Gaza, Britain and Rishi Sunak

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Gaza, Britain and Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak during his Downing Street address to the nation on Friday 1 March 2024

No local conflict in living memory has stirred up such worldwide fear and loathing as the war in Gaza. Not the Vietnam war, not the war in Ukraine, where sympathies lie overwhelmingly on one side, not the Balkan or the Iraq wars. It’s as if ancient demons have been summoned to haunt us.

The aftershocks are reverberating in Britain, in America, Europe and beyond. Righteous anger is fertile ground for shady politicians, the partisan media and internet trolls spreading the poison of fake news.

Rishi Sunak chose to frame the febrile argument over Gaza as a national crisis last week. Prompted, in part, by the election of George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election the previous day, Sunak sounded the alarm.

Standing in front of that harbinger of momentous events – the Downing Street podium with its United Kingdom crest– the Prime Minister warned the nation that extremists are out to tear Britain apart. “Mob rule”, he said earlier last week, threatens our democracy. He was referring to the regular, and largely peaceful, pro-Palestinian marches.

What was this? A plea for moderation? Or a panicked cry for help by a man no longer in control of his party, staring at all-but-certain defeat at the general election? Hyperbole is the stock in trade of those who wish to manipulate us into taking sides or distract us from the facts. Take a kernel of truth and blow it up into something monstrous. It’s easily done.

Prejudice is baked into human beings. Seeing others as stereotypes is easier to deal with than the complex, contradictory beings that we are. A modern spin doctor like Isaac Levido, the Tory party’s electoral mastermind, would call it wedge politics. Find a chink and drive the wedge in.

Galloway’s victory was certainly a head-turner. Galloway is a gifted if cynical opportunist who exploits political vacuums. The Labour candidate had been cast adrift by the party. Galloway skilfully targeted the pain and anger many Muslims in Rochdale feel about the war in Gaza.

His record, however, suggests he’s a one-trick pony. Both his previous successful by-election raids on Labour party territory (2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow and 2012 in Bradford West) were reversed at the subsequent elections.

But what about Sunak and his alarming rhetoric: antisemitic mobs roaming our streets, the threat from Islamic extremists and, one suspects, thrown in to maintain a semblance of balance, the threat from the far-Right?

Which far-Right was he referring to? His ex-Home Secretary Suella “Flamethrower” Braverman, who says Britain has been taken over by Islamists? His ex-deputy party chairman, Lee Anderson, who said that jihadists were running the capital?

Or Liz Truss, the 49-day Prime Minister, who stood beaming at conspiracy theorist Steve Bannon at a pro-Trump jamboree in Washington, as he described convicted criminal Tommy Robinson as a hero?

But Sunak is the Prime Minister. He should have his finger on the pulse of the nation. So it’s worth asking: does his vision of a Britain on the verge of strife square with what’s going on in your neck of the woods? Or this just another gambit out of the populist’s playbook — sowing division for political advantage by pumping up fear?

It’s fair to say that the mood of the nation is not good. There’s plenty of anger to feed on. More people are poor. Many more feel poor. Austerity, Brexit and the chaos of five Prime Ministers in seven years has amplified a feeling of drift and division. Our public services are in poor shape.

The sense of alienation that many feel, the distance between the governed and the government, is underscored by a sense of resignation, a conviction that nothing changes and nothing will. The PPE scandal, the Post Office scandal, the infected blood scandal, scandal after scandal after scandal amplifies the feeling that justice and fairness are luxuries only the rich and powerful can count on. You may think: “what does this have to do with Gaza”, but it all adds up.

At the heart of this is a loss of trust, in those who govern us, in our institutions and, fatally, in each other. The language of politics has become harsher, less respectful and more divisive. We are encouraged by those who want our support to see others as a threat to who we are and what we have.

Into this disarray is thrust the war in Gaza and the ancient hatreds it summons.

Mixed in with a genuine horror at how indiscriminate Israel’s actions in Gaza have become is the ugly face of antisemitism. This is unacceptable. Jewish kids in north London should not have to take their blazers off on their way home from school to avoid being targeted.

But Israel is the living embodiment of the Jewish people. So Jews will face hostility from racists when Israel behaves in a way that provokes anger. It’s irrational. It’s shameful. It’s antisemitic. It should be met with the full force of the law. But it’s probably inescapable.

The same applies to what we call Islamophobia: a fear of fundamentalist Islam, terrorism or the imagined arrival of Sharia law on the streets of Britain. Muslims who abhor violence and terrorism, like Jews, get tarred with the same brush as jihadists. It’s scapegoating of the most deplorable kind.

It’s a toxic brew. The problems are real. Prejudice, suspicion of the other inflames social tensions and encourages political extremism which, on current form, is where Britain’s governing party appears to be heading. But our streets are not on fire. By and large communities live peacefully side by side. The extremists are dangerous. But they’re marginal.

Sunak has been accused of gaslighting. That’s not entirely fair. His intentions are not only partisan. But the impossible position he finds himself in,with his party desperate to avoid a wipe-out, leads him to say things that are muddled and contradictory.

When he became Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak said: “I will unite our country, not with words, but with action.” He has failed to do this. The war in Gaza with its capacity to inflame feelings and deep-seated prejudice demands a cool head and an even-handed approach. Imploring the rest of us to keep extremism at bay while presiding over a party whose leading figures pour fuel over the fire is not the way to do it.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 66%
  • Interesting points: 72%
  • Agree with arguments: 63%
34 ratings - view all

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