Suella Braverman is stealing the show. Rishi Sunak brought her into cabinet to shore up support on the party’s right. Her cabinet membership may now depend on whether No 10 signed off on that Times article (more below) – as it claimed to have done with her recent speech on the failures of multiculturalism.
The politicians make the laws and the police enforce them. But that supposed operational independence is being undermined by a government making clear its disapproval that the pro-Palestinian march this Armistice Day is taking place. The law allows the police to ask the home secretary to ban a march if there is a serious risk of disorder. The Metropolitan Police have so far judged this not to be the case despite pressure from No 10.
Sunak, however, is no longer the top story because Braverman keeps pushing the government’s line beyond what her colleagues would say themselves. She has inflamed commentators by labelling the protests as “hate marches” – a perfectly attuned generalisation that elicits cries of “but not everyone”. In a Times article today (9 November), the Home Secretary, having provoked the desired reaction, with aplomb, deployed her response that it was a phrase she “did not resile from”. Her overall argument in the piece is that the police apply a double standard to those protests on the right and left. But the piece goes further than that, suggesting an ulterior reason for her opposition to the protests. She writes: “The issue is how do we as a society police groups that insist that their agenda trumps any notion of the broader public good – as defined by the public, not by activists.”
The Home Secretary does not provide a definition of the “public good”, hiding behind an appeal to the public, nor does she explain why protesters must only have agendas that comply with the “public good”. The assumption seems to be that the freedom to protest depends on whether protesters share the government’s values. But the freedom to protest, allowing for the usual rules around serious disorder and incitement, must not depend on the very beliefs the protest champions. That would defeat the point.
There are other signs that the government wants to restrict protest. The Observer reported at the weekend that officials are considering expanding the definition of “extremism” to: “The promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values.”
Presumably that would include the civil servants and politicians lambasting British institutions for their Covid response at the public inquiry this week? Criticism of the remaining hereditary peers in the Lords? Or even acerbic attacks on the frivolousness of street parties? The terms “undermines” and “UK’s values” are so elastic that a malicious government could define them so as to persecute those it disagrees with.
Officials developed this definition for Michael Gove, who himself has shunted around the political spectrum for decades, moving from a Thatcherite acolyte to coalition reformist to his current national communitarianism. He praised in a speech recently a culture “free of censorship, free of the marginalisation of those who wish to challenge the current consensus” alongside a “rabbinical sense of obligation to our culture”. How then, Mr Gove, do you plan to reconcile the two?
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