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How does Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent behaviour against protests limit freedom of expression?

Since the 7th of October attacks by Hamas provoked the Israel Defence Force to launch a bombardment of, and invasion into, Gaza, worldwide protests have been held consistently. One of the largest, with between 300,000-800,000 attendees, occurred in London on Saturday the 11th, calling for a ceasefire and declaring themselves “against the oppression and dispossession suffered by the Palestinian people”, according to the organisers, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley determined that these protests were safe and allowed them to go ahead. However, members of the government at that time, including former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, have been heavily critical of this choice.

The then-Home Secretary had been vocal in her opposition to this march. In an opinion piece for The Times, she repeated her earlier description of the protests as “hate marches’” She also labelled these campaigners as “an assertion of primacy by certain groups”, rather than being “merely a cry for help for Gaza’” These comments imply an accusation of disingenuity on the part of the organisers, who have made no statements asserting the primacy of any one group over others. These remarks caused uproar amongst those influential in politics and the public sector. Prominent Labour MPs Jess Phillips and David Lammy were heavily critical, referring to the comments as “breath-taking but not surprising”, and “an appalling new low” respectively. Senior Tories have rejected her comments, with an unnamed Conservative describing the article to the BBC as “wholly offensive and ignorant”; even the Prime Minister’s office has admitted that the article was not sanctioned by him. 

In her Times article, Braverman also implied that there was a bias within the Met Police; saying that previous Palestine-supporting protests had been “largely ignored… even when breaking the law”, suggesting that the police had had a “more stern response” to past far-right protests. In response to the former Home Secretary’s article, Rowley stated that banning these protests would be the “last resort”. Braverman’s active undermining of the operational independence of the Met Police shows her disregard for political convention. Implying the bias of a separate government department is unheard of, especially from the Home Secretary, who oversees all law enforcement in England and Wales. Tom Winsor, the former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, denounced her criticism, stating it “crosses a line”.

These dismissals from many sides of the public sphere were not the only backlashes Braverman received, as her article also included a vague and inaccurate comparison of the marches to the sectarian violence seen in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. The former Home Secretary declared that the march is “of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland”, adding that some unspecified reports on links between Hamas and the march’s organisers were “disturbingly reminiscent of Ulster”. Whilst the office of the Home Secretary later clarified her reference to the IRA and other dissident republican terrorists, this ambiguous blunder indicated multiple events, such as the Orange Walks or the Catholic civil rights marches, both of which resulted in violence at different times. Suella Braverman’s flippant comments were lambasted by many, including the leader of Northern Ireland’s SDLP who criticised her “ignorance of the complex history and traditions of marching and protest in Northern Ireland”.  He also referred to her as a “pound-shop Enoch Powell” – a comparison to a controversial Conservative cabinet minister who delivered the much-castigated ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968.

Whilst her article was extensively condemned, YouGov polling suggests that half of Britons think that the march should be banned. 

However, do the laws support this? Whilst the right to protest is protected under the freedoms of assembly and expression established in the Human Rights Act, it is subject to limitations defined under the other laws. For example, the Public Order Act 1986 enables the banning of protests if they would create serious public disorder, serious damage to property, serious disruption to the lives of the community, or intimidation of others. Part of the Public Order Bill 2023 prohibits the obstruction of transport works or interference with essential national infrastructure. However, Sir Mark Rowley stated that “the intelligence surrounding the potential for serious disorder this weekend does not meet the threshold to apply for a ban”. Despite the calls of Suella Braverman and others, the legality of the march is clear and has been confirmed by the Chief of the Metropolitan Police. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did express opposition to the context of the march, calling it “provocative and disrespectful” to protest on Remembrance Day. This is despite the protests not disrupting Remembrance Day events and occurring well after the two-minute silence. Rowley has confirmed that he and the Met Police remain “focused simply on the law and the facts in front of us”. Any calls by Braverman that the march should be banned go against the freedoms of expression and assembly established in the Human Rights Act 1998, and ignore the restrictions outlined in the Public Order Act 1986.

The question of freedom of speech is more nebulous. The Human Rights Act protects the freedom of speech, as limited in law by acts such as the Public Order Act 1986. This act prescribes limits on “threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviours that cause, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm, or distress”. Furthermore, “racial and religious hatred” is banned as part of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. In this context, there are several ongoing investigations into individuals attending the march who have been reported using hate speech. This includes a picture published by the Met Police of a protestor holding a sign depicting a Star of David with a swastika embedded within it. However, of the 145 people arrested on the 11th, the Met Police says the “vast majority” were counter-protestors. They included seven men charged with crimes including assault, possession of weapons, criminal damage, inciting racial hatred, and possession of drugs. A statement by Matt Twist, the Met’s Assistant Commissioner, confirmed the protestors were “already intoxicated, aggressive and clearly looking for confrontation” by the time they arrived. These counter-protestors even trespassed on the Cenotaph and injured nine officers, acts which many had been concerned would be committed by protestors. Whilst the march did not break the law – aside from a small number of hate speech investigations – the counter-protestors certainly caused public disorder and damage to property. In several cases, they are being investigated for racial hatred. Therefore, in her calls for the banning of this march, the former Home Secretary has violated the free speech of protestors and arguably incited further violence and aggression, as seen with the counter-protest.

Outside of her opposition to the National March for Palestine, Braverman’s article has significant political implications, including her firing. Her words here are only a few amongst the catalogue of controversial comments that come to mind when considering her record. Her actions, including breaking the ministerial code in her publication of opinions not sanctioned by the Prime Minister, have hamstrung Rishi Sunak. Keeping her in the cabinet would have attracted further controversy, and distracted from his policy, but firing her will not only fail to silence her, it could also be exactly what she wants. It has become clear that Suella Braverman has been goading the Prime Minister into sacking her. It’s Braverman’s ambition to become the party leader, and her dismissal will support this. Firstly, it will inflame those on the right of the party, increasing opposition to Sunak. Secondly, her absence from the Tory frontbench during their likely defeat in next year’s general election means she won’t be tarred with the same brush as other senior Tories. Finally, a backbench position will give her more independence to criticise the Prime Minister. These consequences have already manifested: Andrea Jenkyns, a prominent Braverman-supporting MP, has publicly denounced Rishi Sunak and declared her lack of confidence in his leadership. Braverman herself has released a blistering lettercriticising Sunak since being removed, saying: “Your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed, and we are running out of time. You need to change course urgently.” Whilst Sunak has attempted to bring the perception of competency to his government with the appointment of former Prime Minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary, the recent Supreme Court ruling that renders one of his flagship policies, the deportation of illegal immigrants to Rwanda, illegal, spells out an extremely damaging week for the Prime Minister’s credibility. 

However, should these be the considerations we make? The former Home Secretary’s article calling for a harsher police response to the National March for Palestine is a violation of their freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly. Furthermore, the protests have been determined by Sir Mark Rowley to not violate any laws or police guidelines. Suella Braverman’s comments also have wide-reaching political implications for the Conservative Party, contributing to further headaches for Rishi Sunak. However, for the hundreds of thousands joining the march, this political disarray distracts from the untold suffering of innocents. The significance of the protest taking place on Armistice Day is not unnoticed, as the march calls for a ceasefire, the very definition of armistice. Contrary to Ms. Braverman’s beliefs, the protests did not assert the primacy of any group but represent a crying out for peace and freedom. Whilst Suella Braverman’s career has faltered, real consequences are being experienced by hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The violation of international law on both sides of this conflict has not only led to mass death and suffering but also an increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia worldwide. The march on the 11th of November was a sobering reminder that whilst politicians like Suella Braverman are attempting to curtail freedoms of speech, assembly, and expression, the freedom of so many to live is being taken, and political squabbles will do nothing about it.

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