Last Thursday, I joined representatives of all Cornwall’s political parties to welcome pupils from 22 schools to New County Hall for a “day of democracy”.
The children learned about how elections work and how decisions are made, but most importantly they heard about the importance of listening to every point of view with respect.
Sadly on the very same day, Suella Braverman (at that point the Home Secretary) was doing exactly the opposite, stirring up division and undermining confidence in the police with an inflammatory newspaper article.
Every Saturday for the past month, tens of thousands of people have marched through London calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. But in planning their march for November 11, the organisers of the Palestine protest ensured that their event would steer well clear of the 11am Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph.
Yet rather than welcoming this thoughtful planning, both the Home Secretary and Prime Minister called for the march to be banned, claiming it was “disrespectful” to veterans. Actually I would argue that the message of the Palestine protest is completely appropriate for Remembrance weekend: Remembering the cost of war; Remembering the importance of ending the fighting with a just peace; Remembering the human rights our armed forces were fighting for; Remembering that populism can lead to genocide; Remembering that when our political leaders forget these things, we have not just a right but a duty to speak out.
A decent Home Secretary would have respected and protected the rights of the protesters to hold their march, whilst reminding everyone that hate speech, incitement to violence or support for Hamas (a proscribed terrorist group) are all criminal offences which will be dealt with by the police and the courts. But by calling it a “hate march”; claiming its timing was “disrespectful” to veterans; and criticising the police for being biased in favour of left-wing protesters, Braverman encouraged right-wing “counter-protesters” to take to the streets. Whilst some of these people may have been exercising their right to peacefully disagree with someone else’s protest, it is clear that many were simply thugs looking for a fight. And because the Palestine protest was well away from the Armistice Day ceremony, these mindless criminals targeted their violence against the police, leading to nine officers being injured and dozens of people being arrested.
On Monday morning, Rishi Sunak finally sacked Braverman as Home Secretary, but it remains to be seen whether he is rejecting her divisive rhetoric, or just punishing her for challenging his authority.
What is clear to me is that the primary school children at County Hall had a better understanding of free speech and respect than the Government. Whilst the Conservatives preach “us against them”, Liberal Democrats embrace the Cornish motto: “One and All”.