Glasgow, United Kingdom – Suella Braverman has been sacked from her role as the United Kingdom’s home secretary after she called pro-Palestinian protesters “hate marchers”, adding to a sense of chaos in Britain as war flares in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak dismissed the populist politician on Monday, after days of speculation over her future.
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The hard-right Conservative has never hidden her disdain for Britain’s supporters of the besieged people of Gaza. Her sacking is understood to be linked to her article in The Times last week, in which she accused the police of being tougher on far-right activists than pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
Sunak’s office did not approve the final text of the article, which The Times itself has described as “inflammatory”.
In previous weeks, she had also told police that waving a Palestinian flag could become a crime – which also saw her accused of meddling.
“Historically, governments in the UK, like others across the world, have used moments of crisis to launch attacks on all of our civil liberties – often starting with those who are already marginalised,” the British civil rights group Liberty said at the time.
“Worryingly, it is happening again now – and it should concern all of us.”
Braverman’s dismissal – and the surprise return of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron to politics – are being mocked by observers as signs of a government in crisis.
Cameron, premier between 2010 and 2016, now holds the role of foreign secretary after James Cleverly replaced Braverman.
While the government is in a state of flux as Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle gathers pace on Monday, tensions between communities are rising, and rights groups are raising the alarm about a possible crackdown on free expression.
This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in London in solidarity with Gaza, marshalled by a heavy police presence, as a small number of far-right groups staged counter-protests.
The rally came about a month after Israel began shelling the Gaza Strip, in response to Hamas’s unprecedented incursion into Israel. More than 1,200 Israelis and 11,000 Palestinians have been killed.
Britons sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians have accused UK political leaders and academic institutions of pursuing a campaign to restrict – or even silence – shows of support for the beleaguered enclave.
On Saturday, some 300,000 supporters of Gaza took to the streets of London in defiance of Britain’s Conservative Party-led government, which has pledged unwavering support for Israel’s actions and views with scepticism pro-Palestinian support.
The rally took place on Armistice Day – the annual commemoration marking the end of World War I – which Braverman condemned as an “unacceptable” act of desecration. Sunak cast the demonstration as “disrespectful”.
Protesters including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and Muslim Association of Britain set off from London’s Hyde Park, before ending at the US Embassy.
Exclusion zones were imposed around the city’s war memorial, the Cenotaph.
Chants advocating for Gaza included “free Palestine”, “ceasefire now” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.
More than 100 people were arrested on the day, mostly counterprotesters.
Opposition accused of silencing debate
Accusations that Britain’s political establishment is trying to crack down on freedom of speech on Gaza also extend to the main opposition Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer.
Like Sunak, he has supported Israel’s bloody onslaught as its “right” to self-defence.
Last month, one of Labour’s largest constituency branches in Scotland saw office bearers resign their posts en masse after accusing the party, odds-on to win the next UK general election, of silencing debate on the crisis.
Nine officials at the Glasgow Kelvin Constituency Labour Party (CLP), in Scotland’s central belt, stood down in protest after a directive was issued by the party’s UK and Scottish general secretaries saying, “any motions” about Gaza would be “out of order and should not be debated at party meetings”.
Labour Party House of Lords peer, Baroness Pauline Bryan of Partick, was among those to quit.
She lamented the “reluctance [by Labour officials] to allow [CLPs] to express their support for the people in Gaza” and expressed concern about how the party would deal with other such debates – on Palestine or anything else – in the future.
The left-wing peer also disagreed with Starmer’s decision to suspend Labour MP Andy McDonald after he referenced “from the river to the sea” during a speech at a pro-Palestinian rally last month.
“Andy McDonald is an extremely well-respected MP,” she told Al Jazeera. “I think people will be shocked and horrified if he’s not reinstated very, very quickly.”
British academia has also become embroiled in the conflict, with universities and university bodies accused of bowing to government pressure.
On October 31, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a national funding agency investing in science and research, suspended its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) advisory group following a letter of complaint by Michelle Donelan, the science secretary, who accused some members of “sharing some extremist views on social media”.
Among her allegations was “the amplification” of a tweet on X by one group member, which, she wrote, “condemns violence on both sides but makes reference to Israel’s ‘genocide and apartheid’”.
Yesterday, UKRI responded to a letter from Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan. Now we are publishing that response and the Terms of Reference for the review we are setting up. pic.twitter.com/RjZypgnbVK
— UK Research and Innovation (@UKRI_News) October 31, 2023
One academic from a leading British university said that Donelan’s intervention had “crossed a line”, adding “that the idea that tweets I make about the conflict might be held against me in this way is outrageous”.
The professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera: “Given the Conservative party’s drift to the ‘Orbanite’ right, I fear this will not end here. If we do not push back against this pressure, it will invite further interventions to marginalise political positions they are hostile to and establish a precedent of academic freedom being subject to the government’s own idea of which political views are acceptable.”
In response to the suspension of the EDI, many academics resigned from UKRI peer review bodies in protest.
Among them was Matt Bennett, a senior research officer at England’s University of Essex.
He claimed that Donelan’s letter was “a frightening reminder that the UK government has no respect for freedom of speech in universities”.
He added: “The secretary of state has signalled to the whole scientific community that any of us who criticise the UK government and call for a ceasefire in Gaza are in danger of being publicly labelled, by a government minister, as an extremist and supporter of terrorism.”
But Bennett told Al Jazeera that “the UK government’s assault on freedom of speech did not begin with the secretary of state’s October 28 letter to UKRI”.
He flagged up the intervention made by UK Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on October 11 when she wrote to university vice-chancellors to “remind” them of their responsibilities under the British anti-terrorism Prevent programme, insinuating that any shows of support for Gaza were anti-Semitic.
Bennett continued: “I have been told by students and colleagues at universities about a range of repressive techniques that university managers, under pressure from government, are using to prevent students and staff holding events in solidarity with the people of Gaza.”
The academic stated that he had “heard of students [being] prevented from distributing leaflets advertising Gaza-solidarity events by campus security” at one university. He also claimed to “have seen an all-staff email at [another] university, sent by their most senior administrator, that smeared a student rally in solidarity with Palestine as likely to be supportive of Hamas terrorism, with no reason given for thinking this other than that the rally was pro-Palestinian”.
Indeed, reports emerged last month that SOAS University of London had suspended some of its students who had taken part in a pro-Gaza rally on campus. The SOAS Palestine Society labelled the suspensions “a targeted act of political repression for those who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people”.
But a SOAS spokesperson told Al Jazeera that “the small number of suspensions relate” to students “violating our health and safety protocol”.
“Fire alarms were set off and part of the estate was vandalised, halting lectures for the day,” the spokesperson added.