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'Not My King': On the ground with coronation protesters as King Charles III is crowned

Protestors and royalists mixed in the rain at King Charles' coronation. Rose Morelli reports from the ground.

Not my King protest at Piccadilly lights on Coronation day.

Not my King protesters call for the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. Image: Guy Bell/Shutterstock

If we ever needed a symbol for Britain’s divided political landscape, it came today in the form of King Charles’ coronation. Despite the hammering rain and occasional patch of thunder, crowds of protestors and well-wishers descended on the capital to make their feelings known about the royals.

While plenty of brands, celebrities and royal super-fans have all shown their enthusiasm and support for the royals in the lead up to the coronation, the event has also had to contend with overwhelming levels of apathy, with a YouGov poll reporting a whopping 64 per cent of respondents marking themselves as unbothered by the ceremony. The coronation also faced criticism for its “slap in the face” price tag to the taxpayer during a cost of living crisis, as well as a proposed ‘pledge of allegiance’ which was labelled by critics as “tone deaf”.

As he was driven from Buckingham Palace this afternoon, King Charles was greeted by crowds of ardent supporters, some of whom had been camping outside for days just to catch a glimpse of their new monarch. However, the landscape was not so idyllic for the hundreds of “Not My King” protestors, who faced arrests, kettling and removal from their agreed protest spot.

Protestor Richard holds his sign near Trafalgar Square. Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue

Organised by anti-monarchy reform group Republic, today’s protests were scuppered by the pre-emptive morning arrest of organiser Graham Smith, who was seen being detained this morning as he was setting up for the day’s protest. Republic have become regular attendants of official royal visits, often seen in the background of appearances holding their signature yellow ‘NOT MY KING’ pickets.

“I’m here because most of the big problems with British elitism and class barriers stem from the monarchy,” said Jan, a ‘Not My King’ protestor. “I’m sure most of royals are fine people you could possibly even have a drink with, but what they stand for is just wrong. No one person is born above another.”

After King Charles’ comments in September last year calling for a “slimmed down monarchy” and a “less expensive coronation”, you might be surprised to see the bill for today’s ceremony more than doubles the coronation of his predecessor. Estimates for the coronation’s cost to the public sit anywhere between £100 million and £250 million, whereas Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation only cost around £50m in today’s money. 

“It’s insane this is happening during a cost of living crisis,” said George, another protestor. “Inequality and the class system in the country are propped up by the monarchy and their vast wealth. I work for the NHS, so I saw firsthand how we had to suffer from lack of staff and equipment. Meanwhile, the royals have vast wealth held in land and cash, and we’re still paying for their ceremony.”

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“King Charles has a colossal worth attached to him, but he still expects the taxpayer to foot the bill so he can wear gold robes and ride around in a coach. It’s ridiculous,” added Richard, also with the protest. 

As it’s considered a state event, the coronation was contributed to by both the taxpayer and a sovereign grant: an annual sum awarded to the royals by the government to assist in their official duties. However, while many criticise the royals’ reliance on public money, others argue that the family are worth the cost based on how much tourism revenue they generate.

“I’ve seen so many non-Brits today coming to our nation to enjoy the celebration, and they’re all generating tourism money,” said Colin, a supporter of the monarchy. “It’s really good for the London business economy, and I think that makes the royal family worth their cost to the taxpayer.”

“I think the royal family are good for the economy and democracy, because they use their position well,” said Caroline, another royalist. “People always forget about the Prince’s Trust, which gets loads of youngsters off the streets and out to work.”

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However, not everyone is convinced that the tourism revenue or charity work are worth the message of wealth disparity sent by today’s ceremony.

“I work front-of-house in a theatre, and where we work there are homeless people who sleep outside every night. They literally sleep on newspapers with King Charles’ face on them,” said Sophie, another protestor. “After Queen Elizabeth died, we saw a group of homeless people outside sleeping underneath a huge, glistening black and white picture of the monarch. It just highlights the disparity between the monarchy and normal people.”

One of the common arguments against having an unelected head of state is that it’s bad for democracy, and that having a head of state not chosen by the people is outdated and not reflective of its citizens in a modern democracy.

“We are all born equal, and the monarchy is an institution which is based on the right to inherit by birth,” said ‘Not My King’ protestor Richard. 

“I believe in democracy – I don’t think someone is entitled to influence by their birth. For that reason, the monarchy is outdated and archaic, and it doesn’t reflect modern society.”

“We need to have a more wholesale debate about our unwritten constitution in this country,” said Lionel, another protestor. “We’re in a political and economic crisis right now, and the people need more agency over who governs them and who they fund with public money.”

However, some supporters of the monarchy reported thinking that their representation of Britain on the world stage negates any concerns about democracy.

“I think the royals are good for democracy,” said Brian, a guitarist playing gospels near Trafalgar Square. “Everyone likes to moan about them not being elected, but they represent us well on the world stage and do the job. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do that, and I don’t think the protestors would either.”

Police officers stand guard and watch the crowd at Trafalgar Square. Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue

The protests came just as the new Public Order Act was fast-tracked into law, granting police officers sweeping new powers to arrest and search “disruptive” protestors. However, even prior to the coronation, anti-monarchy protestors faced arrests for picketing official appearances, particularly those who heckled royal family members.

Protestors had also been warned by the London Metropolitan Police that “tolerance for any disruption would be low”, and that facial recognition technology and stop-and-search techniques would be employed to deal with anyone “undermining the celebration”.

“I’m not scared of the police,” said Maria, a protestor. “If anything, I want to be arrested – if they arrest me just for waving my little yellow flag and shouting, then it makes a point about the state of peaceful protest in this country.”

Some protestors also accused police of actively making the atmosphere more tense between monarchy supporters and protestors by moving them from their agreed protest spot in Trafalgar Square.

“The atmosphere has been made more tense between us and monarchy supporters because of the police,” said ‘Not My King’ protestor George. “We had our agreed place of protest, but when they arrested the organisers this morning and moved us out of our designated area, it put us in the way, and now we can’t protest properly.”

Royal supporters shelter from the rain under Union Flag hats. Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue

Symon Hill, a writer and campaigner who attended the demonstration, had previously been arrested for heckling a royal appearance in Oxford. After shouting “Who elected him?” at King Charles in September last year, Hill was handcuffed and removed from the crowd by police officers. Charges against him were later dropped, and he was unimpressed by the police’s handling of the coronation.

“Personally, after I was arrested simply for dissenting from monarchy last year, I’m determined to exercise my right to free speech today in the face of monarchy and militarism,” he said. 

“The police have behaved appallingly today. The immediate arrest of Graham Smith [leader of anti-monarchy group Republic] and other organisers was a blatant attempt to weaken the protest by removing the people co-ordinating it. I’ve seen police drag away [anti-monarchy activist] Patrick Thelwell, at the same time grabbing a banner from another peaceful protester and violently pushing people into each other, including me.”

“The police and the government seem to be trying to intimidate people into not exercising their right to peaceful protest,” Symon continued. “Most of the new Public Order Act will not affect coronation protests, but rushing it through seems to be an attempt to frighten people into keeping away – especially as the Home Office then sent threatening letters about it to protest organisers.”

Organisers of Republic have reported receiving “intimidatory” letters from the Home Office ahead of the coronation, reminding them of the new protest laws and the custodial sentences they carry.

“We have had two meetings with the Met police, and numerous phone conversations. They have repeatedly said they have no concerns about Republic’s plans,” said Graham Smith of Republic before his arrest. “It is a mystery why the Home Office thought it was necessary to send us an anonymous letter that could be interpreted as intimidation.”

The Home Office said it had “notified a number of organisations that these specific offences are now in force, as it is right that those who might be affected are aware of these changes”. 

“Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society,” said a spokesperson. “It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views, provided that they do so within the law.

“Protestors who inflict misery on the public will face tougher penalties, with the government bringing into law new criminal offences to prevent disruptive protest tactics used to ruin the lives of ordinary people.”

“A lot of us want to protest peacefully, but we’re met with this aggression from the police and establishment which paints us as disruptive,” said ‘Not My King’ protestor Sophie. “We need to be here, otherwise you’ll only see the bunting on people’s windows – you wouldn’t hear from the people who are suffering.”

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