Anti-extremism adviser calls for UK reset on protest rules

Lord Walney urges police to enforce powers against demonstrations that turn 'menacing' while spillover into public institutions must be prevented

Pro-Palestinian protesters march down Regent Street in London. Getty Images
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A senior adviser to the UK government has set his sights on redefining the acceptable threshold of mass protest to introduce safeguards against demonstrations spilling into political violence.

The government’s political violence adviser has told The National while the right to protest “remains hugely important” the intensity of the scenes the UK has witnessed since the outbreak of the Gaza-Israel war has triggered an examination of how to prevent spillover, such as targeted intimidation of public figures.

Lord Walney, who independently advises ministers and is a former Labour MP, added that he hoped to go further to show what was acceptable and what was needed to stop extremism spreading outside politics into other public spaces, especially schools and universities.

Lord Walney urged police forces to use their powers to limit the “really febrile atmosphere” in which demonstrations have turned “menacing” during pro-Palestinian rallies.

“That just does not meet a test of reasonableness of behaviour,” he told The National.

“This is about applying the law and not about shutting down protests. But it’s also about the public’s desire to live their life free from disruption and without being intimidated.”

Protests leading to intimidation

Since the conflict started the majority of arrests in the UK have been far-right extremists, including 92 detained after they attacked police guarding the Cenotaph war memorial in November last year.

Dame Sara Khan, the human rights activist who also advises the government, argued that the new definition does not go far enough with legislation required to curtail neo-Nazi groups who were “spreading incredibly destructive narratives about Jews, about Muslims”.

“We are failing in the struggle against extremism in this country,” she told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. “It is currently lawful in Britain to glorify terrorism as long as you avoid encouraging…terrorism.”

As a result of the “lack of legislation” extremists were operating with the freedom “to replace our democracy with the idea of a Nazi state or Islamist caliphate”.

Lord Walney warned that the current pro-Palestinian protests over Israel’s actions in Gaza were endangering freedom of speech.

As well as incidents at MPs' homes and local council meetings, there is a fear that demonstrations could spread to schools and universities, with severe consequences.

The peer, who was special adviser to former prime minister Gordon Brown, had spoken to several leaders in higher education who had become “deeply concerned about the nature of protest in universities”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this month warned against the “poison” of extremism, saying in an address outside No 10 Downing Street that British democracy faces “intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence”. He said he would call in vice chancellors to discuss what is acceptable on campuses.

The UK government is also creating a “blacklist” of organisations under a new definition of extremism, under which their funding would be cut.

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has called on Mr Sunak to set up an independent review of anti-Muslim sentiment in the ruling Conservative Party amid a febrile political atmosphere in Britain following contentious debates on Gaza.

Meanwhile, schools are facing calls for conversations and teaching around the war in Gaza to be acknowledged not suppressed.

Skewed debate

The debate has been skewed in recent years over the right to protest, which is fundamentally important, but to people defending highly disruptive and intimidating protests at all costs, Lord Walney said.

“My work is about resetting the debate over what is acceptable and what is not,” he said.

The government’s adviser on political violence and disruption condemned people targeting MPs’ homes as well as council chambers being “stormed by angry protesters to disrupt proceedings of local councils who have no say whatsoever on the UK’s foreign policy”.

Expedited orders

In a report he will present to Mr Sunak next month before publication, the peer will urge the police to broaden the use of “expedited public space protection orders” introduced to disperse people from Covid-19 vaccination centres or pubs.

He suggested expedited orders be used to protect MPs in their weekly local surgeries, homes, council chambers and “potentially parliament itself” after a fraught pro-Palestinian demonstration last month during a vote over a Gaza ceasefire.

“Parliament for a while was close to being unsafe for parliamentarians,” said Lord Walney, speaking at his Westminster office. “That was an issue of policing tactics but also a real wake-up call for parliamentarians in that we can’t allow this kind of atmosphere to intrude on democratic activities.

“MPs being intimidated is not acceptable.”

Iran threat

Iran was also playing a significant role in fomenting unrest by influencing on social media, he added. Potentially influenced by hostile state actors, not only Iran and including Russia, protests “through a sense of threat and menace” could pressurise elected representatives into keeping their head down or voting a certain way, he said.

“That for me is not acceptable and we need to do more to draw a line and if you clearly overstep that line then I'm not engaging with you,” Lord Walney added.

Britain’s security agencies' focus on counter-terrorism efforts had “left a gap that hostile states seek to exploit” with a plan to “significantly erode the faith in public institutions like our parliamentary democracy”, he said.

Britain also had to be resilient “against funding and support for networks” from countries such as Iran in the UK “whose aim is to undermine our values as a nation”, he added.

“So being open and alive to that and having our [security] agencies focused on those activities is really important,” he said.

Lord Walney’s report will also be used by Communities Secretary Michael Gove, who recently published the UK’s new definition of extremism. The step was important in “reframing the debate”, Lord Walney said.

“My hope is that with a new definition we can have a renewed focus on that crucial issue of how to protect our democratic system,” he said.

Updated: March 20, 2024, 4:39 PM