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Poison of extremism threatens British democracy, says Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak says 'the time has now come for us all to stand together'
Rishi Sunak says 'the time has now come for us all to stand together' - Aaron Chown/PA

Extremists are trying to undermine British democracy, Rishi Sunak warned on Friday as he called for the country to come together and “beat this poison”.

In a speech on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister said there had been a “shocking increase” in extremist activity in the UK in the wake of Hamas’s Oct 7 attack on Israel.

Mr Sunak called the victory of George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election on Friday “beyond horrifying” and said that extremism demanded a response “not just from government, but from all of us”.

He also issued a direct plea for pro-Palestinian protesters to reject radicals who are hijacking their marches and urged police to take a tougher stance.

Pointing out that he is the country’s first non-white Prime Minister, Mr Sunak said he wanted to tell people of all races that success in Britain is determined by their hard work and endeavour.

He said both Islamists and far-Right groups were “spreading a poison” and aiming to wreck confidence in Britain’s achievements and history.

The intervention came after weeks of mounting concern about anti-Israel slogans and banners at marches, threats to MPs’ safety and controversial remarks about the Gaza conflict by politicians.

In his address, Mr Sunak promised to implement a raft of measures to tackle the issues. The Telegraph understands that as part of this, universities and councils will be given powers to crack down on Islamists and Right-wing groups under plans to create a new definition of extremism.

Mr Sunak said: “In recent weeks and months, we have seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality.

“What started as protests on our streets has descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence.

“Jewish children fearful to wear their school uniform lest it reveal their identity. Muslim women abused in the street for the actions of a terrorist group they have no connection with.

“Now our democracy itself is a target. Council meetings and local events have been stormed. MPs do not feel safe in their homes.

“Long-standing Parliamentary conventions have been upended because of safety concerns.”

The Prime Minister added later: “The time has now come for us all to stand together to combat the forces of division and beat this poison.

“We must face down the extremists who would tear us apart. There must be leadership, not pandering or appeasement.

“When they tell their lies, we will tell the truth. When they try and sap our confidence, we will redouble our efforts.

“And when they try and make us doubt each other we will dig deeper for that extra ounce of compassion and empathy that they want us to believe doesn’t exist, but that I know does.”

Mr Sunak chose to speak on the same day it was announced that Mr Galloway, the former Labour MP, would become an MP after comfortably winning the by-election in Rochdale.

The traditionally Labour seat was won by Mr Galloway, standing for his own Workers Party of Britain, after Labour had to withdraw support for its candidate, Azhar Ali, over an anti-Semitism row.

During the campaign, Mr Galloway fiercely criticised Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, for failing to issue stronger calls for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Mr Galloway said in his speech: “I think Keir Starmer has woken up this morning to his worst nightmare.”

Jewish groups expressed despair at his victory.

The Prime Minister’s speech, which amounted to an appeal to the nation to stand up to extremism, was given after he flew back from the Scottish Conservative conference.

It had echoes of an address Lord Cameron gave while prime minister in the wake of the London riots in 2011.

After addressing the result of the Rochdale by-election, Mr Sunak said: “I need to speak to you all this evening because this situation has gone on long enough and demands a response, not just from government, but from all of us.”

Mr Sunak defended the right of pro-Palestine protesters to take to the streets but also said chants such as “from the river to the sea” were unacceptable.

Rishi Sunak prepares to make a statement
The Prime Minister says protests have 'descended into intimidation' - Aaron Chown/PA

The Prime Minister said: “Yes, you can march and protest with passion. You can demand the protection of civilian life.

“But no, you cannot call for violent jihad. There is no ‘context’ in which it can be acceptable to beam anti-Semitic tropes on to Big Ben in the middle of a vote on Israel/Gaza.

“And there’s no cause you can use to justify the support of proscribed terrorist groups, such as 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 anti-Semitism.

“This week I have met with senior police officers and made clear it is the public’s expectation that they will not merely manage these protests, but police them.

“And I say this to the police, we will back you when you take action.”

New police framework

Mr Sunak pointed to a newly published police framework which has sought to clarify when officers should step in if extremist chanting or activity is seen in protests.

It is understood that Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, will unveil the plans this month for a new definition of extremism that will enable the Government and public bodies to bar groups from venues or campuses and block funding if they are judged to be promoting extremist ideology that “undermines” British values.

He is concerned that the current definition of extremism in the Prevent counter-terrorism programme is too narrow and allows Islamist and Right-wing groups to “get away” with behaviour that stirs racial and religious hatred, threatens communities and divides society.

However, the plans for a wider definition of extremism are likely to raise objections from civil rights groups that it will restrict freedom of speech and could ostracise groups representing mainstream Muslim or Right-wing opinion.

Senior figures involved with Prevent have identified organisations such as Palestine Action, Friends of Al Aqsa and the Palestinian Forum of Britain as harbouring extremist links. Last week Sir William Shawcross, independent reviewer of Prevent, singled out the Forum as part of a Hamas support network stirring the protests.

A government source told The Telegraph: “It is not about banning the groups. It creates more of an obligation and empowers universities, councils or other public organisations to be able to say: ‘Here is an organisation we should be monitoring and looking at more closely.’

“They can then take action against groups that are getting away with it and stirring up hatred where they should not be. It means a university could expel them from their campus or a council could end funding.”

In Friday’s address, Mr Sunak said: “I want to speak directly to those who choose to continue to protest: Don’t let the extremists hijack your marches.

“You have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens.”

Lee Anderson’s remarks not addressed

Mr Sunak has also been under pressure this week for refusing to call controversial remarks made by Lee Anderson, the former Tory deputy chairman, racist or Islamophobic.

Mr Anderson was suspended as a Tory MP last weekend after claiming “Islamists” have “got control” of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. He has continued to refuse to apologise.

The Prime Minister did not address the controversy explicitly in his speech, but talked about the dangers of anti-Muslim hate and called out all forms of extremism.

Mr Sunak said: “I fear that our great achievement in building the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy is being deliberately undermined.

“There are forces here at home trying to tear us apart. Since October 7th there have been those trying to take advantage of the very human angst that we all feel about the terrible suffering that war brings to the innocent, to women and children to advance a divisive, hateful ideological agenda.”

He went on later: “Islamist extremists and far-Right groups are spreading a poison; that poison is extremism.

“It aims to drain us of our confidence in ourselves as a people, and in our shared future.

“They want us to doubt ourselves, to doubt each other, to doubt our country’s history and its achievements.”

In a call to action, Mr Sunak said: “I stand here as our country’s first non-white Prime Minister, leading the most diverse Government in our history to tell people of all races, all faiths and all backgrounds, it is not the colour of your skin, the God you believe in or where you were born, that will determine your success but just your own hard work and endeavour.

“We must be prepared to stand up for our shared values in all circumstances, no matter how difficult.”