The United Kingdom is in a period of national mourning, marking the passing of our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Global media has been transfixed, reporting on the minutiae of every aspect of the ascension of the new monarch and the commemoration of our former head of state. While the pageantry has been consuming, the constitutional process addictive (yes I am an addict) and the public grief tangible – the traditions and formalities have also highlighted challenges in British and global society – especially with regards to freedom of expression.
We have witnessed people being arrested for protesting against the monarchy. While the protests could be considered distasteful – I certainly think they are – that doesn’t mean that they are illegal and that the police should move against them. Public protest is a legitimate campaigning tool and is protected in British law. As ever, no one has the right not to be offended. And protest is, by its very nature, disruptive, challenging and typically at odds with the status quo. It is therefore all the more important that the right to peacefully protest is protected.
While I was appalled to see the arrests, I have been heartened in recent days at the almost universal condemnation of the actions of the police and the statements of support for freedom of expression and protest in the UK, from across the political system.
What this chapter has confirmed is that democracies, great and small, need to be constantly vigilant against threats to our core human rights which can so easily be undermined. This week our right to freedom of expression and the right to protest was threatened and the immediate response was a universal defence. Something we should cherish and celebrate because it won’t be long before we need to utilise our collective rights to free speech – again.
Which brings me onto the need to protest and what that can look like, even on the bleakest of days. On Monday, the largest state funeral of my lifetime is being held in London. Over 2,000 dignitaries are expected to attend the funeral of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in Westminster Abbey. The heads of state of Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela and Myanmar were not invited given current diplomatic “tensions”. While I completely welcome their exclusion from the global club of acceptability, it does highlight who was deemed acceptable to invite.
Representatives from China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, North Korea and Sri Lanka will all be in attendance, all of whom have shown a complete disregard for some of the core human rights that so many of us hold dear. Can you imagine the conversation between Bolsonaro and Erdogan? Or the ambassador to Iran and the vice president of China?
While I truly believe that no one should picket a funeral – the very idea is abhorrent to me – that doesn’t mean that there are no other ways of protesting against the actions of repressive regimes and their leadership, who will be in the UK in the coming days. In fact the British Parliament has shown us the way – by banning representatives of the Chinese Communist Party from attending the lying in state of Her Majesty – as a protest at the sanctions currently imposed on British parliamentarians for their exposure of the acts of genocide happening against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. This was absolutely the right thing to do and I applaud the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon Lindsay Hoyle MP, for taking such a stance.
Effective protest needs to be imaginative, relevant and take people with you – highlighting the core values that we share and why others are a threat to them. It can be private or public. It can tell a story or mark a moment. But ultimately successful protests can lead to real change. Even if it takes decades. Which is why we will defend, cherish and promote the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression in every corner of the planet, as a real vehicle for delivering progressive change.