Is there an issue in Western politics more chronically laced with hypocrisy than freedom of speech? We swap roles more frequently than a back-up actor in the theatre: one day maligning co-called cancel culture, the next demanding that someone else be silenced.
The last several days of British politics – which increasingly resembles our own, from its revolving door of prime ministers to its rhetoric about “stopping the boats” – have been dominated by a looming pro-Palestinian march in the heart of London.
It’s not the first such protest, but it may be the largest, with tens of thousands expected to participate. At the heart of Britain’s government, run by the ostensibly pro-free speech Tories, leading figures feel it should not be allowed to happen.
Chief among them is the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who has described the nation’s pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “hate marches” and publicly criticised the police for, in her view, failing to curtail them.
“I do not believe that these marches are merely a cry for help for Gaza. They are an assertion of primacy by certain groups – particularly Islamists,” Ms Braverman wrote this week.
She argued the police were “playing favourites” by being soft on pro-Palestinian and Black Lives Matter protesters, having previously cracked down on white nationalist and anti-Covid lockdown demonstrations.
The data doesn’t support her. Go back to 2020, at the height of the Covid dramas, and you will find London’s Metropolitan Police made 281 arrests at Black Lives Matter protests, 681 at Extinction Rebellion protests, and 374 at the anti-lockdown protests.
We can critique the Met’s competence, but there is no proof to support Ms Braverman’s perception of a leftist or “woke” ideological slant (even ignoring recent findings that the organisation is institutionally racist, misogynist and homophobic).
The figures instead suggest a police force that approaches public order in more or less the same way regardless of who is protesting.
The march’s critics have also fretted about it falling on the same weekend as Armistice Day, claiming the timing is disrespectful, and talking up fears that the Cenotaph, a war memorial in the centre of the city, could be vandalised.
Never mind that the protest is scheduled for well after Saturday morning’s commemorations. Never mind that its route goes nowhere near the Cenotaph. Never mind that its participants are seeking a ceasefire, on a day that’s intended not to glorify war, but to remind us of its horrors and sacrifices.
The common sense, calm approach to this march, and its imitators in Australia, is simple enough: people have the right to express their opinions. Anyone who tries to incite hatred or violence, which is against the law in both countries, must be arrested and charged. Easy.
I’ve seen assertions this week that the demonstrators “are free to call for a genocide” against the world’s only Jewish state. No, they’re not. They are free to call for an end to the violence, and for the human rights and dignity of the Palestinians to be respected. That is not the same thing, much as some cynics or ideologues yearn to conflate the two.
To suggest that everyone who protests against the bombing of the Gaza Strip, and the inevitable civilian deaths it causes, is part of a “hate march” is preposterous, histrionic, the mother of all generalisations. It reeks of disingenuous fear.
And the overwhelming sense you get from Ms Braverman is that she wants to foment fear. She wants division. She wants a flashpoint in the culture wars. She wants there to be trouble, the more the better, so she can point to it afterwards and shout “I told you so”.
In the wake of her deliberately inflammatory remarks this week, far-right counter-protesters announced their intention to descend upon London to confront the march. Nakedly increasing the risk of unrest, or even violence.
This is the precise inverse of how governments around the world should behave. Leaders should be easing tensions, bridging divisions and defending people’s right to be heard. Let the police enforce the law, without pressuring them to overstep its boundaries.
There’ll be idiots marching in London on Saturday, just as there were idiots marching in Melbourne during Covid (though without the same health concerns this time). And there will be many thousands of people marching for peace with no malice in their hearts.
What would it say about the West if the UK were to shut down the entire event, pre-emptively, silencing peace and hate marcher alike, treating them as the same? It would expose us as fearful, suspicious, and intolerant – and expose our commitment to free speech and political dissent as hollow.
We should enforce the law as it stands. The self-defeating alternative is to reimagine it, as needed, to fit our political prejudices. And to degrade our freedoms, oh so ironically, in the name of protecting them.
Originally published as The urge to crack down on pro-Palestinian protests is dangerous and self-defeating