In just a month, the movement against the attack on Gaza has grown to be the largest wave of Palestine solidarity in British history, galvanising a new generation, disorientating official politics and drawing an ugly backlash from the press and governing elites. We can take a quick and non-exhaustive inventory of the achievements of the movement so far.
It has revived the issue of Palestine solidarity, and the right of the public to make claims on British foreign policy more broadly. Much effort was expended in the Corbyn years to put the people back in their box – to toxify anti-war politics and demobilise the movement. It was hoped in elite circles that Ukraine cauterised foreign policy dissent, creating at least some popular support for the NATO military alliance, and rehabilitating western militarism.
Both of these efforts have suffered major setbacks in the last month. This accounts for much of the derangement in media circles. Columnists and broadcasters for big outlets see it as their special responsibility to set the parameters of acceptable debate, and keep democratic participation to a minimum. They can now see they have failed in their task of placing questions of war and peace out of bounds. The politicians must argue their case to a public that simply isn’t following their lead. This is a defeat in itself.
The attempt to re-introduce Labour as a party of order for the British state has stalled for the first time since Keir Starmer’s leadership began. After a string of by-election wins, he was being widely touted as the new Tony Blair. Labour still rides high in the polls over a collapsing Tory party, but the newly-applied varnish has already come off Starmer. Much of the front rank of the party – from city mayors and devolved party bosses to cabinet members (including one who has resigned) – officially oppose their party leader over his response to the Gaza massacre. These figures are motivated chiefly by fear of the movement, and many have adopted its lead demand of a ceasefire.
Sunak has kept a low profile in recent weeks, happy to let Starmer absorb the punishment. His obscurity in the last month signifies how damaged the office and standing of the Prime Minister has become in general. There has been much talk of the decline of cabinet governance in British political life. But power has not consolidated in the Prime Minister. Under the last two office holders at least, authority has drifted around – under Truss to the Bank of England and the Treasury, under Sunak to the Home Office. Braverman pulled Sunak into a fight with the police he didn’t seek, and he was forced to concede defeat. He has not exercised his authority to sack Braverman, though must surely want to. In failing to stop the 11 November protests, Sunak and Braverman have suffered a humbling defeat.
By provoking these splits in the ruling party, the movement has also set the political class against the wider state apparatus. The clash between Braverman and the Metropolitan police is – by the standards of domestic British politics – quite spectacular. She has repeatedly accused the police of being soft on left-wing and Muslim protestors, and even implied the force is in league with the movement. This an attempt to build a hard-right base for a future leadership bid. But Braverman’s words will have sent shockwaves through both the Tory party and the senior ranks of police, and we can speculate they have landed like a bombshell in the senior civil service as well, where relations have already been strained since the Brexit vote.
Tensions between different points of authority in the state are common, but the British governing elite has a tradition of not carrying out these squabbles in front of the children. The loss of face on all sides, and the appearance of disharmony, is extremely dangerous. Braverman and her culture war faction are prepared to degrade supposedly ‘neutral’ and ‘non-political’ institutions for their own narrow purposes. This highlights, in the most striking way since the Truss debacle, the deterioration in the quality of the ruling element of society.
What does this destabilisation mean? We can draw a few initial conclusions.
First, the institutions of the British state are brittle and respond to popular pressure. They get by at most times, not so much by mass consent as by mass resignation. As soon as a large and determined movement appears, they instantly feel vulnerable, with no significant element of the population eager to defend them. The sudden awareness of isolation drives anxiety and anger in elite circles, promoting rash reactions and infighting.
This policy and governance elite are also vulnerable on foreign policy. They have been damaged by decades of failed wars and over-association with US imperial interests. But our leaders cannot see a way to separate themselves from the position of lieutenant to US power, and know that years and decades of disruption and international conflict lie ahead, as the US and its allies fight to maintain pole position. They are fearful that these conflicts are becoming a force of destabilisation at home. Such a destabilisation over foreign policy cannot be neatly separated from other vectors of discontent: widening inequalities, failing services, stagnant incomes for a majority and deepening poverty for many; the democratic deficit and the ever-yawning gap in attitudes between rulers and ruled.
For these reasons it is vital that the movement is maintained and built. The anti-war movement has created a crucial platform for popular democracy in the years of imperial decline to come. It represents the opportunity to strengthen every front against the establishment, and to destabilise politics. It also creates opportunities for links with popular movements abroad, in a common front against international competition and war.
The state, media and political establishments will throw increasingly frantic attacks at this movement. We should take nothing for granted. The first, bungling attempts at suppression will not be the last, and new approaches will be adopted. Recent years have seen establishment lines of attack achieve some success, because too many were prepared to buckle to them. A clear lesson should be to give no ground, refuse attempts to divide and pick-off elements of the movement, and treat smears with the contempt they deserve. The stakes are too high for anything less.