Police officers in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Public Domain

The draconian actions of the police during the coronation are just a taste of things to come under the new laws criminalising protest, argues Terina Hine 

This government has relentlessly attacked the right to protest. First, we had the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act 2022, and now the Tories have rushed through the even more oppressive Public Order Act 2023. The vague nature of this legislation gives the police carte blanche to shut down protest as and when they see fit. 

The new Public Order Act, given royal assent just four days before the coronation, was used to arrest six anti-monarchy protesters hours before the ceremony began and to prevent others from exercising their right to protest. It has provided a rare opportunity for the world to see first-hand how far the Tory attack on our civil liberties has advanced. 

On coronation day, police felt at liberty to haul off anyone they chose: no reason nor evidence required. Six Republic leaders were banged up for the day. Nine people with nothing more dangerous than placards spelling out ‘not my king’ were surrounded by twenty officers, and dragged away to be searched at exactly the moment the procession passed their spot on the route, released only when the tv cameras had moved on. Even a royalist was included in the sweep of arrests, her ‘crime’ to stand in the crowd next to people wearing Just Stop Oil T-shirts. 

Perhaps most shocking of all for a force with a record of rape and sexual abuse, the Met arrested three volunteers – handcuffed and held for fourteen hours – for the offence of distributing rape alarms to women in Soho. The volunteers worked for Westminster Council, supposedly in partnership with the very force that arrested them. 

Although the Met has since expressed ‘regret’ over the coronation arrests, the force continues to tie itself in knots attempting to justify its actions. Sir Mark Rowley, the head of the Met defended the arresting officers while simultaneously conceding there was no evidence the activists were intending to cause disruption. He claimed the police did not prevent protest but excused the arrests as necessary to prevent ‘criminal disruption destroying such a unique occasion’ adding that protest is an important right, but it is limited. Well it certainly is under his leadership. 

Having threatened protesters, arrested protesters, removed protesters from the camera’s line of sight, the police then claimed, ‘it was not our intention to prevent protest’. Somehow that is hard to believe. 


The consensus, even in the more conservative media, is that the coronation policing was overzealous, indeed it seems that the heavy-handed approach may have backfired, with Republic and the anti-monarchist protests gaining far more prominence than they would have otherwise. 

But the growth Republic’s membership and sympathy for the royal super-fan should not distract from the chilling nature of the day’s policing nor from the fact that the authoritarian powers in the Public Order Act are law, and will be with us for more than just one day. 

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, spawned by Priti Patel, set a new low legal threshold to criminalise protest. New offences intended to deter people from protesting or drag them to court for doing so were introduced. Serious disruption was defined so as to encompass almost any situation – a single person or organisation being ’hindered to more than a minor degree’ from their ‘day-to-day activities’. Half of those arrested during the coronation were held thanks to this act. 

The latest legislation goes even further, resuscitating elements of the 2022 act that were thrown out by the Lords for being too draconian. Stop and search has been expanded to include suspicion-less stop and search at protests; incriminating items include everyday objects such as a bike locks, glue, or straps binding placards. If you lock-on to anything or anyone in protest you can receive a year’s jail sentence. For carrying equipment that may be used to lock-on you can be criminalised. 

Anyone can be searched if the police ‘believe’ a protest might be about to happen or if they ‘believe’ a person is carrying a prohibited object. For years, stop and search powers have been abused by the police to target black people, and have been completely discredited as a means to prevent crime. Regardless, these powers have now been extended, and anyone who resists could face jail for 51 weeks. 

Surveillance and political repression 

The new legislation also introduces a protest banning order, the Serious Disruption Prevention Order, which allows courts to ban people from attending protests, from using the internet in a certain way, and permits the use of electronic monitoring to ensure compliance. 

The expectation of the POA is that the police should prevent disruption before it starts. As protest always involve some element of disruption, that means stopping protest whenever the police or the politicians they serve see fit. To do so in advance of, rather than as reaction to an event, will require surveillance and intelligence. The POA will encourage spy-cops on steroids. 

 But although the police are far from blameless, they take their cue from their political masters. The Home Office – not the Met – were responsible for issuing warning letters to protest groups about the need for the ‘once in a lifetime’ event to be incident free, later backed up by the Met’s tweeting about the ‘extremely low threshold’ for protest. 

The government has been quick to distance itself from the heavy-handed coronation policing, but the authoritarian laws were of its making. Rishi Sunak laughably insisted the police were ‘operationally independent’. As for Labour, rather than calling for a repeal of the Act it voted against, Starmer suggested it just needed more time to bed in, and that the police might require some training. 

If Labour won a majority at the next election overturning the Act would be simple, if they form a minority government they could rely on the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens to lend them support. But rather than commit to supporting democratic rights, Labour insists it would be too difficult to unpick the legislation. Starmer’s training as Director of Public Prosecution shows through. 

The imprecise nature of the legislation is designed to muddy waters, written to maximise the discretion of the police, accompanied by ministerial statements that encourage the police to crack down on activists while leaving plenty of room for politicians to blame the boys in blue when things go wrong. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the Public Order Act is ‘deeply troubling legislation incompatible with freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association’ and should be ‘reversed as soon as feasible’. If not, what happened at the coronation is likely to be just a taste of things to come. 

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