I am not reflexively in step with many of the people planning to march in London on Saturday. Like anyone with even a shred of decency, I want the horrors currently unfolding in Gaza to stop. I am just not sure that calls for a “ceasefire now” amount to more than asking Israel to accept the possibility of a repeat of the horrors its civilians endured on 7 October. It’s not something I think other societies would be expected to tolerate.
Similarly, the widespread acceptance of “from the river to the sea” as a chant at the rallies is, I think, morally repellent. Even accepting that most people chanting it don’t use it as a call for the death of millions of Israelis, it is bad enough that some people chanting it do use it that way.
Others go for a disingenuous middle ground, in which they acknowledge they want Israel not to exist, but imagine some peaceable means by which this might happen. Perhaps Israelis can go to live on a lovely farm in the countryside, alongside everyone’s childhood pets. That my Twitter pleas for people to pick another phrase led to thousands of abusive messages – several hundred of them telling me to kill myself – hardly inured me to the people saying that these protests are all peace and love.
The issue is, none of this matters. The people who plan to protest on Saturday have an absolute right to do so. Most of them are genuinely motivated by horror at the events they are seeing unfold on the news, but even that is irrelevant: the point of protest is to allow protests you think are bad. Even if this one had no merit (which isn’t the case), it should go ahead.
This is simple for everyone except the government, which has decided to confect outrage that the protest coincides with Armistice Day. The UK’s main Remembrance events happen on Remembrance Sunday – Armistice Day itself is fairly muted. This year, it falls on a Saturday, which happens to be the same day the weekly Palestine protests have been happening.
This Saturday’s protests are scheduled to begin several hours after the one muted Armistice Day event concludes. Its organiser wants the protest to go ahead. The Metropolitan Police, quite probably pressured by the government, asked the organisers of the Palestine protest to reconsider holding their protest, but when they declined quite properly realised it had no grounds to try to ban the event. So far so good.
Then Rishi Sunak decided to get involved, as part of a mind-numbingly stupid and venal attempt to score some political points. He demanded a last-second meeting with the commissioner of the Met – requiring him to cancel a public engagement – and suggested the protest should be banned.
He threatened to hold the Met “accountable” should anything go awry on Saturday. His Home Secretary – described to me as a “fucking lunatic” by more than one Conservative politician, and an “idiot” by several more – then, not wanting to be outflanked by her boss, poured fuel on the flames by writing an inflammatory opinion piece in today’s Times.
Idiocy is compounding idiocy here. There is no good outcome. The Met is in crisis and almost no-one wanted the job of Commissioner when Mark Rowley took it on. Sunak’s moronic intervention this week could still result in Rowley’s departure. If it does, the Met will struggle to find a viable candidate to replace him while Sunak and Braverman are still in post – which could cause genuine security issues for the country’s capital.
Even leaving that option aside, Sunak has crossed a political rubicon. Traditionally, Brits who know the history take it as a point of pride that modern policing was invented in the UK, by Sir Robert Peel. Independence from political interference was one of Peel’s nine core principles of policing.
This could not be more important than when it comes to protest – politicians trying to decide what protests are and are not acceptable is fundamentally against British values, the upholding of which is supposed to be central to the ethos of the party Rishi Sunak leads.
Rishi Sunak’s actions this week are both farce and tragedy all at once. At a time when he could pick up points simply for being a national leader on the world stage, he tried to engage in gutter politics in the hope of a quick popularity boost. He completely and totally messed it up – rendering himself both a moral bankrupt and a clown in a failing circus.
Saturday’s protest will go ahead, as it should, but it will do so in a much more poisonous context than it otherwise would, which is a situation entirely of Sunak and Braverman’s making. In his vacuous posturing, Sunak said he would hold the Met “accountable” should anything go wrong. Though he might be a political imbecile, even he must realise the country will do the same with him.