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The number is 52

by Yassin Rida

Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently - Rosa Luxembourg
Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience - John Milton
Strawberries in a bowl
Last card in the pack? An old order clings onto old rituals. (Image from Pexels: Isabella Mendes)

The signs were there. Show at your own risk, freedom of assembly be damned. The Met Police's finest took turns to sabre-rattle with the Home Office. Mass deployment of facial recognition technology, not seen since the 2017 Notting Hill Carnival and a "low tolerance for disruption". Well-timed warning letters sent to groups daring to rain on His Majesty's parade. In the end, the signs were there - and then they were not, because along with the 52 protestors, the police detained the placards on the day.

What does it mean when the refusal to celebrate becomes an act of dissent? This is dangerous territory, because anybody who's attended social gatherings can testify that celebration needs, well, it needs a vibe. And when it isn't there, things get awkward, the laughs sound hollow and then people gradually remember that they need to be home early for work tomorrow. This was a week when the Government took its own nurses to court before imposing a two-year pay deal on them, Royal Shell announced £7.8 billion of profit in the first quarter of 2023 and the Met Gala centred Karl Lagerfeld as this year's theme. In short, the vibe just wasn't there.

State response? Let them eat quiche!

As I write this, I'm watching the live feed of a certain British rolling news channel on mute. There is enough material in the subtitles to develop a strong pilot for a surrealist Radio 4 comedy series. A presenter hands over to a correspondent to "tell you what happens as the Princess rolls up her sleeves", we turn to Downing Street "where Jill Biden isn't visible at the moment", oh but by the way, "that's the back of Akshata Murty, the Prime Minister's wife". What is visible is the number of people stealing a chance for a selfie outside Number 10.

We're urged to remember that "this is about real people", because nothing says reality in the era of high Toryism than a billionaire being crowned, whilst millions of his subject-citizens languish in poverty. Katy Perry was "wearing a huge hat, and beneath that hat she was finding her seat". At this point, the subtitler must be channelling Dr Seuss.

Between the countless affirmations of the magical/historic/incredible/other hyperbole atmosphere, there are hopes that a scattering of people on one Coventry street might end up with a party that ends "a little later" than 6pm, whilst retired expats in France send praise to His Highness without any apparent sense of irony. Party-goers appear to mostly consist of either the very old or the very young, but those of working age are few and far between. Wait, they're showing a crowd of them now actually, with flares! Oh wait, sorry, that's Napoli celebrating their league win. Enough.


Dare to dissent

Is yellow now the new red? Graham Smith of the pressure group, Republic, denounces the use of the Public Order Act as a "direct attack on democracy", but this is just the latest in a parade of authoritarian measures that goes beyond intimidating nascent republicanism. "Freedom of expression is a very essential condition for me to make any art", but why should that be true only of Ai Weiwei and his native China? It shouldn't.

Liberals in advanced capitalist societies - rightly - laud artists and dissidents operating under and against despotic regimes. That same courtesy - to challenge, to criticise and yes, to protest - must be extended to artists and dissidents here at home. To shoehorn one last quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "if the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own".

Made brighter, not dimmer but that appears to be what is happening in Tory Britain. Indeed, for as long as we, the youth, are expected to witness our futures go up in flames and then celebrate it as a bonfire, as long as we are faced with politicians who say "not my responsibility", then let it be said - 52 times to be exact - that he is #NotMyKing.


Yassin Rida is a freelance journalist and member of RAR's editorial committee.


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