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Home secretary Suella Braverman

Suella Braverman: why the home secretary can’t force the police to cancel a pro-Palestine march

The UK home secretary, Suella Braverman, has reached new heights with her criticism of the Metropolitan police over its handling of pro-Palestinian marches. In an op-ed for the Times, reportedly not cleared by Number 10, Braverman accused police of a double standard, treating left-wing marches more leniently than right-wing ones.

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have marched through London in a generally orderly way to protest what they consider to be indiscriminate harm being done to civilians in Gaza by the Israeli military.

Over the last few days, the Met police have been under pressure to shut down marches planned for Armistice Day in London. Braverman has described these protests as “hate marches”, and suggested that they will disrupt Armistice Day commemorations and even desecrate the Cenotaph itself.

Never mind the assurances from march organisers that their route will not go near the Cenotaph.

The Human Rights Act and Public Order Act protect the right to freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest. The police chief for an area may ask a home secretary for power to ban a march or protest, but can only do so if they reasonably believe it will lead to “serious public disorder”.

In the case of the pro-Palestine marches, Met police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has made the independent operational judgement that this is not likely to be the case. That is his job, and why it makes it all the more inappropriate for Braverman to interfere by pressuring police to stop the Armistice Day protest.

Principles of policing

Braverman has been accused by political opponents of stoking violence, fear and division by using aggressive rhetoric towards protesters and the police.

But perhaps more shocking is that her comments amount to a public accusation that the police are breaking one of the fundamental principles of British policing, which is to be non-partisan.

In 1829, Robert Peel – a Conservative home secretary – created the first professional police force in the UK. His blueprint for policing included the clear objective that the police would be non-partisan: free from any political interference and not favouring any group, religion, ethnicity or other section of society more than another.

The term, “without fear or favour” is still very much the philosophy which the British police are supposed to adhere to today. Indeed, that phrase is enshrined in the oath that all police officers take.

Governing the police

Police forces in England are governed by three parties. The chief constable is responsible for operational day-to-day decision making. The local police and crime commissioner is accountable to the public and sets a local policing plan. And the home office sets the police pay arrangements, police regulations and standards and provides 50% of police budgets.

The legislation which sets out the relationship between the police and the politicians who oversee policing (including the home secretary) is called the Policing Protocol Order. The latest version of this was introduced by Braverman herself earlier in 2023.

It lays out several key principles, including that the chief constable (Mark Rowley in this case) is responsible for direction and control over the force, and that the home secretary will not interfere with the force’s operational independence.

Five met police officers in hi-vis jackets stand near a crowd of pro-Palestine marchers.
There has been a Met police presence at all pro-Palestine marches. Brian Minkoff/Shutterstock

It is clear then that Peel’s original aspiration that the police should not become a tool for politicians to misuse is still, on paper at least, alive and well.

But the most senior politician responsible for policing is attempting to interfere with their operational independence regarding public order policing – and perhaps bully them into making operational decisions which satisfy a partisan viewpoint.

Undermining trust in the police

In any liberal democracy with a due process criminal justice system, the police have very limited powers. They rely on the consent of the public to do their job of maintaining an orderly and crime-free society.

Policing by consent is an oft-used phrase, but it simply means that law-abiding people are prepared to help the police as witnesses to crime, or providing intelligence, while criminals begrudgingly accept the legitimacy of the police.

If the public distrust the police, this fragile contract breaks down. Law-abiding people don’t come forward to report crime, and don’t volunteer information or evidence which may help to solve crime.

Whatever Braverman’s motivation, this precious contract between the police and the British people is now being seriously damaged.

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