“The right to freedom of expression and assembly are fundamental aspects of a liberal democratic society.” The House of Commons Library briefing for MPs, issued this August, could not be clearer.
The home secretary began her controversial Times article last week by declaring “peaceful marches are never banned and even controversial and disruptive ones are policed rather than blocked”.
Yet both the prime minister and home secretary expressed the opinion that this weekend’s pro-Palestinian march should not take place, contrary to the decision by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley not to seek a ban from the home secretary.
Rishi Sunak warned ominously “it is my job to hold him accountable”.
Suella Braverman went further, accusing the Met of “double standards” and the perception that they “play favourites when it comes to protesters”. She repeated her view that the pro-Palestinians are “hate marchers”.
The prime minister’s office equivocated that Downing Street had seen her article in advance without approving it and that Mr Sunak still had full confidence in his home secretary.
If one aim of the Hamas terror attack on 7 October was to spread confusion and panic among Israel and its allies they have certainly succeeded in the UK, setting the prime minister, the home secretary and the nation’s chief of police at odds.
An accident of the calendar added to the tension. This year Remembrance Day, 11 November, the traditional date to commemorate those who died defending their country in war, happened to fall on a Saturday, the traditional non-working day for major protest marches in the capital.
Ms Braverman seemed anxious to foment this apparent clash of cultural attitudes, however unwilling the organisations involved with the two events were to be drawn in.
Both the Royal British Legion and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign argued that both their plans should go ahead and that they should not disrupt each other. Jewish representatives were clear that they did not want the Palestinian march banned on their account.
The pro-Palestinians chose to set aside Sir Mark’s earlier request to “urgently reconsider” a protest on 11 November as “not appropriate”.
10 out of 12 marches not permitted were planned by right-wing groups
Meanwhile other events went ahead on Saturday, including the Lord Mayor’s Show, which shuts down roads in the City of London for a 24-hour period.
The usual Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph, attended by the Monarch and political leaders, is due to go ahead with no scheduled conflict with other protests. The Met usually permits, and monitors, a Remembrance march by the English Defence League.
Statistics are not published on marches which are denied permission. The last known ban was on the EDL in 2011. Ten out of 12 of those not permitted under the Public Order Act were planned by right-wing organisations.
This seems to be of concern to Ms Braverman, who complains that “pro-Palestinian mobs” and Black Lives Matter have not met with the same “stern response” as “right-wing and nationalist protesters”.
Conversely she is unhappy with the “tough” treatment of “lockdown objectors” and “football fans”.
Job of controlling crowds used to fall to military
The point of public protests is to register dissent from positions taken by those in authority, often governments, and to support sides in issues over which there is controversy.
Not surprisingly, this has often brought protesters into confrontation with governments and sometimes into conflict with the forces they task with maintaining order.
Before the establishment of civilian police forces, the job of controlling crowds usually fell to the military, sometimes with violent consequences.
In 1819, 18 people were killed and over 400 injured when cavalry charged protesters for civil rights at Peterloo in Manchester. In 1834 in Newport, around 20 people were killed and 50 wounded in a firefight between soldiers in the 45th Regiment of Foot and armed Chartists, demanding political reform.
Subsequently the principle was established that the primary role of the police force is to protect the right of free speech, including protest, provided that those taking part were not breaking the law in some other aspect.
This could prove highly controversial.
In 1936 the Metropolitan Police were mobilised to protect a march by the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley’s “Black Shirts”, through the East End of London, including areas with a significant Jewish population.
Local people, of all backgrounds, gathered in far greater numbers for a counter-demonstration. Clashes between police and rival demonstrators followed, with over 150 arrests, most famously when the police attempted to remove a barricade which had been placed across Cable Street.
The Public Order Act 1936, which followed “the Battle of Cable Street”, established some key restrictions on future protests in the UK. It outlawed the wearing of political uniforms and it forced organisers of large meetings and demonstrations to obtain police permission.
Crucially the police gained powers independently to impose conditions relating to the duration and route of marches. Mosley wanted to march in the East End as a deliberate provocation to the communities there.
Right to protest is protected in UK
This weekend the possibility of a clash was significantly reduced when the official Palestinian march adopted a route different from previous Saturdays and away from the Cenotaph, the official national remembrance monument, and Parliament Square.
A special “controlled area” around parliament was introduced in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. By then a previous convention banning demonstrations in the area had been abandoned and permanent encampments had been set up by a number of protest movements including Anti-Pinochet, the Countryside Alliance and Stop the War. The new act banned the use of loudspeakers and pitching of tents.
In the UK the right to protest is protected by Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and given effect in the UK through the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998, another bete noir of the home secretary. There are no legal powers to ban people gathering for so-called “static” demonstrations.
Intelligence did not support ‘reasonable belief’ serious disorder was likely
Protest marches can only be banned by the home secretary on application from the local police chief or police and crime commissioner. The central government has reserved this power for itself rather than devolve it to the mayor of London, even though the mayor is in charge of police in the capital.
Under Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986, the commissioner can place restrictions on marches if he or she “reasonably believes” there could be serious disorder, damage or disruption.
But Sir Mark refused to go further and apply for a ban under Section 13 because his intelligence did not support the “reasonable belief” that serious disorder was likely on Saturday.
Police resources stretched thin
In the wake of the Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil protests the government tightened the law on protests with the Public Order Act 2023.
But measures against “serious public disorder”, “serious damage to property” and “serious disruption to the life of the community” should not automatically apply to a transitory and peaceful march.
The Met intends to be “sharper” picking up individuals who break the law by violence, hate speech, advocating support for an illegal terrorist organisation such as Hamas, chanting “from the river to the sea” or the “intimidation of others”.
But in reality when hundreds of thousands take to the streets, police resources are stretched controlling the mass flow of people, without sending in snatch squads which are likely to provoke disorder.
Keep calm and carry on
Ms Braverman called the Palestinian marches “an assertion of primacy by certain groups – particularly Islamists – of the kind we are used to seeing in Northern Ireland” with “reminiscent” reports of “links to terrorist groups, including Hamas”.
All traditions, and the PSNI, are offended. The deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had already stated: “What we cannot do is interpret support for the Palestinian cause more broadly as being support for Hamas or any other proscribed group.”
“Primacy” is one thing. A passing parade, however large and however profound the passions it stirs, is another.
London’s Metropolitan Police are far from perfect, but on how to handle 11 November 2023 Sir Mark seems to have a firmer grasp on the fundamentals of our liberal democratic society than the home secretary.
Keep calm and carry on.