Friday, 29 April 2011

The Royal Wedding - Free Speech and the Windsors' Humour Bypass

The media has been saturated for days now with the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. And today, if you were outside at 11 am as the nuptials were being undertaken (as I was), it was as silent as the opening scenes of "28 Days Later". Just empty streets, the wind, cats...

Of course, like the zombie hordes that emerged in that film, the "Nation", the only collective noun permitted to be printed in the Daily Mail, was obediently devouring not quite the flesh of the living but rather the pomp and spectacle of the House of Windsor hopefully adding some welcome new genetic material to its dwindling pool of DNA. Albeit that this is from a woman allegedly of "common" background (though equally notwithstanding that her great grandfather once owned most of Leeds).

It has been taken as read that the Royal Family remain unquestionably ascendant in their role as Head of State. The Monarchy remains the symbol of the social and political hierarchy that runs our country, its institutions and economy. It retains perhaps residual political authority but buttresses the autocratic powers of Her Majesty's Government which both now and probably by the end of next week will continue to be elected by one of the most undemocratic electoral systems in the world.

So you would think in such an apparently unassailable position, the Royals might at least relax in terms of allowing their opponents (supposedly an irrelevant minority) to be able to criticise them, at least in a jocular fashion. Satire about the royals has been an integral part of British humour since the vicious cartoons of Gillray and his ilk back in the 18th century. So, with, the media assures us, the love of the Nation pledged to the young couple at the altar today, surely some of us pathetically marginalised and miserable republicans might, in this land of freedom, be permitted a little, well, fun.

Not a chance!

On a purely sycophantic level, we had Camden Council a couple of weeks ago refusing to permit a Republican street party to be held today as not conducive to public unity - a rather Stalinist approach to the subversive act of eating tea and scones at a trestle table. Sorry, or was that a traitors' table? In the end, it was permitted to proceed, but the concept that if you don't support the monarchy somehow you are not permitted the same rights as people who do is worrying.

Gillray's depiction of the Prince Regent kissing his wife, c1790
And then yesterday we learn that the Royal Family has secured a worldwide ban to prevent anyone using the footage of the Royal Wedding in any way that might involve any humorous take on it. Critics of the monarchy have in the past been scolded by royalists on the grounds that apparently the Royals can't answer back. This was never the case, but now they won't have to because there will be nothing permitted that they might feel the need to respond to.

But by far the worst incident of today has been the dawn raid on the house of a retired Professor and pacifist, Chris Knight, and the arrest of the said Professor for conspiracy to cause a breach of the peace. As twenty policemen descended on his home, the Professor and his companion were separated, handcuffed and driven off, their house keys refused to a friend who wanted to check on their pet rabbit.

The Professor, it turns out, was conspiring to undertake the highly dangerous and seditious act of Street Theatre. Indeed, caught red handed alongside him (and also arrested) was a man in a plastic knight's costume with a plastic toy sword.

Clap them in irons and take them to the Tower!

The Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police declared that today was "a day of national celebration and we will move fast to deal with any criminal behaviour" in relation to any demonstration of anti-royalist sentiment. The media helpfully played footage of the English Defence League chanting at a small group of Islamic radicals, usefully bracketing them with the likes of the Professor.

It is increasingly sinister that we see peaceful protest being squashed in the UK. Another activist, Charlie Veitch, was also arrested yesterday for conspiring to cause a breach of the peace at the Royal Wedding in spite of his going to the police to assure them of his peaceful intentions and discuss with them how he could carry these out. He remains in custody today. As posted previously, there have been similar cases around the environmentalist movement, and also with the banking and student fees protests. In line with what many warned about a decade ago when Tony Blair rushed through more and more powers allegedly to combat terrorism, the State is increasingly using the law to crush dissent of any kind - even the humorous.

So, as William and Kate drive off to Clarence House in the pseudo-environmentalist Prince Charles' Aston Martin, spare a thought for three people who have spent today detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for daring to consider wearing fancy dress costumes on the streets of London. On the upside, at least there wouldn't be a TV in their cells...

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