Identity politics are preventing Britain from showing leadership on Gaza

Debate over London's stance on the war is being subsumed by cynical politicians exploiting societal ills

Former home secretary Suella Braverman has accused pro-Palestine protesters of being in league with 'Islamists'. EPA
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The debate over whether or not to support an immediate ceasefire in Gaza speaks to deep questions about humanitarianism, the ethics of war and the mechanics of building a lasting peace in a troubled region. At least, it ought to. Instead, in Britain it has become a football in the shallow arena of domestic identity politics.

Last week, a largely symbolic parliamentary vote on the subject, proposed by the Scottish National Party (SNP), descended into chaos after the Speaker of the House of Commons broke with procedure to entertain an amendment put forward by the Labour party, leading Conservative MPs to walk out of the chamber in protest. The amended motion, urging an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” but excluding the SNP’s original language calling for “an end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”, passed as a result.

The country’s politicians have been rowing ever since. The temperature increased when Suella Braverman, a former Conservative home secretary who was dismissed in November after criticising London police for being soft on pro-Palestine protesters, wrote a particularly inflammatory op-ed in the Daily Telegraph insinuating those supporting a ceasefire are in thrall to religious extremists. “The Islamist cranks and left-wing extremists…took control of the streets,” she wrote. On the parliamentary vote and Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, Ms Braverman wrote: “in hock to the Islamists, he is responsible for one of the most shameful days of our democracy”.

Conservative MP Lee Anderson piled on, claiming in a television interview that Islamists have “got control of” London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and the capital itself. Shortly afterwards, Mr Anderson was suspended by his party. Mr Khan and Mr Starmer have rightly accused him of Islamophobia – a term Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is loath to use.

Khan and Starmer have rightly accused Anderson of Islamophobia

On Monday, Conservative MP Paul Scully claimed that parts of East London and Birmingham with large Muslim communities are “no-go areas”, further fuelling allegations of anti-Muslim sentiments within the UK's ruling party. Andy Street, the Conservative West Midlands Mayor, was quick to criticise the claim, saying: “It really is time for those in Westminster to stop the nonsense slurs and experience the real world. I, for one, am proud to lead the most diverse place in Britain.”

The heightened rhetorical tensions are only adding to the distress of those who feel targeted in UK communities.

Mr Sunak’s reluctance to tackle this issue head on is deeply problematic. But in an environment where politicians have allowed – even encouraged – identity politics to become such a powerful force, it is all too predictable. The British left is not without fault, and has its own history of questionable positions driven by identity politics.

The wave of cynical populism Ms Braverman is helping to drive will only deepen Britain’s divisions – not heal them. And that would have significant implications for the country’s future as a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, as well as its ability to be a voice of reason in an increasingly polarised world. As the war continues in Gaza, some members of parliament from the UK, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, are too busy fighting internal battles against some of their own communities.

Published: February 28, 2024, 3:00 AM