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Dangerous Words: After Rishi Sunak's extremism speech, should we be worried?

Rishi Sunak had a message for protesters | Alamy

Dangerous Words: After Rishi Sunak's extremism speech, should we be worried?

Standing outside Downing Street, Rishi Sunak delivered a teatime speech on extremism.

From his place behind the lectern, he told the nation “our democracy is at risk” from Islamists and the far right, who he called “two sides of the same extremist coin”, and urged protesters to be peaceful, painting a picture that suggested mob rule lay just outwith the Downing St door. 

Billing Britain as “the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy”, he said there are now “Jewish children fearful to wear their school uniform lest it reveal their identity” and “Muslim women abused in the street for the actions of a terrorist group they have no connection with”.

A heckler yelled loudly throughout the 10-minute talk.

Days later, Sunak’s government, which remains under pressure for its handling of the Israel-Gaza crisis, had to pay out to two academics wrongly accused of “sharing extremist views” by science minister Michelle Donelan. And the morning after that, Conservative peer Baroness Foster confirmed a payout of her own to a Muslim University Challenge contestant she’d accused of using antisemitic tropes.

How does that square with Sunak’s message? “It clearly doesn’t, does it?” says Dr Tim Wilson, director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. The PM’s speech, he tells Holyrood, was “jaw-droppingly condescending”.

“At one level I think calling out the threat to democracy is long overdue – my attitude would be to welcome every sinner that repents,” he says, noting the “loose cannons” in the Conservative Party who have caused so many rows for Sunak. “What I’m less persuaded by is the apparent idea of where the main threats are.”

The ‘loose canons’ include the party’s former deputy chair Lee Anderson MP. He had the whip withdrawn less than one week before Sunak’s speech for remarks about London mayor Sadiq Khan, who he said was in control of Islamists and had “given our capital city away to his mates”.

And while Donelan has apologised for smearing Heriot-Watt’s Professor Kate Sang and Dr Kamna Patel of University College London, Sang – who was accused of supporting Hamas – said the minister had “made a cheap political point at [her] expense and caused serious damage to [her] reputation” by publishing a letter to government agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) urging it to cut ties with the women. Sunak, who has announced he will “demand that universities stop extremist activities on campus,” is reportedly standing by Donelan. Wilson says the minister carried out an ”assault on academic freedom” with “the full weight of the state seemingly behind it”. And he questions the picture painted by parts of the PM’s speech.

“In recent weeks and months we’ve seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality,” Sunak said. “What started as protests on our streets has descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence.”

And, in a section removed from the official transcript on the government’s own website due to its party political nature, he turned his focus on the UK’s newest MP, George Galloway, who only hours before had secured a resounding victory in the Rochdale by-election in a result Sunak called “beyond alarming”.

Galloway’s campaign was focused firmly on Gaza and the Conservative candidate limped home in third place behind a local independent. Labour’s choice, Azhar Ali, had the party’s support withdrawn in an antisemitism row. He apologised for claiming Israel had allowed the brutal 7 October Hamas attack as a pretext for an assault on Gaza, and for blaming Jewish media players over the 2023 suspension of partymate Andy McDonald, but the damage was done. 

The Campaign Against Antisemitism said it was “extremely concerned” by how Galloway may use his platform as an MP, given what it called “his historic inflammatory rhetoric”.

Against this, and in an environment where activists occupied the British Museum and accused its sponsor BP of “fuelling colonial genocide” in the Middle East while others in Edinburgh doused the entrance to the UK Government offices with red paint, Wilson suggests politicians should choose their words carefully.

“I don’t recognise the perspective of mob rule,” Wilson says of the speech, and “whatever one thinks of George Galloway, condemning an elected politician is not a great precedent.” “I’m less comfortable with Sunak’s focus on mob rule and in particular insinuation that the chief threat to democracy is large demonstrations and crowds. What is much more dangerous is the assassination of MPs” like Labour’s Jo Cox and Tory politician David Amess, who were both murdered while undertaking surgeries in their own constituencies by attackers acting alone.

“These aren’t crowd phenomena,” Wilson points out, “and that’s stuff that’s genuinely toxic for democracy.”

His sentiments are similar to those expressed by Green figurehead Caroline Lucas MP, who said Sunak had delivered “a masterclass in gaslighting”. “Sunak’s performance made a new art form of rank hypocrisy, as he pretended not to know that the very extremism he criticised was being actively driven by his party and peddled in his speech,” she wrote in the Guardian. “What a moment of utter cognitive dissonance to see Sunak portray himself as a champion of British democracy after successive Tory governments’ constant efforts to undermine it at every turn, from making it harder to vote to criminalising protest, attacking the Electoral Commission and planning to curb the power of the courts to scrutinise government policy.”

Lucas wrote that what should have been “an attempt to defuse tensions and take the heat out of divisions that have been so inflamed by the toxic political discourse of recent weeks” had instead poured more petrol on the flames.

Indeed, parliament has been a powder keg of late, with more hot-tempered exchanges than usual. Keith Brown, the SNP depute leader, was so incensed by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s refusal to disallow a vote on its Gaza motion during the party’s designated Opposition Day that he suggested Scottish MPs should withdraw from Westminster. Stephen Flynn, the SNP Westminster leader, called for Hoyle to step down.

Hoyle said he was acting in consideration of safety threats received by MPs. He has denied claims that he was put under pressure by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who made that case. Starmer has “categorically” denied threatening Hoyle to avoid a potential rebellion amongst his own MPs.

“An incompetent Speaker and a contemptuous Knight of the Realm have ensured that many people in Scotland will no longer regard Westminster as democratic and certainly not as theirs,” Brown wrote in the Sunday National, though his call to reconsider abstentionism was rejected by party leader Humza Yousaf, who tweeted that “we need SNP MPs at Westminster standing up for Scotland”.

And at the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Greens external affairs spokesperson Ross Greer MSP was reported to the Ethical Standards Commissioner for his part in a demonstration in which protesters attempted to stop guests entering the building for a reception honouring aerospace apprentices over arms sales to Israel. Conservative MSP Stephen Kerr said Greer had “tried to shut down” the parliament and brought it into disrepute. Greer countered that the direct action had been “peaceful” and was a bid to “obstruct the arrival of Israel’s arms dealers to this nation’s parliament whilst the nation of Israel, whilst the military forces armed by those companies, conducts a campaign of genocide in Gaza”.

“I do think the vote on Gaza and the Speaker apparently bowing to perceived threats of intimidation of MPs is not a great precedent for any democracy,” Wilson comments. And he argues that “it is a bit late to recognise there are dubious forces that have gained traction”. 

“We have been very complacent for a very long time and our democracy at home and further afield is not in great health” thanks to factors like the increased consumption of information through social media, on which more extreme political materials can proliferate and undermine democratic systems. The coarsening of political discourse on those platforms has real world consequences, he says, with moral outrage a driver for clicks. “The algorithm doesn’t care what you are looking at, it just cares that you are looking,” Wilson states, and “lets in this kind of extreme politics of moral corruption”. “The idea that there are contentious issues around which intelligent people can disagree with each other seems to have lost civic virtue.

“It’s not a re-run of the 1920s and 30s, but there’s a whiff of it.”

For Dr Michael Heaney of the University of Glasgow, an expert on politics and protest, society has “turned towards incivility”. Polarisation, he says, is a driver of both more extreme language and action. “If you have two equally matched sides you can have a civil debate. If you have two unequal sides, the weak side feels they need to take more extreme actions in order for their voices to be heard,” he tells Holyrood. “If you are desperate, you are looking for something that will get people’s attention.”

Heaney’s comments come days after members of the This is Rigged campaign group poured jam and porridge on a bust of Queen Victoria in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, daubing the word “cunt” on the plinth to “protest rising rates of food insecurity in Scotland”. Meanwhile, a clip of broadcaster Emily Maitlis being told to “fuck off” by Trump ally and potential future vice-presidential pick Marjorie Taylor Greene has gone viral.

Increased incivility, Heaney says, is “a very disturbing trend”. “In the US we have definitely reached a point where we can’t have a civil disagreement with people we don’t agree with. The UK is not there yet.

“What we are seeing is the increasing deterioration of the effectiveness of discourse in democracy.”

The point won’t be unfamiliar to those who listened to Sunak’s speech, which called on protesters to “show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens” and ensure that “even when we disagree, we will never be disunited from our common values of decency and respect”.

That’s fair, right? “We are not in the domain of fairness, this is politics,” Heaney says.

“The prevailing belief is that this is going to be a difficult election for the Conservatives. He is looking for ways to try and change the game.

“It’s going to play to people who think that Rishi Sunak is not a real Conservative. It’s going to play to people who think he’s been soft, people who think he’s been ineffective.”

Forcing your opponents to take positions on issues is a “politically smart thing to do”, he states, and in condemning extremism Sunak has presented an argument that is difficult to disagree with. Indeed, Starmer said Sunak was “right to advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently”.

Presenting a simple and binary proposition is a tool that was used well by Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson, Heaney explains. “He was effective at talking circles around the left. Once Boris Johnson said, ‘get Brexit done’ it was hard to argue that we should get Brexit done right because that is just a harder position to defend, and at that point everybody was exhausted with Brexit.”

Sunak’s speech attempts to “take the antipathy or the emotions people have that are directed against protesters and harness them to his benefit,” he says, pointing out that “people tend not to like free speech for groups that they don’t like”. “This is the strategy; that doesn’t necessarily mean that will work.”

Aides for the prime minister have dismissed suggestions of opportunism, saying the speech was not politically motivated. Reports suggest that although it was announced with little notice, its timing had been planned far in advance of the Rochdale result, meaning it is not a kneejerk response to that outcome either. But the inclusion of the material about Galloway points to an election-facing agenda, even as Sunak refuses to name his date. And with the former Labour MP back in the Commons, this time under the banner of the Workers Party of Britain and championing the Palestinian cause, there is a chance that he will make life just as tricky, if not more so, for Starmer than Sunak. 

The latter stepped behind that lectern just hours after delivering another speech to members at the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Aberdeen. Recent polls suggest he’s not onto a winner north of the border, facing stiff competition from a Labour Party which is telling voters it is the best bet to protect the Union and remove the Tories from office. In a seven-minute address attacking the Scottish Government’s record on the economy, health and education, Sunak urged voters to “send the nationalists back home to think again,” and he told journalists that dismal poll findings are “not reflective of what we’re hearing on the ground”. The party is targeting 12 seats this time, which would double its 2019 tally, and Sunak says its message resonates with the public here.

That was before the Chancellor announced he is to extend the windfall tax on oil and gas in an effort to generate £1.5bn for the Treasury and offset cuts to National Insurance payments. The levy was supposed to be temporary, and when Labour first said it would keep it going, north east newspaper the Press & Journal ran a front page calling its hierarchy “traitors” amidst claims from sector body OEUK that 40,000 jobs could be lost. The edition, shared on social media by figures including Yousaf, provoked anger from Labour amidst fears that it would fuel abuse towards its ranks.

The extension was announced on the same day that the Scottish Conservatives used their Holyrood opposition day for a debate on backing Scotland’s oil and gas sector. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said he would not vote for the government’s plan, putting him into direct conflict with the prime minister he had welcomed to the stage in Aberdeen just days earlier.

And so, as he continues to struggle against poor polling, by-election defeats and the high-stakes row over Gaza, Sunak has opened up another fire to fight, this time within his party. How he will maintain peace within his own rank and file amidst so many challenges remains to be seen.

But as anticipation of the general election continues, there will be scrutiny over how he navigates divisions both internal and external, and whether he can prove that his speech was more than just rhetoric.

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