THE right to protest is fundamental to democracy, and we cannot allow it to be removed by an increasingly extreme Tory government in its last days.

The Rochdale by-election was unique for many reasons. I will never welcome the election of a reactionary social conservative like George Galloway under any circumstances, although the strength of his vote spoke to the huge collective failure and complicity of Westminster in the face of Israel’s genocide against Gaza.

For close to five months, the UK has armed and supported the death and destruction raining down on the people of Gaza, including the restriction of vital food, water and aid, and the demolition of medical facilities. The Prime Minister has given Israeli forces his full backing and the so-called Leader of the Opposition is doing little better.

With polls showing that almost three-quarters of the public want the UK to call for an immediate ceasefire, it has forced MPs to be accountable and has exposed the huge gulf between public opinion and the broken Westminster consensus.

All over the UK there have been protests, with gatherings, events, rallies and street stalls in almost every town and city.

READ MORE: Fears extremism definition change could hit Scottish independence activism

The response – not just to the by-election itself, but to anyone who has taken to the streets – has been appalling. We have seen the Government and large parts of the press resorting to scapegoating, demonising and caricaturing those of us who are calling for peace.

They have branded protesters as extremists while resorting to ever more divisive and extreme rhetoric themselves. This sentiment was embodied by the former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson, who used an appearance on the right-wing GB News channel to accuse London mayor Sadiq Khan of giving “control of London” to Islamists.

It’s not just the usual demagogues and backbenchers like Lee Anderson where this hostility is coming from, it’s institutional and has reached the highest levels of government.

In November, the then-home secretary, Suella Braverman went as far as branding the large, peaceful protests we have seen across the UK as “hate marches” before whipping up far-right hooligans and encouraging them to descend on Downing Street in order to block a fictitious threat to the Cenotaph.

It was flat-out misinformation and the result was chaos, with scores of arrests as the thugs disrupted Remembrance Day preparations and fought with police officers. The Palestine protest they were there to stop didn’t take place until hours later in a totally different part of London, and saw hundreds of thousands of people marching in a sea of peaceful protest.

The National:

Rishi Sunak went back to these tropes last week, ramping up the fear in the aftermath of the Rochdale vote. He used a speech outside Downing Street to equate the protests for peace with the far right and a physical threat to MPs.

Warning that “forces here at home are trying to tear us apart”, the Prime Minister promised new curbs on free expression and encouraged the police to “take action”. It was a characteristically cynical intervention that threatens to pave the way for ever-greater curbs on our democracy and the freedom to protest.

The right to protest is key to any democracy. Protests and peaceful direct action have been a part of our political tradition for centuries. It is how social movements and trade unions have secured badly needed change.

Our democracy cannot be limited to government-approved protest groups campaigning on government-approved issues. A democracy where the government can stop protests at a whim is not a democracy.

There are few things that worry the Tories as much as people standing up for their rights or the rights of others. That is why they have consistently introduced curbs and restraints on trade unions and political organising, and why they have used programmes like Prevent to crack down on free expression.

READ MORE: Nadia El-Nakla calls out Rishi Sunak over Islamophobia from Tory MPs

I wish I had confidence that Labour would oppose any such curbs, but I don’t. They have already said that they will not repeal the Public Order Act that the Tories introduced last year, an authoritarian bill that Amnesty described as the start of “a dark new era for peaceful protest”.

Some of the biggest protests we have seen in the UK have been against horrific decisions like that to go to war in Iraq. That disaster that killed more than 500,000 people and created a humanitarian crisis for which Iraqis are still paying a terrible price today.

There was a campaign of disinformation against protesters then, with smears that we were supportive of Saddam Hussain and all sorts of other nonsense. Yet unfortunately, we were completely vindicated by the horrors that unfolded.

The vast majority of curbs the Tories introduce will probably not directly affect Scotland, but some of them, such as the litany of attacks on unions, already do.

The right to protest does not end at our borders. I have been proud to march with friends and comrades in England and will do it again. Particularly while we are in the UK, there is a big responsibility on devolved governments to take a stand and do things differently.

The Tories are on their way out. But we cannot let them undermine what’s left of our free speech, seemingly determined to enact a scorched earth policy as they go.

We must stand together for our right to protest.