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28 February 2024

How the Israel-Gaza war broke British politics

The UK is sliding towards Trumpian divisive politics, hate not hope. Calm and proportion are badly needed.

By Andrew Marr

It was a small explosion in British politics, the kind of glossy, convoluted, procedural detonation that British parliamentary life fetishises: a huddled meeting in a small private room on Wednesday 21 February, and the choice of one amendment over another, causing adults to scream with rage in the chamber and menace their amiable servant, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker. But what serious damage it has left behind.

British Muslims, angry about Israel’s actions in Gaza, find the country’s political leadership not warm, not attentive to their distress, but aloof and unconvincing. British MPs, it turns out, find their flag-waving Muslim constituents alien and terrifying. Asked to speak clearly, the British parliament mumbles. And so, those who want nothing less than a race war to deflect attention from the boring business of repairing a damaged country, find their cause moves just a bit.

This is a moment when many words must be reported verbatim because they matter so much. From the right, Lee Anderson had the Conservative whip withdrawn after he said on GB News that he thought Islamists have “got control of [the London mayor Sadiq] Khan and they’ve got control of London… He’s actually given our capital city away to his mates.” This is the same Khan who complained about intimidation of the Jewish community after an attack on a kosher restaurant in north London, attended synagogues for “show up for Shabbat” events, and goes to Hindu temples, too. (He is a politician. But no matter. He is from a Pakistani family and so… “his mates”.)

Almost immediately Nigel Farage suggested Anderson would be happier in Reform UK and said of the Tories: “They don’t like open free speech.” If you feel bleak about politics and the way we are heading, these are all words to remember.

But let us not make this about Lee Anderson. He was responding to remarks by Suella Braverman in the Telegraph, who until very recently was home secretary, retains the Tory whip, and is seen by some as a future leader. She wrote: “The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now. They have bullied the Labour Party, they have bullied our institutions, and now they have bullied our country into submission.”

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No part of that is true.

Where are Islamists “in charge”? Pro-Palestinian supporters blocked a bridge, as many protesters have before. Which institutions? How can the same Labour Party that kicked out its Rochdale by-election candidate in the middle of the campaign for perpetrating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, also have been successfully bullied by Islamist extremists?

And yes, there have been angry marches and flags and images beamed on to buildings and unpleasant jeering placards. And yes, the Speaker, a specialist in MPs’ safety for years, made a marginal and unpopular call on procedure. But really, who could look around in the cold light of day and believe that modern Britain has been “bullied into submission”? For a mainstream party politician, never mind a former home secretary, Braverman’s words were wild, wild stuff. As the Conservative Party splinters and fractures on the right, and ambitious would-be leaders look for leverage, this is part of the blowback, the verbal shrapnel, after parliament’s Gaza paroxysm.

What does the rest of the Tory hierarchy think? Following Hoyle’s decision to allow a Labour amendment on a Gaza ceasefire, taken in part to protect Labour MPs fearful about protesting constituents, the Prime Minister said that “a very dangerous signal was sent that this sort of intimidation works”. The Speaker remains in danger of being toppled by MPs. There is talk of deploying disruption tactics to shred his authority, until he reads this particularly large room and resigns.

I hope this doesn’t happen. Hoyle is a good and punctilious man now being devoured by bitter electoral politics. His severest foe is Stephen Flynn, the Westminster leader of the SNP, the most consistently sharp and vivid performer in this tepid parliament. It’s easy to understand why Flynn is angry: 21 February was the SNP’s big day, when it hoped to publicly divide Labour MPs over the question of an immediate ceasefire. And it was hijacked by the Speaker’s decision to accept the rival Labour motion.

The SNP protests artlessly that it has always been consistent on the issue (true), and that its intention had never been to embarrass Labour. So it was presumably entirely coincidental that it had another motion down on the subject of – checks notes – a £28bn green investment plan? Punch one bruise, punch another. Nobody should blame the SNP for that. It is up against Labour in Scotland in a ferocious and momentous electoral struggle, which it seems to be losing.

Tory anger is also fuelled by the advance of Labour. What is new are increasingly raw expressions of personal dislike of Keir Starmer. The clearest example came from the Leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, who, apparently incandescent with fury after Hoyle’s decision, accused her opposite number, Lucy Powell, of failing to “rise above the narrow and immediate needs of her weak and fickle leader to fulfil her duties to this House”.


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Once, the role of the Leader of the House was to be a wise, benign step-parent for MPs of all parties. No longer. A one-woman conflagration, the Angel of Wrath flamed on: “We have seen into the heart of Labour’s leadership. Nothing is more important than the interests of the Labour Party. The Labour Party before principle, the Labour Party before individual rights, the Labour Party before the reputation and honour of the decent man who sits in the Speaker’s chair. The Labour Party before fairness, integrity and democracy…”

We get the picture. But isn’t there a grace note of panic there?

If only one could brush aside all this as election-year game-playing. But in reaction to the horrors of the Middle East, something darker is entering British politics. Back to the words. Conor Burns, the trade envoy and former minister, and a man who’s mostly restrained, complained on Twitter that the threat from “violent Islamic extremists” was not being confronted by MPs. Instead, “we are hearing about being careful with language in the chamber and being nice”.

He went on: “For debate in parliament to be curtailed through fear, or our procedures altered by threat, is the start of a slide to mob rule. Until we are willing to talk openly about the real problem we have with a tiny minority of Islamic extremists motivated by an incredibly evil ideology, we cannot even begin to seek to confront it adequately.”

Incredibly evil? It is too easy for journalists, who are rarely confronted in the street, to say this to MPs, but in the interests of democracy itself, calm and proportion are badly required. What is going on in Gaza is a slaughter. It naturally arouses unusual levels of emotion. Anger about attacks on hospitals or on refugee camps doesn’t itself make you anti-Semitic or a likely recruit for Islamic State-style extremism. This is the politics of 2024. Only conspiracists would think it had a lot to do with the Koran.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering that extreme events abroad have often produced similar reactions in British politics: when I’m told that what is happening now is against all the traditions of British democracy, I think of Lloyd George going to protest against the Boer War in Birmingham in 1901, where he faced a mob of 100,000 people surrounding the town hall and breaking into it with violent intent. Joseph Chamberlain, the imperial boss of the city, had said that if Lloyd George “wants his life, he had better keep away from Birmingham… If he doesn’t go, I will see that it is known he is afraid. If he does go, he will deserve all he gets.”

When I’m told that Muslims are acting in a way that other threatened communities never would, I think of Cable Street in 1936, Glasgow’s George Square in 1919, Orgreave in 1984. When I hear that an imported alien religion has changed how we protest, I think of the suffragettes and Just Stop Oil.

Don’t mistake me. I don’t romanticise the breakdown of order, and to call out extremism is vital. All democracies require civility, and intimidation of public servants should be regarded as a serious crime. We should reject provocative language: no British politician has “blood on their hands” over this; none is a child-killer. We need better protection for MPs, two of whom have been murdered in recent times, at their homes and offices.

But we should not go on to imply that millions of fellow citizens, British Muslims living alongside us – Sadiq Khan’s “mates”, Suella Braverman’s Islamists bullying us “into submission” – are motivated by an evil ideology, or are not fully British, or are an alien threat. There is a line between objecting to specific behaviours by individuals and “othering” a huge, peaceable, hard-working community. Each of us knows, instinctively, when the line is crossed. On one side, lawful protection and reasonable disagreement; on the other, racism and Islamophobia.

This danger is present and obvious. It is the slide towards Trumpian divisive politics, hate not hope, and across Europe many political parties are also slithering that way. It was no surprise that Liz Truss was a silent observer next to Steve Bannon, the ultimate Trump champion, when he praised Tommy Robinson, the founder of the anti-Islamic English Defence League, as a “hero”. I am not saying, of course, that the Conservatives agree. But as they begin to disintegrate on the right, this is, to borrow the Prime Minister’s own phrase, the “slippery slope” to full-blown community conflict.

Labour may not want to talk about this, but it doesn’t have a choice. The party should take heart that whatever happens in Rochdale, Muslim voters there have been talking to reporters about – surprise, surprise – “Labour” issues such as employment rights and housing. For other British Muslims, Conservative ideas about working hard, entrepreneurialism, lower taxes and the family chime closely, they feel, with their traditions.

The massacres of the Israel-Gaza conflict have, unsurprisingly, driven many of us mad. Roiled by party politics in an election year, parliament briefly lost its mind. The damage has been real and remains. But a strong democracy doesn’t exclude. It embraces and reshapes.

[See also: The QE theory of everything]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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