To protest too much… or too little?

The coronation of King Charles III and Victory in Europe Day 1945

This Coronation Bank Holiday weekend marks two events that will retain prominence in British history books forever: the crowning of King Charles III on Saturday 6th May 2023 and the 78th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional capitulation on 8th May 1945 that brought an end to the Second World War in Europe. 

My grandfather (centre) surrendering to the American forces in northern Italy on 2 May 1945.

The Royal Family and Britain’s World War victories are defining features of our national identity and regularly create occasions for celebration. This weekend, both elements came together with the unforeseen effect of highlighting a common, more sinister undercurrent relating to protest, or rather the right to protest. 

For some people the traditional spectacle of ritual, religion, militarism, pomp and swathes of red, white and blue flag-wavers doesn’t reflect any aspect of their lives. Indeed, the price tag of putting on such an event appears obscene in a cost-of-living crisis. And the slightly creepy swearing of an oath of allegiance to the king resembled rather too closely the oath of obedience demanded by Hitler. 

‘Not my King’ became their activist cry, just as other universal voices have cried out: ‘No war,’ ‘Just Stop Oil,’ ‘Insulate Britain,’ ‘Not in my name,’ ‘Me too,’ ‘Black lives matter.’

I am with everybody who is either tired of or has been inconvenienced by protestors. But I fully understand the frustration, desperation even, people feel that leads them to take extreme measures in order to draw attention to what they see as being destructive or plain wrong… for us all. Their right to have that voice of protest is indisputable. Aren’t we after all constantly reminded that the Second World War was fought and won to protect our freedoms because Hitler’s evil regime had removed so many? 

No wonder then that there was an outcry of concern when, in the run-up to the coronation, the government rushed stronger laws through parliament intensifying the powers of the recently passed Policing Act while resurrecting proposals in the largely rejected Public Order Bill. With extended stop and search powers, the criminalisation of disruptive protests, and the imposition of protest banning orders, the right to peaceful protest is clearly under increasing threat. 

“The coronation is a chance for the United Kingdom to showcase our liberty and democracy, that’s what this security arrangement is doing,” Mr Tugendhat, the Security Minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in defence.

Liberty and democracy? Hmmmh… I’m not sure those words quite match the policies and resulting actions!

And while the statement Home Secretary Suella Braverman made on Tuesday 2nd May might sound fair enough, in reality it is pure, misguided hypocrisy: 

The public shouldn’t have their daily lives ruined by so called ‘eco-warriors’ causing disruption and wasting millions of pounds of taxpayer money… The selfish minority must not be allowed to get away with this. We are giving our police and courts the tools they need to stop this chaos and I back them in making full use of these powers.”

In another context, say in relation to our water companies and their appalling levels of waste, pollution and greed, a similar statement would make perfect sense, maybe along these lines:

The public shouldn’t have their daily lives and futures ruined by blatant ‘eco-destroyers’ causing disruption to public water services due to the contamination of our waterways and the wasting of millions of gallons of water each day. The selfish companies must not be allowed to get away with this. We are giving inspectors and courts the tools they need to stop these criminal practices and I back them in making full use of these powers.

Pollution on the Jubilee river in southern England. ‘The EA has called for water company directors to be imprisoned for the appalling decline in performance.’ Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

I personally believe Britain would be a poorer nation, not a richer one without the monarchy. But I still respect the views of those who want a British republic because they see the Royal Family as an outdated, unrepresentative, dysfunctional and extortionately expensive establishment that should be abolished. Given King Charles’s sincere dedication and visionary, common sensical, environmental concerns and solutions, which he has expressed – and been ridiculed for – since the 1970s, my hopes are that he will sympathise with protestors in ways this government doesn’t. And he will help push forward the environmental agenda that the whole world desperately needs to make its priority.

The lessons of the Second World War, especially of the Third Reich with its top-down dictatorship, are more relevant today than ever. Nazism showed us how thin the ice of morality is, how even such a culturally advanced country as Germany could fall through into barbarity. It happened slowly, incrementally, in full sight. Little laws restricting more and more little freedoms…

As I say in In My Grandfather’s Shadow: Germany’s lessons are therefore universal, as are the questions we must all ceaselessly ask ourselves: how thick or thin is the ice today, and what structures are in place to stop us falling through it again?

‘In My Grandfathers Shadow’ is now out in Paperback.

Links to further reading (as always, not all reflect my opinions necessarily)

UK security minister defends new anti-protest laws before coronation – The Guardian

The Shame of the Coronation Arrests – The Spectator

King Charles will be green in deeds before words, says adviser – The Times

Water company environmental performance hits new low – Environment Agency

England’s water industry now represents the unacceptable face of capitalism – Simon Jenkins

Victory in Europe Day, 8th May 1945

Right to protest in UK ‘under threat’ after coronation arrests, human rights group warns – iNews

Forthcoming Events:

Monday 22nd May: British and Irish Association of Holocaust Studies Online Conference

Monday 22nd May: Nailsworth Festival

Tuesday 27th June: Bradford Literary Festival

6 thoughts on “To protest too much… or too little?

  1. Dear, dear Angela,
    Please don’t ever hesitate or change step as you champion these thoughts. We NEED you!
    There must be many others besides me who feel a deep sense of irony that you, the thoughtful grand daughter of a WW II German General are the one who takes the trouble to remind us of what we fought that war to protect and preserve………
    I do hope that MPs and Government Ministers will soon benefit from reading your blog. If they do, they may gradually be encouraged to behave rather differently.

    • Thank you David! What a kind response. And I’d love anyone from the government to read my blogs, above all the ones on prisons. That is where the changes I suggest feel the mot urgent… and obvious.

  2. Hi Angela,
    As usual, I agree with almost all of your comments ,observations.

    I set-off early on Saterday morning for a last minute desision to take a trip to view the Corinination (4am), and ensure a good spot was bagged (got one In Whitehall.)

    I am proberbly a royalist ( if not as much as I was when the Queen was alive (as not in a good state at present)) and believe it’s part of who we are as a nation, and overall they bring in more money and Jobs to the nation that they cost.
    Hopefully, Charles and William will help promote the required clumate changes, and the Water companies will up thier game.

    During the procession to the Abbey there was a small group of “not my King” protesters not far from where I was , making themselves vocal for a short while , they were quickly shouted down by the morjority of well wishers.
    (Didn’t see any being arrested, just closely observed. ) and then they dispersed.
    My initial thought was that everyone has a right to their opinion, but if they don’t approve, why not just stay away and organise a separate protest.
    Having found out that a larger group had been arrested, I was saddened , and disappointed that the police (of which there were very many) couldn’t have restricted any disruption in a better way.

    As you know I spent 3 years in Berlin in the 80’s , before the wall came down, as part of the RAF,
    , and I am proud to have played a very small part in keeping democracy alive in Europe.
    But can also see the parallels with eastern block life and the increasing restrictions being placed on our daily lives. Be it by the Goverment , Police , local councils , corpoate controls, or with things like 15 min cities , Ulez , 20mph zones ,cashless society, the many protests (peaceful) being restricted, And aware that we are on that ice. With just a change of leader /regime/attitude, from turning the cracks from forming onto eddy’s, and currents that carry us along with no way of holding back the flow.
    Let’s hope that if it ever gets to that point, common sense will prevail and the British public will make the feelings felt. (Peafully).

    • Great response, Kevin, from the front line so to speak, thank you! I’m glad you see th dangers I see, and more. And protesting seems to straddle fine lines between being constructive and disruptive; effective and counter-productive etc. I hope too that the British public… I nearly wrote ‘republic’ by accident! – will continue to be vigilant.

  3. Dear Angela
    Surely WW2 started because Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939 in conjunction with a pact made with Russia?
    Many would support a democratically elected President rather than a hereditary Monarchial Presidency if such a thing was possible but where in the world has it happened? To be given the alternative of say 2 contenders both politically driven who have achieved their positions by their wealth. Is that Democracy.?
    Our Monarchy reminds me of the comment by the Frenchman who invented the gearbox “C’est terrible mais ca marche”
    The “Not my King” haven’t done too badly for free publicity have they ? 60 odd arrested and 4 charged seems a cheap price to pay for all the worldwide airing they got!
    Suella Braverman’s legislation may have gone a bit too far but something certainly needed to be done to protect the law abiding majority. Full marks to her for trying.
    Perhaps I should have gone out to block the motorways when our Prime Minister illegally invaded a Sovereign State and was implicit in the death of many thousands.
    “Not my PM”

  4. Dear Julian, thank you as always for your interesting response.
    I think WW2 started for multiple reasons, the invasion of Poland being the final straw. But I agree, in terms of the monarchy, it is really hard to think of a better alternative other than to just massively cut down the size and cost of it. I love your ‘Not my PM’ chant. My goodness how many times have I passionately felt and said that in the past years!!

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