Babylon Must Fall!
These words echoed across Edinburgh’s Calton Hill on a misty Saturday afternoon, spoken as one by Graham Campbell and a crowd of hundreds. Rarely is there a more appropriate time to repeat this cry. Saturday, May 6th, marked the Coronation of Charles III, King of the United Kingdom and over a dozen Commonwealth territories. While he was anointed with jewels ripped from foreign lands – the Koh-I-Noor, the Star of Africa, the Lahore Diamond – his PR teams and loyal press worked tirelessly behind the scenes to distance his Family from ties to colonialism and slavery. Babylon, as both location and condition of captivity and suffering in Rastafarianism, has a Royal stamp all over it.
While our thoughts on the Coronation as Republicans are obvious, the façade thrown over this spectacle was particularly desperate. Tweeness reigned as post-boxes were decorated with knitted hats, primary school children were pressured into displays of patriotism, and Charles’ eyes followed you around every train station. Nonetheless, and despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the event, public enthusiasm was not universal or even commonplace in many parts of the country. The only public event in Glasgow – a viewing party in the Cathedral – managed a paltry turnout. Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh was similarly sparse, and dozens of street parties managed single-digit attendances. The most revealingly desperate attempt to inculcate public enthusiasm, the ‘public oath’, was largely ignored even by participants in celebration events.
With the eyes of the world upon these islands, and with the judgement of posterity applied to this day, we believe that it is essential to document the resistance to the royal spectacle which happened on the 6th of May. The British media (and, to an extent, the tourism industry) would have the world believe that we are all royalists, and that this tradition makes us unique in the world. We reject this utterly, and present this brief account of resistance and general mischief to look back upon from the vantage of posterity.
The unofficial anthem of coronation-resisters was christened on the 30th of April by Celtic FC fans at Hampden Park, during their match against Rangers. A simple song, with a simple message: “You can shove the coronation up your arse!”. This was repeated with gusto the next day by an anarchist contingent at the London May Day parade, and discussed on Have I Got News For You.
Scotland saw three major protests on Coronation Day, spread between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The main protest in Glasgow, an independence march organised by All Under One Banner, saw a respectable turnout of several thousand. It was easily the largest public gathering of any type in the city on that day. Anti-monarchy slogans were widespread, reflecting a general trend in Scotland against the royals. Over three quarters of Scottish adults want the monarchy to be scaled back at a minimum, and most Scots see the royal institution as more English than British.
By long tradition, Edinburgh’s May Day parade is rarely on May Day itself, but on the first Saturday afterwards. This meant that the annual trade union march fell on the same day as the Coronation itself. Gathering at Johnston Terrace, trade unionists and the local left marched down the Royal Mile through throngs of tourists. We in the Republican Socialist Platform (RSP) and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) had a presence, alongside the SSY, Living Rent, the SSP, various smaller left parties, and a bloc of anarchists. Chants against the British Empire, rising rents and the royals were heard alongside calls for a republic, for socialism, and a fair life for all. Culminating at the Pleasance, speeches were heard from various trade union officials.
No more than two hours later, hundreds again congregated on top of Calton Hill to attend the second demonstration of the day, organised by Our Republic. The symbolic importance of this hill was not lost on our movement: declarations of intent to create a Scottish Republic have been read on that site in the 1970s and in 2004. Connor Beaton, representing the RIC, read an updated Declaration of Calton Hill to the assembled crowd. Also speaking were elected officials from the SNP and the Scottish Green Party, an independent councillor from Edinburgh, representatives from Our Republic, and several independent artists and poets. The latter included George Gunn, who wrote a poem specially for the day. Despite the poor weather, which turned torrential as the last speaker finished, there was a jubilant and positive atmosphere and a powerful sense of optimism. The hundreds in attendance left with a commitment to build a Socialist Republic in Scotland, embodied by the declaration of intent read to the crowd.
Scotland and England’s experiences on the 6th of May are in effect a tale of two divergent regimes and their attitudes towards dissent. Police in England, and especially the London Metropolitan Police, took an openly and unsurprisingly partisan stance against any public displays of Republicanism. Emboldened by their new powers granted by the 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act and the baying of successive Home Secretaries, the Met warned of low tolerance towards any disruption in a [tweet]. Of course, the Met’s elite truncheoneers in the Territorial Support Group couldn’t resist letting off some steam early. The night before the Coronation, the TSG detained volunteers from Night Stars Westminster through the wee hours of the morning. The charge: possession of rape alarms, which might be used to ‘disrupt’ Coronation proceedings. Night Stars had, of course, a proven track record of handing out rape alarms to passers-by at nights, complete with the blessing of the Met and of Westminster Council. Whether the TSG acted on faulty intelligence or on no intelligence at all, their modus operandi was to arrest first and ask questions later.
As most critics of the PCSC bill correctly predicted, the bill’s introduction of new public order offences in England would have a chilling effect even on peaceful protest. Most insidious of these new charges is the tenuous “suspicion of conspiracy to commit public nuisance”, for which more than 30 people were arrested and detained on Saturday the 6th. Lizzie Dearden at the Independent reports that more than 50 individuals were arrested in central London on Saturday in connection with Coronation disruption, real or imagined.
The most public and shocking of these interventions were, of course, the pre-emptive arrests of the entire Republic UK committee before they could reach their planned and approved protest site at Trafalgar Square. Equipment such as banners and placards were also confiscated. Republic UK – a liberal, peaceful, pressure group with few constitutional demands beyond the replacement of the monarch – did everything right. They had contacted the police beforehand, got ‘approval’ for their protest, and had a long track record of peaceful and orderly protest. Their mass arrest and the blocking of a large part of their protest from entering the square proves the unreliability of working with the police, and the actively anti-democratic attitude which this public order legislation has exacerbated. Republic UK organisers had received a threatening letter from the Home Office a few days prior, despite this approval. A sizeable contingent of Republic UK protesters did manage to get to Trafalgar Square, and despite a screen erected to shield Charles from their view, their chants and slogans of “Not My King” made it into public discourse.
Not wishing to leave other enemies of the Daily Mail out of this experience, the Met also arrested numerous members of Just Stop Oil in a coordinated move. One person with a megaphone was arrested in St James’ Park on the grounds that they might ‘scare the horses’, and three were arrested near Marble Arch with graffiti wherewithal, according to unclear Met reports. All of the above arrestees, and the Republic UK staff, were arrested under these new and vague ‘conspiracy to commit public nuisance’ charges. There were some excellent moments in England on the 6th – No More Royals conducted a small but successful protest in Oxford, and Liverpool FC fans loudly booed the national anthem during a match. However, the mistreatment of even a liberal and peaceful protest against the royals in London largely overshadowed these. If ever there were proof of the widening ideological chasm between the politics of Scotland and England, it would be encapsulated in the PCSC Bill. Moments like the mass arrests on the 6th will continue, not dissipate, as the British state struggles to contain the growing contradictions within itself. The PCSC Act is but one component of an increasingly fascist politics emanating from Westminster, and London’s Coronation Day farce is living proof of our imperative to cut ourselves loose.
Our news in Scotland of Republican protests in Wales came in the form of a comradely message delivered to Our Republic and read out on Calton Hill. A large march and demonstration in Cardiff was organised on the Saturday by Cymru Republic in conjunction with Republic UK, attended by hundreds and several organisations including the Welsh Underground Network. Shouts of ‘Not My King’ could be heard from the official Coronation viewing in Cardiff Castle. In Pontypridd, a Republican Festival was organised on Monday the 8th to celebrate local radical history in conjunction with Welsh language organisations and a local foodbank. We enthusiastically welcome these demonstrations by comrades in Wales, and hope that this movement goes from strength to strength.
On Calton Hill, a statement from the 1916 Societies was read out by Connor Beaton which connected our domestic struggle against the royals with the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland and across the world. Invoking Connolly, the statement reminded us that monarchy anywhere is a spit in the face of democracy and justice everywhere. In Dublin, a militant Republican demonstration in front of the GPO organised by Anti-Imperialist Action Ireland made quite a spectacle. A life-sized effigy of Charles was decapitated via guillotine and burned, resulting in the arrest of one activist. Throughout the island, Republicans and socialists commemorated hunger strikers and other martyrs publicly and at grave sites.
The greatest source of controversy among Republicans in Ireland came not from the coronation itself – which was of course roundly condemned and opposed – but from the actions of the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin in the Six Counties, attended the Coronation in person, sparking much debate. To dignify the British crown with one’s presence, one might argue, is to surrender a part of one’s own platform. We may level the same arguments against Humza Yousaf, who also attended, but we ought to draw a distinction between the two. The SNP is neither a republican party (officially) nor abstentionist, whereas Sinn Féin is both. This move by O’Neill, therefore, seems calculated as an olive branch to the Unionist community in the north. Whether this tactic will bear any fruit for the Republican cause, however, remains to be seen.
The 6th of May 2023 will go down in history as one of pomp and pageantry, manufactured tradition, and attacks on democracy. It will also, we hope, be remembered for its mischief, resistance, and withdrawal of consent to be lorded over. The absurdity of such excess during the worst cost-of-living crisis in recent memory is not lost on many British people, whose enthusiasm for the monarchy is lower than any time in living memory. Taxpayer money spent on a man so personally wealthy, and local authorities even volunteering their own funds for events as essential services are shuttered, has become unpalatable even to English moderates. A public base of support for this feudal institution is eroding as it remains out of step with the realities of working life in the 21st century.
This fragility is not lost on the centres of power in the UK. The actions of the British authorities in London are those of a weak, threatened state, not a strong or confident regime. SNP MP Tommy Shepard described the affair on Calton Hill as ‘peak royal’, a last gasp of a declining institution. We must hope that this is the case, and we consider it our duty to make it a reality. James Connolly, speaking on the advent of another Coronation, outlines our responsibility as socialist republicans: we must “work for the realisation of that time when kings and emperors will be no more, when they will be remembered by mankind as the strong man awakened remembers the hideous nightmare which oppressed him as he slept.”
On Calton Hill we saw the germination of a new, dynamic movement, wedding the left and the independence struggle in harmony. Parties, small groups, and individuals were given a platform, and even the large contingent of anarchists waving black flags from the National Monument were welcomed by the speakers. Scotland’s place in the world, our responsibility to fight for others and to dismantle the imperialism in which we have been implicated, our duties to nature and to liberation in our society, were proclaimed loudly from the summit of the hill. On Calton Hill this movement was unafraid to declare our intent: that a new socialist republic will be built on this land from the ruins and hubris of this British Babylon.
Ewan Forrest is an activist in the Republican Socialist Platform and a member of the Heckle editorial board. He is from Edinburgh but is currently based in London, teaching history and organising within the National Education Union.