British Prime Minster Rishi Sunak has finally had to sack his home secretary, Suella Braverman for her open defiance of his authority.
The offence, in this case, was an incendiary article in the The Times in which she attacked pro-Palestinian demonstrations as ‘hate marches’ and a ‘mob’ and accused the police of playing favourites and bowing to left-wing causes – a direct challenge to the police’s operational independence. She had apparently been asked to modify the article when she sent it for clearing to No. 10, but had published it unchanged.
Her career as Rishi Sunak’s home secretary has now ended, but that of being a right-wing provocateur may only just be getting started. As right-wing conservatives gather to consider their next moves, Braverman promised that she would ‘have more to say in due course.’ In the meantime, she leaves behind a government and a country more polarised than ever over a conflict miles away in a land that the British government left in flames in 1948.
Days after Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel, British PM Sunak flew to Israel to stand with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pledge his support, saying, ‘We also want you to win,’ as if this were some sort of grotesque game. Unfortunately, the tally in this case is in lives, and long after Gaza’s health authorities have put the number of dead from the Israeli Defence Force’s attacks on the Gaza Strip at over 11,000, the British government and its opposition continue to pick sides in a war that can only have losers.
And one of the first losers in this case is community cohesion in Britain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bitter domestic arguments that are raging in Britain over the refusal by Rishi Sunak, as Prime Minister, and Keir Starmer, as Leader of the Opposition (and on current trends, possibly the next prime minister of the country) to join in calls made by the United Nations and most of its members for a humanitarian ceasefire in the region. It is difficult to counter the impression that one group’s pain counts for less.
It should of course not need clarifying that support for Israel does not equate to support for the Netanyahu government. Equally, people demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians are not backing Hamas. Yet, it is exactly this position that the government, especially the recently sacked home secretary, Suella Braverman, has taken, with her consistent branding of pro-Palestinian demonstrations as ‘hate marches’.
The Manichean view of the conflict adopted by the British government and echoed by the opposition has left large swathes of the British public disconnected from the official view. Parliament has spoken as one to condemn Hamas’ 7 October violence, but has refused to acknowledge the suffering caused by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. There was mourning for British Israeli lives lost and blighted by the attacks, but no acknowledgement of the distress and suffering of British Palestinians in the subsequent siege of Gaza by the IDF. It is difficult not to conclude from this, as Baroness Warsi, a Conservative peer and former cabinet minister and Chair of the Conservative Party did, that ‘Muslims don’t matter’ in today’s Britain. The war in Gaza has allowed politicians in Britain to unleash the most cynical culture war of pitting one group against another – in this case, Muslims against the rest.
The results are already in. In the month following the attacks in Israel, the Metropolitan Police recorded 657 antisemitic incidents, compared to 49 from the same period last year. At the same time, there were 230 Islamophobic incidents, up from 71 in the same period last year. And to this tinderbox of hate and insecurity, Braverman took a lit match in the form of the (unrevised) opinion piece published on November 9. Choosing as her target the third in a series of rolling Saturday protest marches expressing solidarity with Palestinians and which have been calling for a ceasefire in response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Braverman has accused the ‘pro-Palestinian mobs’, (as she has termed the mostly British citizens, including British Jewish activists who oppose Israel’s policy on Palestine) of ‘an assertion of primacy by certain groups – particularly Islamists.’
Baroness Warsi had warned that this breathtakingly cynical pitting of Muslims against the rest would only embolden the far right, and events on the day of the march proved her correct as far-right English Defence League members (who had already threatened to congregate at the Cenotaph to defend it from those they considered unpatriotic) clashed with the police.
The march in question happened to coincide with Armistice Day, the day the guns finally fell silent on the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe after the Great War. The demonstrators wanted to use the backdrop of remembrance of the many lives lost to call for a halt to the bloodshed in Gaza – but with a demonstration that would not go anywhere near the Cenotaph, the focal point of Remembrance events.
What they got, instead, was a questioning of their loyalties by the then home secretary and her PM.
Sunak, who tried and failed to pressure the Metropolitan police into banning the 11 November march issued a statement, that while conceding the right of the protests to go ahead, nevertheless termed them “not just disrespectful but offen[sive to] our heartfelt gratitude” to those who fought for freedom. For those marching, the really offensive part of this statement is the assumption that none of them have any links to those who fought for the freedom of Britain, its allies and its colonies. Muslim blood was shed in the Middle East as the Turkish empire was dismantled and in Europe. Of the 1.5 million Indian troops who fought in WWI, at least 400,000 were Muslim. Many more Muslims served as sailors and labourers. The first Victoria Cross awarded to a South Asian went to Sepoy Khudadad Khan on October 31, 1914. Khan was the sole survivor of a group from the 129th Baluchis who faced down advancing Germans in the Belgian village of Hollebeke, buying the allies enough time for reinforcements to stop a German advance on vital ports.
These stories of sacrifice and valour should not need repeating. Yet each time there is tension in the Middle East, Muslims in Britain have to prove their loyalties where others might just wave their passports. And sadly for community cohesion, there is hardly any dissent to this approach expressed by the Labour Party, the official opposition. Islamophobia is becoming institutionalised in British politics.
In the middle of these controversies, communities secretary Michael Gove has asked for £50 million to counter extremism. This money will be used to identify and counter radical ideologies and, according to a report in the Financial Times, ‘supporting moderate Muslim voices and improving English language training.’ In other words, divide Muslims into the right sort and the ones whose loyalties are always suspect, with those not speaking English presumably falling into the latter category. Instead of tackling the attitudes and policies that alienate Muslims, money will now be spent on further classifying them as a problem to be fixed.
Governments worldwide should be under no illusions that this taking of sides will tear at the fabric of communal living. In America, a number of South Asians reportedly refused an invitation from Vice President Kamala Harris to celebrate Diwali in protest of the administration’s support for Israel’s ‘collective punishment’ of Gazans. Support for Palestine has been an article of faith in India, and the Indian government’s refusal to back a proposal at the UN for a ceasefire in Gaza has caused very real hurt. The suffering in the Levant should not be exploited for narrow domestic political gains. Because the fires that start in the Middle East rarely remain confined to that region.