Around 20 protesters have attempted to “seize” Edinburgh Castle “under common law,” in the latest sign of radical “sovereign citizen” ideology taking root in the anti-lockdown movement.
The group entered the historic castle, one of Scotland’s most famous symbols, without tickets on Tuesday evening, claiming they were “taking back” the castle under Article 61 of Magna Carta, the 800-year-old charter of rights signed by England’s King John to appease a group of rebel barons.
Members of the public were evacuated during the protest, and a police officer received minor injuries while arresting one of the group, police said.
The group, referring to themselves on Twitter as “sovereign Scots” who were laying “siege” to the castle, broadcast their protest in a 13-minute video on Facebook Live, which has since been removed from the platform. A man at the protest accused the government of treason, saying: “We can’t sit back and let everybody perish under the stupid legislation and fraudulent government tyranny, so let’s just take it all back, not just the castle.”
A woman said that Scots have been “lied to all our lives” and had taken the castle back to “restore the rule of law” under article 61 of Magna Carta.
The reference to the clause, which granted a group of 25 barons in 1215 powers to seek “redress” from the monarch if the charter was not honoured, and “assail” him if no redress was made, is legal gibberish. According to fact-checking website Full Fact, it only ever applied to a small group of nobles, was swiftly removed from the charter when it was reissued a year later, and was never incorporated into law.
But this piece of pseudo-legal nonsense is frequently cited as a sort of right to rebellion, or excuse not to comply with the law, by members of the UK’s “sovereign citizens” groups – who have become an increasingly visible part of the country’s volatile anti-lockdown scene.
Sovereign citizens, also known as “freemen of the land,” among other names, refers to a loose movement of fringe anti-establishment fantasists, found in many parts of the world, who falsely claim they are exempt from their country’s laws, citing various bogus legal justifications. They’re known for refusing to pay taxes or fines, or attempting to carry out “arrests” of public officials, using nonsensical legal jargon to attempt to justify themselves, often referencing “common law.”
Experts monitoring the conspiracy-infused anti-lockdown movements around the world say this ideology is becoming increasingly visible in recent protests opposing coronavirus-related restrictions.
In Germany, the Reichsbürgers (“citizens of the Reich”) – who have strong right-wing extremist affiliations – have been a constant strand of the country’s frequently violent corona-skeptic protest movement.
READ: Covid conspiracies are supercharging Germany’s far-right
In Canada, an anti-lockdown group attempted a live-streamed arrest of the mayor of St. Catharines, Ontario, in January for imposing lockdowns, claiming the right to do so under common law. In Victoria, Australia, lockdown resisters have claimed any laws since November 18, 1975, are invalid because Queen Elizabeth did not sign the state Constitution in person, while in Singapore, two people who appeared in court for refusing to wear masks insisted they were “sovereign,” and therefore exempt.
And in the UK, sovereign citizen rhetoric, often referencing “article 61”, has become increasingly prevalent. At a volatile protest in Parliament Square last month, activist Mark Sexton, a retired police officer, told a crowd that unless lockdown was lifted and the vaccine rollout halted, citizens had the right to forcibly arrest politicians and establish common law courts.
Joe Ondrak, the head of investigation for Logically, a tech company that combats online disinformation, said there had “definitely been an uptick” in sovereign citizen activity in recent months.
Fringe British “common law” groups had found a new currency in the anti-lockdown movement, spreading their ideology on sprawling Telegram groups committed to “freedom” from coronavirus restrictions.
He said that QAnon, another of the overlapping conspiracy movements at play in the anti-lockdown scene, appeared to have played a role in the recent uptick in sovereign citizen activity. QAnon networks had been making increasing reference to sovereign citizen talking points, which had spilled over from the US to anti-lockdown protest movements in other countries.
He said the potential for this ideology to encourage people to radical acts – insisting they were above the law and had the power to pass laws or arrest MPs – was dangerous.
“The encouragement and enabling of increasingly frustrated and angry crowds to conduct ‘citizens’ arrests on behalf of the people’ is a dangerous new aspect of the UK freedom movement,” he told VICE World News. “That, I think, is the main concern here.”