Not My King’ Protesters Detained by London Police on Coronation Day

Washington Post photo by Annabelle Timsit
Eleanor Alexander, left, attends a protest during King Charles III’s coronation in London.

LONDON – Just a mile away from London’s Westminster Abbey, where King Charles III was crowned, thousands of his subjects protested against the monarchy – and at least seven people were detained by police.

“A significant police operation is underway in central London,” the Metropolitan Police said in a statement early Saturday. “The individuals have been held on suspicion of breaching the peace.”

Among those reportedly detained was Graham Smith, leader of the anti-monarchy group Republic, ahead of a protest at London’s Trafalgar Square. London’s Metropolitan Police would not confirm his detention but images on Twitter showed Smith being led to a police van.

Ahead of his detention Smith told The Washington Post in an interview that for many Britons, Queen Elizabeth II “was the monarchy and the monarchy was the queen.” But Charles, he added, “hasn’t inherited any of that” – and his accession to the throne could mark a turning point for the anti-monarchy movement.

“Things are changing already,” Smith said. “People are no longer worried about criticizing, challenging and speaking up about being a republican.”

As the rain drizzled in central London, protesters – many chanting “Not My King” – were met with monarchists trying to drown them out with cries of “That’s My King.”

Tom Andrews, 36, a university lecturer from Nottingham, was among those booing the coronation protesters. He believes “the monarchy is great for the U.K.” because it attracts tourism and provides “some kinds of checks and balances” on politicians.

But Andrew Woodcock, 63, from South Dorset, is in favor of an elected head of state. He said the Windsors “have been plagued by scandal” and are not “a very good example of the best of Great Britain.”

“I am sure there are people who could do a better job of keeping an eye on the political situation in the U.K., who would help to keep an eye on the politicians as well as provide a figurehead,” he said.

Charles has faced many protesters at his public engagements. Hecklers disrupted public events organized for the proclamation of his accession to the throne and last year he had eggs thrown at him not once but twice, in York and in Luton.

The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on how many officers it mobilized in response to the protest, but it said in a statement that it had put “a proportionate policing plan” in place for the coronation.

Police confirmed that they arrested four people near Trafalgar Square and held them “on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance” after officers “seized lock-on devices.”

Police also detained three people near Wellington Arch, across from Buckingham Palace on the other side of Constitution Hill. The individuals “were held on suspicion of possessing articles to cause criminal damage,” police said.

Clive Lewis, a Labour Party member of Parliament for Norwich South, said the detention of protesters and seizure of materials were signs of the U.K.’s “gilded veneer of a democracy, on show for all the world to see.”

Polls show Charles is less popular than this mother or even his sister, Princess Anne, his elder son, Prince William, or his daughter-in-law, Catherine, Princess of Wales. His wife Camilla is even less popular – many Britons blame her for breaking up Charles’s previous marriage with the widely beloved Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

The British public has had plenty of time to get used to the idea of Charles as their king: At 74, the eldest son of the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch, himself the longest-serving Prince of Wales, has been preparing for the job for decades. But just because he has been waiting in the wings a long time does not mean he has been welcomed with open arms since the death of his mother.

Republic’s goal is to abolish the monarchy, replacing the hereditary position of king and queen with an elected head of state. That head of state would be empowered to get more involved in the country’s political life. Under Britain’s constitution, the monarch must act apolitically – by convention, they don’t vote – and is bound to follow the government’s advice. The monarch performs certain political acts, like appointing or dismissing a prime minister, but in effect they choose the candidate recommended by political parties.

Under the model advocated by Republic, an elected head of state would “be free to speak out on important issues of the day,” though they would have to remain independent of party politics. They would be able to “stop the politicians from doing something if they are breaking the rules.” And they would be accountable in the same way as any political figure, subject to being removed by parliament if they step out of line. Republic points to other countries with elected heads of state, including Ireland and Italy, as examples.

But the new king faces an arguably bigger challenge than unpopularity: irrelevance.

In April, YouGov asked over 3,000 U.K. adults how much they cared about Charles’s forthcoming coronation. Only 9 percent said they cared “a great deal,” and 24 percent said they cared “a fair amount.” Sixty-four percent said they cared “not very much” or “not at all.”

Experts say it’s an awkward time for the British monarchy to have a less popular or less relevant leader. Republican sentiment in the United Kingdom is gaining ground among young people in particular, though it remains a minority view in the country. The ceremony and pageantry around an event like a coronation can fuel criticism of the monarchy as an out-of-touch institution, particularly when ordinary Britons are facing sky-high inflation. Most say the coronation shouldn’t be publicly funded.

Eleanor Alexander, 23, said at Saturday’s protest that it was “appalling” to put on such an expensive coronation ceremony amid a cost-of-living crisis.

“It’s a waste of public funds and it’s an insult to the people,” said Alexander, who works for England’s National Health Service and lives in London. She stood out among the protesters in the crowd because of her sign – a glittery placard with a photo of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, on it that read, “The People’s Princess” and “Not My King.”

The way Meghan was treated in the United Kingdom shows “how deeply entrenched colonialism, racism, imperialism is into the royal family,” Alexander said.

Family scandals – particularly the allegations of racism from Prince Harry and Meghan – haven’t helped matters for the Windsors.

There is nothing in the British constitution that would prevent the switch to an elected head of state, according to Bob Morris, honorary senior research associate at the Constitution Unit of University College London. England was briefly a republic from 1649 to 1660 after King Charles I was executed for treason following military victories by the parliamentarian army led by Oliver Cromwell. But after Cromwell died in 1658, the monarchy was restored with Charles I’s son at its head.

“One shouldn’t argue that elected presidents don’t work, because they obviously do,” said Morris. “Therefore, the arguments are really about what one brings that the other doesn’t.”