If you’re thinking of 'defending' the Cenotaph…
Don’t play the part of the villain
Tomorrow is Armistice Day, and at eleven o’clock I will pause for a moment to remember my grandfather who, upon the outbreak of war, lied about his age to the recruiting officers — he told them he was 17 but he was actually 23.
The importance of 11/11 may be slipping as the major wars become increasingly distant, but the date remains poignant, the closest thing a disenchanted country has to a sacred moment. We remember in particular the young men who fell in two world wars so that their descendants did not have to.
In less happy lands people are not so lucky, and already the war in Gaza has cost thousands of lives since the October 7 attacks. For the past four Saturdays central London has seen marches protesting that conflict, and though they encompass a range of opinion and are framed as ‘anti-war’ protests, I think it’s fair to call them pro-Palestinian marches — as was clear last Saturday when Trafalgar Square echoed to the sounds of ‘Free, Free Palestine!’ As far as I know they weren’t calling for Hamas to stop, and one man who turned up with a sign calling them terrorists was mobbed. Some protesters seem to be quite explicit in their support for the ‘martyrs’, and some of the organisers even have links to Hamas (including a senior member who was able to buy social housing in London).
From what I’ve seen of two of the protests, they are less like a gathering of wider British society (as was the case with the 2003 anti-Iraq demonstration) and more an expression of group identity for younger members of the diaspora. People seemed happy to be there, indeed there was something of a carnival atmosphere, the more so for including people from all backgrounds; but to a lot of people watching, it also resembled an unwelcome show of strength.
Some scenes have been disturbing or depressing, such as elderly poppy sellers being surrounded by young activists, the sense of disrespect protesters feel towards police, or the intimidation and harassment of people going about their business. There aren’t many countries where this would be tolerated; we are lucky to live where we do.
Tomorrow, organisers plan another march in the capital – the fifth Saturday in a row in which the West End will have seen pro-Palestinian demonstrations. It will take place on 11 November, Armistice Day.
Some people have trouble understanding why this might be provocative. Perhaps imagine a scenario where tens of thousands of second-generation British immigrants in some distant country chose the most sacred weekend of that country’s calendar, one commemorating a traumatic event which killed almost a million young men, to join protests about a war involving Britons — having already had four successive weekends of protest in the centre of the capital. And that among these protesters were some extremists shouting provocative slogans, which few of the organisers seemed to distance themselves from.
I imagine that most fair-minded British liberals would understand why many in the majority population of this hypothetical country might find it a bit much. On the other hand, this thought experiment is flawed because so many British liberals find it hard to conceive of a scenario where minorities might not be powerless victims.
The police have asked that the march not go ahead, something which again would be incomprehensible in many countries where they don’t ask; perhaps this is just an understanding that if they tried to stop it they could be outmanned and lose control. The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, is against the protest, has written in The Times condemning it, and made the point that the police have not been entirely consistent in the way they treat different demonstrations. Naturally this has provoked some SW1 rigmarole about divisions in the Tory party.
And now there is the prospect of counter-protesters turning up to defend the Cenotaph, even though the protests are unlikely to come anywhere near to that monument.
I can understand why people would feel that way. I was pretty demoralised by the 2020 BLM disorder which saw mobs surround the Churchill statue and Cenotaph, with one rioter even trying to set the Union flag on fire (he escaped jail, of course). What was more demoralising was the constant sight of police either running away from demonstrators or even kneeling before them. I think my testosterone levels dropped by 15 per cent that summer, and if these current protests continue in a similar vein I’ll have breasts by the end of the year.
I’m a conservative, so these scenes fill me with atavistic and almost primitive feelings of anger and shame - and I’m certainly not alone. But if you’re thinking about going down to counter-protest - don’t. It’s a trap.