, in no time at all, sold their coffee to buyers from all over the world. The success of the auction is a promising sign for Yemen: not only does it have a positive economic impact on a country devastated by war, it has steered farmers away from growing the drug khat, which has caused disputes in some communities. “My dream now is for my coffee to reach the world,” said one Haraaz coffee farmer.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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