London has seen its biggest anti-monarchy demonstration in living memory in response to the celebrations of Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee. Contrary to earlier assurances from the police, the majority of republicans were prevented from reaching the protest site, resulting in spontaneous demonstrations on the street.
Around 1,000 people joined the demonstration in central London organised by the group Republic, a higher figure than had been expected, despite the BBC giving almost no coverage to criticisms of the jubilee. There were other republican events elsewhere in the UK.
The protesters included members of Christianity Uncut, a network of anti-capitalist Christians, who highlighted the original, biblical meaning of “jubilee” as a festival of economic justice.
Thousands of people travelled to central London to witness the jubilee pageant, as the royal family sailed up the Thames. Some expressed outright support for the monarchy while others welcomed the opportunity for a party during the bank holiday weekend.
The police had allocated a site near Tower Bridge for a peaceful anti-monarchy demonstration. But after the first few hundred protesters were through, the roads to the site were blocked by Mackenzie Arnold, a security company employed by More London, the private company owning the area through which people had to pass to reach the protest site.
Hundreds of republicans clustered in the road as security guards gave contradictory explanations for their refusal to allow people to enter the site. They said that there were problems with capacity, but the issue of numbers had not been mentioned by police in their earlier negotiations with organisers of the demonstration. They also allowed people to leave the site without letting others in.
Eventually, around 600 republicans began their own peaceful demonstration in the road. Police intervened when pro-monarchy demonstrators threatened violence and threw food at the republicans.
The demonstrations were addressed by speakers including human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, columnist Joan Smith and Republic activists Graham Smith and Andrew Child.
Peter Tatchell said that an hereditary head of state is fundamentally undemocratic. Andrew Child insisted that it is because he is patriotic that he wants what is best for a democratic country. Joan Smith criticised the decision to stop protesters from reaching the site. Graham Smith encouraged the protesters to keep up the pressure and “make monarchy history”.
Throughout the afternoon, the demonstrators chanted “Democracy, not monarchy!”, “What do we want? Democracy!” and “Monarchy out, republic in!”.
Symon Hill, associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, said he had been encouraged by the solidarity, determination and nonviolence of the protests. Hill, who was prevented from reaching the site and joined the demonstration in the street, addressed the crowd about the original meaning of jubilee.
“I was really heartened by the cheer when I explained that jubilee was originally about economic justice,” he explained. “The Book of Leviticus says that every fiftieth year, debts should be cancelled, slaves set free and the economy rebalanced. As the gap between rich and poor in Britain grows ever wider, this is the sort of jubilee our society needs – not a celebration of wealth, privilege and military might.”
Republic will be protesting again on Tuesday, when a jubilee service will take place in St Paul's Cathedral. Christianity Uncut will join the demonstration, making clear that not all Christians are happy for a church to be used in this way.