IT’S alarming how quickly comments made to cynically deflect attention from Labour’s hijacking of last week’s Commons debate on Gaza have gained traction – to the extent they have moved the debate to ground which potentially threatens our human rights.

Tom Southerden, law and human rights director at Amnesty International UK, said this week that Rishi Sunak’s hyperbolic language on demonstrations could lead to curbs on our very rights to protest. “Talk of ‘mob rule’ wildly exaggerates the issue and risks delegitimising the rights of peaceful protest,” he said.

It initially seemed ridiculous when Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle blamed his “unusual” acceptance of a Labour Party amendment dealing with the Gaza tragedy on his fears for MPs’ safety. Ridiculous not because we should ignore threats to MPs. Obviously serious threats, whether to elected representatives themselves, their families or their staff demand action.

But the issue had been pulled out the hat when pressure was mounting on Hoyle to come up with an explanation for a procedural decision which last week plunged the House of Commons into farce. The prospect of leaving the impression that the supposedly impartial Speaker had favoured Labour politicking was not widely approved of in the corridors of power.

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Nor was the prospect of hitherto popular Hoyle being forced to resign thanks to Stephen Flynn’s motion.

The issue of MPs’ safety was the perfect cover. After all, who would have the courage to speak out against measures which would “protect parliamentary democracy” as well as lives? Restrictions on human rights are never brought into force with that stated aim. They are always sneaked through on the basis of some extremist threat or other. It’s our responsibility to ensure that such a threat justifies the measures being introduced to counter it.

Look at the language being employed by Sunak to convince the public that demonstrations – particularly demonstrations on the controversial subject of what amounts to genocide in Gaza – can’t just go ahead all over the place.

He warned UK police chiefs on Wednesday that they risked losing “public confidence” if they did not use their powers to crackdown on protests and “do whatever it requires to protect our democracy”.

A refusal or even reluctance to do so, he went on to say, would contribute to “a growing consensus that mob role is replacing democratic rule”, demanding that “we’ve got to collectively, all of us, change that urgently”.

The National: A climate protester is searched outside the Lloyds Building in central London.A climate protester is searched outside the Lloyds Building in central London. (Image: James Manning)

The evidence? The Prime Minister and those who support his calls for action have amassed a motley assortment of details which they hope will combine to stoke public fears.

There is the expense to the public purse. A report in the Daily Express on Wednesday said that demonstrations across the country had cost the police £25 million “in just two months”.

The figure was attributed to a report by the Commons Home Affairs Committee (HAC), which it described as “the greatest period of sustained pressure on the Met since the Olympics in 2012”. I can’t remember an equivalent outcry in the media at the costs of London’s staging of the successful event. Just saying.

By contrast, the cost of policing demonstrations – in the Gaza case, remember that these demonstrations are in protest at UK Government policy – led to the HAC warning: “Should these protests continue indefinitely, it stands to reason that forces will be less able to carry out the everyday neighbourhood and response policing that is so vital to the public.’’ Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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The main thrust of Sunak’s argument, though, centres on the threat to the safety of MPs. There’s no doubt there have been awful attacks on MPs, including the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 and of David Amess in 2021. No-one would want to belittle these tragedies or increase the risk of a repeat.

More recent examples of threatening behaviour cited as justification for the clampdown include pro-Palestinian protestor targeting the home of Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, Labour MP Preet Gill’s claim that death threats had become “a norm” in her job and Tory MP Theo Clarke saying she carried a panic button linked to the police “at all times”.

More controversial was a claim by Labour MSP Paul Sweeney (below) that his Glasgow constituency office was “stormed” by Gaza protesters, “terrifying and threatening our staff”.

Police Scotland later said it was not aware of anyone storming in or threatening Labour staff and described the protest as “peaceful”.

A Scotsman reporter on the scene also rejected the suggestion that the office was stormed. John Devlin told Sweeney: “I can understand why your staff felt intimidated, Paul, but there was no forcing of doors, no storming. The door was held open as someone left the building and that’s how entry was gained. What I witnessed was peaceful.”

The National: Paul Sweeney

Of course it is important that MPs are protected by from violence but it is also important that hyperbolic over-reactions such as Sunak’s are not allowed to usher in new restrictions on the public right to demonstrate against policies with which it disagrees. It’s a fair question to ask if Sunak’s description of “this pattern of increasingly violent and intimidatory behaviour” is justified. And then, of course, there is the Home Office’s unpleasant description of some protestors’ disruption threats as “un-British”.

Sunak's response is not just that protests outside MPs’ homes and offices should generally be considered intimidatory and result in an immediate police response but also that there should be curbs on protests outside parliament, town halls and public buildings.

The Labour Party response has been to suggest that it supports these proposals but not the Prime Minister’s language to justify putting them forward – a response every bit as contradictory and weak as we’ve come to expect from the official Westminster opposition.

The Tory action plan goes too far and could easily herald a new age in which political protests are muzzled whenever the Government gets sick of hearing them. I would be tempted to describe that as “un-British” but then this is a country in which an entire nation is denied a say in its own constitutional future because this government is sick hearing us trying to discuss it.

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This is a country in which it is perfectly acceptable for a Westminster government to turn its back on the slaughter of children but unacceptable for those who oppose such an action to protest about it.

Donna Jones, the Tory chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, revealed the real motivation behind Sunak’s crackdown when she said: “We’ve all heard the message now from pro-Palestinian groups. We’ve heard it, we know it, we get what they’re trying to say – but this type of unlawful behaviour has got to stop.”

In other words … you’ve had your chance to protest – now shut up and go away.

You can be absolutely sure these restrictions won’t stop at Gaza demonstrations. Once brought in they’ll be applied to environmental activists and other campaigners. How do we know? Former Tory party deputy chairman Lee Anderson has told us. In a surreal interview with Channel 4, Anderson mentioned Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter as organisations who were “out of control”.

Its true that Anderson has lost the Tory whip over comments he has made on this issue but whether it’s because of the comments or because he has not apologised for them remains unclear. More likely it’s because he inadvertently revealed mainstream Conservative thinking.

Amnesty’s Southerden had it absolutely right when he said: “Freedom of expression and assembly are absolutely fundamental rights in any free and fair society. The UK has undergone a major crackdown on protest rights in recent years, with peaceful protest tactics being criminalised and the police being given sweeping powers to prevent protests taking place.”

That’s what we have to remember when a control freak, unlistening government tries to convince us that they only way to protect freedoms is to take them away from us.