THERE is a proud and radical tradition of protest and demonstration in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.

In the 19th century, the Chartists organised the first working-class mass movement. Visionary for the time, they demanded a raft of democratic reforms, including the abolition of property ownership qualifications for becoming a member of parliament. Like all great movements which challenge the orthodoxies of the day and the positions of the powerful, it was demonised by ruling circles.

But Chartism – which redefined all politics on a class basis – dominated the political agenda between 1838 and 1848. Today, celebration of this eruption of protest and campaigning is celebrated across the political spectrum and institutionalised into the national story. It was ever thus.

Whether it be the Suffragettes, so named by the Daily Mail as a patronising version of the word suffragist, or the once much-maligned anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, the centuries are littered with examples where oppositional movements are smeared and repressed.

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The British political establishment today, as illustrated by their draconian and anti-democratic attitudes around the right to protest and the denigration of the Palestine solidarity mobilisations, appear to lack that understanding of history.

The late, great, Tony Benn did not suffer from such a void of substance and moral fibre. “A historical perspective is the key to democratic politics, which if denied can bury the real issues and confine news coverage to high-level gossip about the rich and the powerful, reducing us to the role of spectators of our fate, rather than active participants,” he argued.

“The obliteration of the past strengthens the short-term calculations that pass for political thought, and for me the real heroes are those few who try to explain the world in order to help us to understand what we can best do to improve our lot.”

These comments ring clarion in 2024. And it is telling that when people have the temerity to organise around a view countervailing to establishment wisdom, it sparks a meltdown and a backlash, which chiefly resorts to repressing democratic rights. That is the sign of a fragile order, and one with neither the intellect nor leadership skills to conduct substantive political arguments in response.

The National: Suella Braverman

In recent months the mass demonstrations for a ceasefire and justice for the Palestinians have shaped the political environment. Suella Braverman tried to ban the essential right to assemble, before blowing the dog whistle that led to the far-right rioting at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people took their solidarity with the people of Gaza, enduring incomprehensible conditions, to the streets peacefully. She lost her role as home secretary just days later.

It is no surprise that Braverman reappeared with a major attack on this movement at the moment its core demand – for an immediate ceasefire – had effectively become the national consensus. This time, the marches were not only characterised as “hate-mongering” but, ignorantly, as “Islamist”.

The recent farcical scenes in the House of Commons around Gaza motions, and the justifications for them as presented by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, opened up a new dissent into punitive and authoritarian narratives and measures.

In essence, a spectacular convulsion has gripped much of the political class – who having definitively lost the argument on the issue itself – unleashed a wave of Islamophobia and new threats to democratic rights in response. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s outlandish speech outside Number 10 even condemned an election result – which, regardless of one’s view on George Galloway, was an egregious misuse of official prime ministerial press events.

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Curiously, this part of his speech has been redacted from the UK Government website.

Amnesty International concluded: “The threat to impose yet more restrictions on people’s right to peacefully protest is deeply worrying and suggests the Government is determined to silence those who may disagree with its policies...the Prime Minister appears to be suggesting that Muslims will be targeted in this new Government crackdown, which is incredibly concerning and must be opposed.”

The polling company Ipsos reports that the Conservatives have slumped to their lowest poll rating since the start of the firm’s surveys in 1978, adding to the air of desperation.

There are grave matters at stake for those complicit in the indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Gaza and the destruction of its universities, heritage sites and medical facilities. With more than 30,000 killed, tens of thousands buried under rubble, and a man-made famine induced by the siege of the Strip taking hold, defending the indefensible is not only ethically vacuous, but also drastically out of sync with public opinion.

That the International Court of Justice has deemed the circumstances in Gaza as “plausible genocide”, and as fresh atrocities are reported daily, it is little wonder there is a major effort to criminalise protest to displace scrutiny of the government and much of the opposition on what is an era-defining matter.

The National: Thousands protest against slaughter in Gaza

Alas, far too many in the media seem to think their job is to hold the people, not the powerful, to account in that context. So much has been levelled at the movement demanding an immediate ceasefire, and so little of the political leaders who are implicated in serious breaches of international law and untold human suffering. We can expect this process to intensify.

Ministers are now considering proposals to ban MPs and councillors from engaging with groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. Add to this the ever-tightening anti-trade union legislation, and the extra-parliamentary realm is being reduced to a husk.

Just as Thatcher referred to the miners as “the enemy within”, the same playbook is being deployed today: division, demonisation and the use of the state to repress civil rights. But these are not the actions of a strong government, or an ideologically coherent political class.

Instead, they represent a profound weakness: of politics, intellect and morality. They seek to defenestrate a movement certain of its principles, representing a genuine cross-section of society, across generations, faiths and political creeds. This only serves to indicate the political impact it has had.

Thus it is no surprise that we have witnessed such a lashing out. But as our history books record, those who are marginalised over worthy causes today are often revered tomorrow.