“The war is over and we have won!” Nigel Farage pronounced from a Parliament Square stage on Brexit Day. But for bellicose Brexit nationalists, peace can never be declared. Without perpetual war against some embellished foe of the lost Britain of their small imaginations, their politics have no purpose. Conflict, confrontation and blame-gaming are all.
That is the backdrop to the tensions surrounding today’s pro-Palestine protest march from near Marble Arch to the US Embassy in Nine Elms and Sunday’s annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
The relevant law is quite straightforward: if the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police thinks there are grounds for banning a march, he or she can ask the Home Secretary to do so. Sir Mark Rowley has concluded that that threshold has not been reached.
He has done this despite escalating pressure from Suella Braverman to act as she, not he or the law, requires. While Rowley has stuck to the letter of that law and exercised the independence from political interference Met Commissioners have enjoyed since it was enshrined in a legal judgement made in 1968, Braverman has broken every rule in the book.
Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation, has been so troubled by what he calls her “reckless” conduct in recent days, he has deviated from the think tank’s apolitical convention to criticise her for asking Rowley to “act unlawfully” and for accusing it of political bias – two things which, in his words, “undermine the constitutional position of the police”.
Braverman’s rogue behaviour, culminating in an inflammatory article for the Times which might result in Rishi Sunak sacking her, even though he has indulged in a smaller form of the same offences with his talk of “disrespect”, is entirely consistent with the blurring of any boundary between the hard right of the Conservative Party and Farageist foghorn frothing.
And it is wholly in the selfish service of positioning herself to become Sunak’s successor after the Conservatives’ likely general election defeat. Braverman knows the Tory membership, which may have the decisive say in the succession contest, can be easily bought with the currency of the cheapest forms of flag-waving theatrics. That is exactly what she’s peddling.
The central London stage is now set for what could be ugly scenes. Having asked the march organisers to postpone the event without success, the Met has imposed an exclusion zone around the Cenotaph and much of Whitehall for the whole of the weekend to prevent the area becoming a flash point for clashes between pro-Palestine breakaway and far-right groups. The officer leading the operation has anticipated force being used. It is all very worrying – the more so for Braverman revving up tensions on all sides like a street huckster selling tickets for a cage fight.
Even so, it is better that the Palestine march is going ahead than a futile attempt to stop it is indulged in. That is not a clue to my views about the Israel-Gaza war – in over 40 years in journalism I have never expressed one about conflicts in the Middle East, about which I know precious little, and I won’t be starting now. What experience does qualify me to say is that I have few illusions about the sinister side to such causes.
The first time I, as a Londoner, encountered explicit antisemitism in the raw was upon joining the back end of the enormous march in 2003 against the Iraq War. I asked a steward if he would stop the group of young Muslim men and women chanting “Jew, Jew, Jew S.A” as their odious excuse for a critique of American foreign policy, but he just shrugged. I take some comfort from the expression of companion sentiments on earlier pro-Palestine marches since 7 October leading to numerous arrests.
That said, and having observed the first of the protests close-up on Whitehall, I question Braverman’s crude characterisation of them as “hate marches”. As for her suggestion that broadly Left-wing protests – if you can call something that embraces Jeremy Corbyn progressive – are indulged by the Met while those of the Right are not, that collapses on first contact with fact.
The Sarah Everard vigil and the Black Lives Matter demos are recent cases in point. At the extreme opposite end of the scale, any fool can see that the planned English Defence League march through Tower Hamlets banned by Theresa May in 2011 was never going to be anything other than an exercise in the violent intimidation of Muslim Londoners. The route of today’s march does not include Stamford Hill or Golders Green.
That march will not begin until after the Armistice Day two-minute silence at 11:00 either and the traditional main Remembrance ceremony is tomorrow. But, for all their their routine jibes against the so-called “woke” taking undue offence at every opportunity, the nationalist Right, from ministers to the assorted loudmouths of GB News, have been falling over each other to show how affronted they are by the Palestine event taking place in another part of London the day before.
As ever, attacking Sadiq Khan has been in their thoughts. Security minister Tom Tugendhat made a pious performance of writing to the Mayor and (Labour-run) Westminster Council asking them to try to stop a Palestine march past the Cenotaph on Sunday, even though they have no such powers and no such march had been proposed in the first place.
Khan himself has restricted his public remarks to rebuking Braverman – who has also been taken to task, with precision eloquence, by London Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill – urging Londoners not to allow events overseas to divide them and asking them to show proper reverence for the Remembrance period.
Fingers crossed for all that. Others, though, have different hopes. For them, disorder and disrespect are to be desired as vindications of their search for diversions and scapegoats as they fail and keep on failing to, in their fantasy terms, make Britain great again. Conflict is what they crave, and what more thrilling battleground could there be than the heart of the nation’s capital, home of all they most hate about the country they claim to love?
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