Military top brass turn on Suella Braverman over pro-Palestine march ban row

Top military brass have backed the right for pro-Palestine demonstrators to march through London on Saturday after an extraordinary political row erupted over whether the protest should be banned.

Military chiefs have insisted those who fought for Britain “did so to protect our freedoms”, warning it would be a mistake to ban the event.

The former head of the British Army and a former chief of UK forces were among those urging people to resist attempts to inflame divisions after Suella Braverman described the rallies as hate marches and accused the police of favouring left-wing groups over right.

General Sir Richard Barrons, former director of operations for the UK armed forces, called for “calm and cool heads”, telling The Independent it should be possible to “deconflict” Saturday’s events by keeping protests separate from Armistice Day commemoration.

Their intervention came as police took the unprecedented step of guarding the Cenotaph with a round-the-clock ring of steel. Almost 2,000 officers — double the usual amount — have been drafted in for the Remembrance weekend with pro-Palestinian demonstrators banned from key central London areas.

In other developments:

  • The Metropolitan Police said it was preparing for its largest Remembrance operation ever and admitted officers are likely to have to use force

  • The force announced additional powers to search anyone in the area for weapons as it braced for multiple different far-right groups to attend counter-protests

  • Organisers of the pro-Palestine march said they expected 500,000 to take part

  • Royal British Legion, which runs the Poppy Appeal, also backed the right to protest

  • Rishi Sunak urged demonstrators to protest “respectfully and peacefully”

Among those intervening were General Sir Richard Dannatt, former chief of general staff, who told The Independent: “Those that fought in the first and second world war did so to protect our freedoms; one of which is the freedom of speech and another is the freedom to protest.”

General Sir John McColl, former deputy supreme allied commander in Europe, said that "people fought for freedom and part of that freedom is the right to protest”.

And Colonel Simon Diggins, former defence attaché in Kabul, said: “One of the core values we prize in this country is the right to free speech... My service is so people can be free.”

An officer from the Metropolitan Police on duty beside the Cenotaph on Whitehall, central London, ahead of marches planned for the centre of the city on Saturday (PA)
An officer from the Metropolitan Police on duty beside the Cenotaph on Whitehall, central London, ahead of marches planned for the centre of the city on Saturday (PA)

Last week, Ms Braverman said it was “unacceptable to desecrate Armistice Day with a hate march through London”. The prime minister also said the march “offends our heartfelt gratitude to the memory of those who gave so much to us, so that we could live in freedom and peace today.”

The row escalated this week when the home secretary accused the police of “playing favourites” in how they dealt with protesters. The force had said the march could go ahead saying there was insufficient intelligence that there would be risk of serious public disorder.

But Ms Braverman tried to put public pressure on the police to change this decision, a move described by former attorney general Dominic Grieve as “inciting division”.

Lord Dannatt said banning Saturday’s march would “purely provoke and is contrary to the spirit of this country”, but stressed it was “absolutely vital” that it was policed properly.

He added: “Banning it purely provokes and is contrary to the spirit of this country, if however the march descends into any type of hate march or becomes aggressive then the police will have to respond accordingly and the eyes of the country and the world will be watching them.”

People at a rally in Trafalgar Square, London, during Stop the War coalition's call for a Palestine ceasefire. (PA)
People at a rally in Trafalgar Square, London, during Stop the War coalition's call for a Palestine ceasefire. (PA)

Gen Barrons said Remembrance weekend was a “profoundly important date in the national calendar and means a vast amount to the armed forces and veterans”.

He added: “As long as it’s done in an appropriate manner and there is no interference with those who want to honour the fallen then I think [the march] should absolutely go ahead.”

Asked about recent statements made by politicians about policing, Gen Barrons added: “I’m with the vast majority of people who do not think that our politicians should interfere with the operational judgement of our police. Now if the police get it wrong it is for parliament to hold them to account. But we do not want to live in a society where politicians tell police what to do - that’s not worked out well in anybody’s history.

“But I think beyond that people should shut up and stay calm.”

Gen McColl also accused Ms Braverman of acting in her own interest. He told The Independent: “I think some of the rhetoric of the home secretary is divisive, reckless and I think it’s deliberately so. To describe it as a hate march is I think entirely misleading. I think it’s increasing the likelihood of some right-wing extreme elements taking it upon themselves to act in an inflammatory way and for extreme elements in support of the Palestinian cause to act recklessly.”

Meanwhile, Admiral Lord West of Spithead, former head of the navy, said it would “be an error” to ban the march but added it was an “own goal” for protesters to organise a demonstration on Remembrance weekend.

He said: “I think the police should ensure that it doesn’t get snarled up around the Cenotaph. It would be absolutely wrong for there to be marches on Remembrance Sunday when the ceremonies are going on, but as for those on Saturday I don’t think it should be banned.”

He added that protest organisers would have had more sympathy from the public “if they had left that day clear and protested some other day.”

Col Diggins said it should be possible to have both a respectful Armistice Day commemoration and a protest on the Israel-Gaza war. “The route for the march runs from Hyde Park to Nine Elms and the timing of it means that people can commemorate Armistice Day with a silence at 11am if they wish to and I think that is right. [The police] have done a great deal to take the heat out of it.”

He added that the armed forces were “intrinsically an organisation that looks to represent the whole country therefore division is not part of our values”.

Former marine commando Ben McBean said he was focused on commemorating British troops over the weekend, adding: “If everyone just keeps themselves to themselves then we’ll all be happy.”

The Met has made extensive preparations for the march on Saturday, cancelling leave for all officers in public order units and calling in police from other forces to beef up resources.

Deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor described the operation as “huge”. He added: “There will be times this weekend where you see pockets of confrontation despite the conditions and everything that I have put in place to manage that.

“You will see police intervention and I hope we don’t, but I think it’s likely you will see police having to use force to manage some of the situations that we have to deal with. And at times that might look messy.”

He added it was the first time they have needed to impose a 24-hour police presence at the Cenotaph for such a significant period of time. Officers have been posted at the war memorial since Thursday after the Rochdale Cenotaph was sprayed with graffiti.

The pro-Palestine march is planned to leave from Hyde Park at noon, about a mile from the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and head south of the river to the US embassy in Vauxhall. The event begins an hour after two minutes of silence is observed at 11am. Police have said that the march and any speeches must end by 5pm.

Meanwhile, far-right groups have vowed to “defend” the war memorial in reaction to the row over whether the pro-Palestine march should be banned. Police will put an exclusion zone in place covering Whitehall, Horse Guards Parade, the Westminister Abbey Field of Remembrance and other areas to prevent protesters getting close to memorials.

There are no demonstrations planned for Sunday, when hundreds of service men and women, members of the royal family and politicians will gather together at the Cenotaph for The National Service of Remembrance.

Mr Sunak said he wanted to reassure those who wish “to pay their respects, attend services and travel that they can and should do so”. He added: “It is because of those who fought for this country and for the freedom we cherish that those who wish to protest can do so, but they must do so respectfully and peacefully.”

The Independent has contacted the Home Office for comment.