MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: If freedom is abused, it may not survive
MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: The chilling lesson after yesterday’s outrages by the apostles of violence is that if freedom is abused, it may not survive
During the great Suez crisis of 1956, the then Prime Minister’s wife, Clarissa Eden, complained that ‘in the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room’.
Many in Britain may now be starting to feel as if the Gaza Strip has been bodily moved to these islands, as our politics have been taken over by events there. And yesterday the streets of London brimmed over yet again with demonstrators venting many and various sentiments sparked by those events.
Have there ever, in London’s history, been so many repeated marches on the same subject in such a short period of time? Why is it necessary for this particular position to make its discontent plain every seven days? Even in the 1960s when the Vietnam War was raging, and opposition to it was huge, months would pass between the marches against that conflict.
Oddly, one view not significantly represented in the parades of the past few weeks has been condemnation of the murderous and racist October 7 attack upon Israel which began the whole crisis.
Almost from the beginning, these marches have been in support of the Palestinian cause, despite the fact – obvious to any reasonable observer – that there are two sides to this very old argument, and also despite the fact that Britain, for better or worse, is no longer a major power in the Middle East.
Who are these demonstrators seeking to influence? And for what? What in fact do they stand for?
Have there ever, in London’s history, been so many repeated marches on the same subject in such a short period of time? Pictured: The pro-Palestine march in London on November 11
Can the leaders and organisers of these events effectively contest the accusation that they have attracted to their banners people who sympathise with Hamas and who, with chants calling for ‘intifada’, ‘jihad’ and a supposedly ‘Free Palestine’ stretching from ‘the river to the sea’, cannot really be called supporters of peace?
When Home Secretary Suella Braverman characterised them as ‘hate marches’, she may have gone too far.
For many of the marchers are plainly sincerely distressed by the deaths of innocents in Gaza under Israeli bombardment.
Who is not?
Plenty of Israelis and friends of Israel feel much the same.
Others believe that the major Western powers are upholding what they regard as a historic injustice in the Holy Land.
Or they regard the State of Israel as oppressive and unfair in its treatment of its Arab citizens and of the inhabitants of the territories it occupied in 1967.
These are legitimate opinions which any democracy should tolerate and hear.
But some of the marchers, as we have seen from their slogans and their banners, hold positions which come very close to incitement to violence and racial hatred – and in some alleged cases to glorification of the appalling attack on October 7. They have, as it were, swum in the sea of the wider protests.
Even in the 1960s when the Vietnam War was raging, and opposition to it was huge, months would pass between the marches against that conflict
And nobody can blame British Jews for being intimidated and disturbed by open expression on London streets of opinions and attitudes which all of them, and most of us, might have hoped we had seen the last of in 1945, when Hitler’s death camps were opened and the world saw the horrifying ultimate destination of anti-Semitic thought.
And then came the decision by the march organisers to go ahead with yet another procession on November 11, Armistice Day, a time of sacred reflection on war and death for the whole nation.
It is all very well saying that London is a large city and it was possible to hold the Palestine March without it physically clashing with events at the Cenotaph.
But true consideration and good manners would demand a far higher standard of behaviour. November 11 comes once a year. But there are 51 other Saturdays this year.
A cause which has taken over the streets of Central London every Saturday for a month could surely have had the generosity and politeness to cede the heart of our capital to the dignified commemoration of the noble dead, who lie in cemeteries all over the world because they placed the liberty and wellbeing of others, and of future generations, above their own safety and indeed their own lives.
‘Here dead we lie,’ as A.E. Housman expressed their sacrifice, ‘because we did not choose to live, and shame the land from which we sprung’.
We can at least remember them with even greater force and determination today. But this does not in reality make up for the discourtesy done to their memory yesterday.
The organisers also ought to take some part of the responsibility for the self-styled ‘counter-demonstrations’, of pea-brained louts, which greatly disfigured yesterday.
Once they insisted on going ahead despite pleas at the highest level to stay away, from the Prime Minister himself, they must have realised that something of the kind was likely.
Rishi Sunak was entirely right, as the democratic leader of a free country, to make this plea. It is not a reflection on him that the march organisers were too obtuse to see that, as beneficiaries of a free constitution, they had a strong moral obligation to do as he asked.
Pictured: A group of protesters in 1968 demonstrating about the Vietnam War outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square
How long will freedom last if people do not understand that it requires them to be responsible in their use of it? The arrogance of their refusal is astounding. Living in a democracy cuts two ways and implies duties as well as liberties.
What was extremely disturbing was the way pro-Palestinian protesters very hostilely intimidated Cabinet Minister Michael Gove. He was forced to run a gauntlet of virulent barracking after they spotted him walking on his own in the capital. But the police, who to their credit finally gave Mr Gove protection when he reached Victoria Station, should also bear some of the blame from the very start.
It is here that Ms Braverman begins to have a point. She is certainly not to blame for any violence or disruption that have taken place. In fact, the opposite is true. The football hooligan vigilantes, claiming unconvincingly to be protecting the Cenotaph and challenging the Islamists, emerged from under their stones because the weakness of the police gave them the excuse to make these claims.
The failure of the supposedly liberal Left to condemn the highly illiberal views of some of the marchers likewise encouraged a largely politically correct police force to stand aside when it should have acted against dangerous bigotry.
Though this newspaper, and our sister publication, the Daily Mail, have opposed the banning of this march, we would have readily supported far firmer policing of it, and of those that have gone before.
Had that policing been applied, freedom of speech would have been better served. The holders of foul, intolerant and bigoted opinions, and the apostles of political violence, would have been deterred from showing their faces in the first place. And the differing views of the many millions who did not march would also have been better respected.
These affairs look big on TV, but even if the 300,000 estimated turnout is accurate, those taking part are in fact a tiny portion of the national adult population, and also a small part of the Muslim population of Britain which they say they represent. Just because they can fill some streets and bridges, the marchers have not captured our Government or our society, nor should they be allowed to behave as if they have.
Nor should they be accorded uncritical or barely critical coverage by the BBC, which yet again needs to be reminded that it serves us all, not just its own staff.
Two major lessons should be learned from these events.
The first is that the police are the servants of us all, not of any faction. And the second is that freedom should not be abused, or it will not survive.
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