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Democracy Under Siege – From Without and Within

Wednesday’s march of the militant on Parliament, waving pro-Palestine flags and chanting ‘Free Palestine’ should have been a wakeup call to the powers that be, says Politeia’s Research Director, Sheila Lawlor. But, instead, the Speaker buckled to Labour pressure and the government washed its hands of the failure to police.

As the House of Commons descended into chaos on Wednesday, the streets outside were taken over by pro-Palestinian crowds, hundreds if not thousands. The mother of Parliaments was under siege from outside, while within the Speaker succumbed to MPs. Yet the message from Britain’s Establishment remained ‘business as usual’. The powers that be – His Majesty’s Government and the Official Opposition – again refused to acknowledge the threat to Britain’s democracy.

Outside, the crowds pressed against Parliament’s railings and entrances, with loudspeaker chants, menacing banners and aggressive refusal to stand aside for pedestrians, so deep they spilled over the wide pavements onto the roadway. The police had powers under the 1986 Public Order Act to impose conditions necessary ‘to prevent significant impact on persons or serious disruption to activities’, but they did not appear to wish to use them. Nor did they move the crowds to form at some distance from parliament – as they did for the late Queen Elizabeth’s lying in State. That evening the demonstrators went further, projecting the slogan ‘From the river to the sea’ on to Big Ben. The implication of the slogan is that Israel should cease to exist. Yet the police did not intervene. The message was that they, like the Home Office, and the government of the day, have turned a blind eye to the undermining of public order, just as inside the building, the ruling establishment have turned a blind eye to the threat to democracy.

Inside in the Lords it was the same story, the statement on antisemitism had been shuffled to the end of the business, when peers would be thin on the ground. Three peers raised the question of the marches and the scenes outside synagogues. No, the minister at the despatch box, did not find the marches intimidating. Like Pontius Pilate, he washed his hands of the policing of the streets outside – that was an operational matter for the police, not, it seems, a concern for the government.

Had he asked any Jews? Had he met visitors enroute for parliament who beat a hasty retreat intimidated by the crowds, families on a half-term visit to Parliament who got no further than the tube opposite Big Ben on their big day out? If that does not represent a failure of the government to govern by requiring the police to use their powers to ‘prevent significant impact on persons or serious disruption to activities’, it’s hard to know what would do.

This followed the uproar at the other end of Parliament, when the Speaker broke with precedent to allow Labour’s motion calling for ‘an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.’  Sir Lindsay Hoyle, a respected, well-liked and fair-minded Speaker, bowed to pressure to allow Labour’s motion on a day set aside for the SNP. Had Labour not been given their own motion, some MPs would have defied their leadership by voting for the SNP motion demanding an immediate ceasefire which also claimed Israel was guilty of ‘collective punishment’ of the Palestinian people – a war crime. They had been told to abstain on this motion, but Sir Keir faced a rebellion of potentially fifty or more, who would vote with the SNP. It would have revealed that the Corbynista wing of the party and its Israel hating groupies is alive and militant. In order to prevent this scenario, much feared by the Labour leadership, pressure was put on the Speaker to tear up the rule book.

Starmer claims, in a lawyer’s caveated way, that he merely asked for the broadest range of views to be catered for. But he did not stop other MPs putting pressure in one way or another, whether by warning the Speaker that he would be fired by a Labour-majority parliament if he didn’t succumb, or by appealing to Hoyle as their guardian. For, as Hoyle himself revealed, a number of Labour MPs had received threats or feared persecution by social media or worse, unless they voted for a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire; and Hoyle had ‘a duty of care’ to MPs.  It took a Conservative MP, Danny Krueger, to spell out what this meant: he suggested that Sir Lindsay had allowed ‘Labour to use the Islamist threat to change the way our democracy works.’

Behind the three failings, by the police, in the Lords and in the Commons, lies a far more serious threat. The powers that be refuse to acknowledge the size and immediacy of the threat to the ordinary fabric of society and the fundamental freedom of Britain’s democracy. They have refused to acknowledge for what it is the sinister undercurrent of antisemitism inextricable from the pro-Palestinian marches. Police and Home Office, and it seems His Majesty’s Opposition, and even His Majesty’s Government, speak in one voice with the sectarian mobs, and against the country as a whole, its interests and its traditions.

The irony is that the very antisemitism that tarnished Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and contributed to his defeat has returned to life, hydra-like, under another head. Now MPs, ruled by anti-democratic constituents, with whom they may or may not agree, break the trust with the electorate, its democratic system and its parliament by demanding the rules are ignored and the Islamist faction appeased.

Yesterday’s blind eye by the authorities to the grooming gangs has become today’s blind eye to a hatred of Israel and the extremist desire eradicate the Jewish homeland, the most loaded of all antisemitic threats. Who dares to conjecture what tomorrow will bring?

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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