UK PM Sunak rails against ‘extremism’ after Galloway’s win

Published March 3, 2024
Rishi Sunak in Downing Street. — AFP
Rishi Sunak in Downing Street. — AFP

LONDON: For the first time since he became prime minister 16 months earlier, Rishi Sunak made an impromptu speech from outside his office, not to call a general election but to rail against extremist groups, which, according to him, are trying to tear the nation apart.

Standing in the rain, his back to 10 Downing Street, PM Sunak in speech to the nation on Friday night said: “There is no ‘context’ in which it can be acceptable to beam antisemitic tropes onto Big Ben in the middle of a vote on Israel/Gaza. And there can be no cause you can use to justify the support of a proscribed terrorist group, like Hamas. Yes, you can freely criticise the actions of this government, or indeed any government: that is a fundamental democratic right. But no, you cannot use that as an excuse to call for the eradication of a state — or any kind of hatred or antisemitism.”

After months of pro-Gaza public demonstrations and growing pressure on both the government and Labour party to take a tougher stance on Israel, it appears that the victory of George Galloway in a by-election in the erstwhile Labour stronghold of Rochdale is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

He won with overwhelming numbers that night, beating both the Labour and Tory candidate by wide margins.

UK PM calls victory of far-left candidate ‘alarming’

A much-loathed figure in British politics for his populist rhetoric, pro-Gaza Galloway lured Rochdale’s Muslim voters through a targeted campaign centering on Gaza and the British government’s silence on Israel’s continued bombardment.

His victory was painted by Sunak as a crisis for Britain’s democracy. Sunak said, “…it is beyond alarming that last night the Rochdale by-election returned a candidate… who dismisses the horror of what happened on October 7th, who glorifies Hezbollah…”

His remarks come just days after the House of Commons Gaza vote ended in chaos, with the speaker breaking protocol after claims that MPs felt threatened to vote a certain way.

Though there are some in and outside his party that applauded Sunak’s speech, including Sajid Javed who called it “powerful” and Labour leader Keir Starmer who said the PM was right to condemn “intimidatory behaviour”, there were many left questioning it.

In an interview to Geo News, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan hit the nail on the head when he asked, “When there is any incident of antisemitism we say that it is wrong and antisemitic. We also condemn misogyny and sexism. Then why is it that when Pakistani origin Britons and Muslims are attacked, nobody says that it is Islamophobic and anti-Muslim?”

The Guardian wrote in a report, “He [Sunak] painted a picture of political bedlam which some opponents argue is overstated.”

It added, “The address contained no new policies, beyond a vague commitment for a ‘robust framework’ for government to tackle extremism at its roots.”

English television presenter Matthew Wright said on LBC, “Whenever he had to choose an example of an extremist, he went with Palestinian peace marchers rather than some of the hate peddlers on his own benches.”

Writing for Socialist Worker, Thomas Foster said Rishi Sunak’s speech on ‘extremism’ is a sign of Tory panic. “The Palestine movement has shaken up British politics.”

Taj Ali, co-editor of Tribune Magazine, said, “Rishi Sunak is talking about division, about nasty politics. What we’ve seen from his party is the demonisation of British Muslims who are disproportionately working class, they care about housing, NHS, child poverty, which is 40pc in places like Rochdale.”

Commentator Owen Jones remarked, “A moral panic is whipped up against dissenting voices, who are portrayed as dangerous extremists who threaten the social order and national unity, and who are fifth columns for foreign enemies.”

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2024

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