Euan McColm on Rishi Sunak, George Galloway and the PM's warning about a problem he had a role in creating

However, it can also be also correct for the Prime Minister to say that extremists have been hijacking protests

As one of the great narcissists of our times, George Galloway will have been thrilled. Not only did the former Labour MP seal his return to elected politics on Thursday, winning the Rochdale by-election by some distance, but, in doing so, he spooked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak into making an emergency address to the nation.

When it was announced that the PM was to deliver a statement from a lectern on Downing Street shortly before six pm on Friday evening, speculation quickly turned to the possibility he was to confirm the date of the next general election. Instead, Sunak told us it was time to face down the “extremists” currently trying to undermine the United Kingdom’s “multi-faith democracy”.

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There were warnings about both Islamists and the far right, though most of the PM’s attention was focused on extremists who have played leading roles in protests against Israel’s military response in Gaza to the murderous raid by Hamas terrorists last October 7. These pro-Palestine marches had “descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence”. It was time, he said, to “draw a line”. Nobody on any march should feel free to call for violent Jihad or for the eradication of any state.

On that Rochdale by-election result, Sunak said it was “beyond alarming” that voters in Rochdale had returned a candidate who had “dismissed what happened” in Israel in October.

It was hardly surprising, given the recent behaviour of some high-profile Conservatives, that the Prime Minister’s statement was treated by some with derision.

The British people, said Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, would take no lessons from a Prime Minister and a Conservative Party which had sowed the seeds of division for years. The SNP MP Alison Thewliss said Mr Sunak had “repeatedly, and very deliberately, sought to stoke up divisions, pander to the far-right and pit communities against each other for electoral gain”.

It is difficult to argue against either of those charges.

The recent suspension of former Tory Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson MP over claims Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of Islamists came after a number of his fellow politicians had pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable to say on matters of race and immigration.

Following Anderson’s suspension, a series of Tory MPs chose to humiliate themselves by appearing on TV and radio and refusing to say whether their colleague’s remarks had been Islamophobic. All stuck to the line that what Anderson said had been “wrong” then refused to say why it had been so.

As it hurtles to what looks like general election humiliation, the Conservative Party has lurched right, with senior figures exploiting existing tensions over immigration.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sunak and his party have played their part in creating the problem which he now warns we must all guard against.

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But some things do need to be said and we do not have the luxury of choosing who says them. Had, say, Sir David Attenborough addressed the nation on Friday evening to warn of the growing danger of extremism, we’d be in agreement that a problem existed.

Just because it was Sunak speaking on Friday, it doesn’t mean what he said was entirely without substance. It is possible both for the Prime Minister to have played his part in stoking community tensions in the UK and for him to be correct to say extremists are hijacking protests.

Since October 7, when squads of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, raping and butchering their way through the crowd at a music festival, executing scores of Jewish families in their homes, and taking more than 200 hostages, there have been a series of protests calling for peace in the Middle East. Those participating have had little to say about the 1,200 men, women, children, and babies sliced to pieces by terrorists. And they’d been pretty damned quiet about the hostages still being held by the men who murdered their loved ones.

Instead, these protests – which may have been billed as attempts to bring an end to Israel’s military retaliation to Hamas’s outrage – have swiftly descended into displays of vicious antisemitism. It’s commonplace to hear protestors call for the eradication of Israel, banners depicting vicious antisemitic tropes speckle the crowds, in some instances rabble rousers have called for “Jihad”.

Jews around the UK speak of feeling unsafe, right now. Who could blame them?

Footage from several marches shows police officers taking no action while protestors chant unambiguously antisemitic slogans. Unsurprisingly, some ask if its any wonder Jews feel unsafe.

I’ve some sympathy with police officers who’ve clearly decided that – vastly outnumbered by angry crowds – starting to nick people might create serious, violent disorder.

The very fact the situation in the Middle East has become such a powder keg issue on the streets of the UK should be a matter of concern. The Prime Minister was perfectly right to say so.

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George Galloway, shamelessly exploiting the situation in Gaza with a campaign heavily critical of Israel, was able to win more than 12,000 votes in Rochdale last week. I’m not sure that was earthquake enough to merit a Prime Ministerial address to the nation but it proved conflict in the Middle East can influence our politics.

While other opposition politicians attacked the Prime Minister, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer welcomed his words. Sunak, said the leader of the opposition, was right to “advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently”.

This, I think, was the right response. In recent years, two MPs have been murdered by extremists. Labour’s Jo Cox died at the hands of a hard right British nationalist while Tory David Amess was killed by an Islamist. A serious problem exists and serious politicians must recognise as much.

How they go about taking the heat out of this issue is another matter entirely.



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