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A true commitment to freedom of speech is defending the right of those we disagree with

The Queen's cortege passes up the Royal Mile | Credit: Alamy

A true commitment to freedom of speech is defending the right of those we disagree with

In the wake of the Queen’s death, when a queue became a metaphor for what it meant to be British, it felt like we had reached a unique place of collective solidarity, where the normal political hostilities were disabled, and disagreements were put temporarily to one side. 

Watching the country, overwhelmingly and spontaneously, respond in a way that few had anticipated was a salutary moment in our nation’s history. And it felt like a positive, but slightly surreal, place to be.

For many, the institution of the Royal Family symbolises everything that is wrong with a modern democracy and, in a time of such stark inequalities, view it as a reminder of what is rotten about privilege, class, and an abuse of power. 

We live in a different era from the one in which the Queen was crowned. Questions about our democracy, constitutional arrangements, where power lies, how easy our relationships sit with each other within the UK, never mind with those from across the Commonwealth, and our role in a dark colonial past that has left a legacy of servitude and deep-seated inequity for which we must still answer, are all very much alive. 

And with the issue of Scottish independence always to the fore, there was undoubtedly a nervous intake of breath about how an already fractured nation would react when its one constant binding force – our Queen of 70 years – was no longer there. 

But seeing how the death of one woman, who had been woven so inextricably into all our lives, seemingly solidify a country that had felt so disunited in the weeks immediately prior to it was extraordinary.

It gave hope that perhaps we could all find a place where even where we disagree on issues so fundamentally bound up in who we are and our view of the world, like the rights and wrongs of a monarchy and all that it represents and entails, we could still find a place to accommodate the views of those with whom we don’t always agree.

And that kind of uneasy consensus has been sorely missing from the grievous months and years of all kinds of testy discourse that preceded Her Majesty’s demise. 

In these times, we need to find common ground. And perhaps in death, as in life, the Queen brought that sense of comfort in a realisation that we are not alone.

Just two days before her death, as she met with one discredited Tory prime minister to bid him farewell and to anoint another, and with neither meeting promising any closure to the fractious politics that had led to Boris Johnson’s departure in the first place, the handshake between a dying monarch and the incoming prime minister, Liz Truss, that evidenced power pass so 
(un)easily from one powerful woman to another, only served as a reminder that the wider public had little to no role in electing either.

But whether by accident or design, and some would argue the Queen was canny enough to plan it, Scotland being where she spent her final days was also a reminder of how integral Scotland is to the rest of the UK. And was perhaps her final gesture to the Union she so treasured. 

And while our domestic politics can be so often dominated by the arguments of separation, and torn apart by the confected culture wars driven by a narcissism that promotes self above all, the Queen’s death has also brought with it a renewed appreciation for what it means to be a public servant, to take the responsibility of leadership seriously, to utilise soft diplomacy to best effect, and to understand the power of being an honest interlocutor.

These are hellish times. Cruel and unforgiving times. We have come through a global pandemic, damaged both in our hearts and our minds, with our sense of security diminished and with a hypervigilance against renewed infection which strains our every sinew. Poverty stalks our nation.

We are in the grip of a bloody war in Europe where horrific acts of human genocide emerge, and Putin is threatening to make his battle with the West nuclear. 

In these times, we need to find common ground. And perhaps in death, as in life, the Queen brought that sense of comfort in a realisation that we are not alone.

Of course, people prefixed their reaction to the Queen’s death with “Well, I’m not a royalist…” but they still travelled in their thousands to pay their respects to a queen that they had likely never met or really given much thought to.

I too walked up to the Royal Mile to watch the coffin go by. It felt historic. Something, for whatever reasons, people wanted to be part of. It felt solemn, sad, and just interesting to be there. I thought of my dad who died five years ago, and I imagine lots of people standing there looking at the hearse go by shared in a similar grieving, not for the monarch who lay inside but for their own loved ones who had passed. And that’s ok.

I was also standing near to the young lad that was so inflamed about the presence of Prince Andrew at his own mother’s funeral that he felt compelled to have his voice heard above the silence. I got a glimpse of him being pushed and pulled by others in the crowd and of the police taking him away and then later of him in handcuffs, explaining to anyone who would listen his views on the exploitation of women and girls at the hands of powerful men.

I don’t think anyone in that crowd would have disagreed. But they clearly did not think this was the time.

And with the issue of Scottish independence always to the fore, there was undoubtedly a nervous intake of breath about how an already fractured nation would react when its one constant binding force – our Queen of 70 years – was no longer there. 

I believe the right to protest is fundamental in a democracy but we have seen a gradual erosion of that principle over recent years, and I have expressed that many times in relation to women protesting about what they have seen as an erosion of their rights.  

And in that context, it’s strange to see so many self-proclaimed proponents of free speech, like Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman, who have said nothing about women losing their jobs, being attacked by activists or being warned off by the police for taking part in legitimate debate about sex and gender – or worse, having their views decried as transphobic – now expressing their deeply held concerns about the restrictions being placed on free speech when it comes to the monarchy.

The real test of a commitment to freedom of speech is not whether you defend it in relation to people you agree with, but whether you defend it when it might cost you ground in an argument and when it is in relation to people you disagree with but whose democratic right to protest, nevertheless, you support.

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