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Pro-Palestinian protest march: Police officers know that banning demonstrations is a bad idea

Politicians should avoid interfering in operational matters like the policing of a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London.

This is the topic of my latest Scotsman column, published today (14 November 2023).

No one said the Met Police Commissioner’s job was going to be easy. Mark Rowley only had to look at the survival rate of his immediate predecessors to realise his own career life expectancy was likely to be similar to your average lab rat. As if two grandstanding bosses of different political stripes wasn’t bad enough, he has now been dragged into a political spat about marches and demonstrations.

The law is pretty clear – unless there is compelling evidence about the risk of major disruption, we tolerate and actually facilitate marches and demonstrations, even though they can often be objectionable to many and a damned nuisance to most, as well as expensive and a drain on police resources. One of the unforeseen upsides of the recent pandemic lockdowns was the fact that, despite raised sickness levels, the police found themselves awash with extra weekend resources due to the cancellation of sporting and public events.

No one said a liberal democracy was going to be easy. But despite the helpful advice from some politicians, Commissioner Rowley was absolutely right to stand by his decision not to ban the pro-Palestine march in London last weekend. Quite apart from the law, there’s another very good reason for allowing a march: an organised demonstration is usually better than the alternative.

As a former public order commander, he knows that banning marches is tactically stupid. Before you ban a march you must ask yourself the ‘golden consequences’ question. What will the demonstrating group do if banned? Will they meekly accept the rule of law and have a duvet day or, more likely, will they splinter into small groups and carry on their demonstrations illegally, at a time and place best placed to catch you out and cause disruption? You don’t have to be a public order genius to make the call.

It’s always better to have marches and demonstrations in open sight, at a time and on a route you can influence. You can engage with the organisers, identify diversionary routes, and plan intervention points to head off any counter-demonstrations. You can place your reserves, make sure there are adequate expansion points in case of a crush, and position observation points to monitor the crowd and gather evidence and intelligence. In other words, you can seize the initiative and keep it, directing rather than reacting to events.

We learned a painful lesson some years ago in Edinburgh when we agreed with the council that we should ban a troublesome Irish Republican march which had been a headache for some years, not least because of violent counter-demonstrations. It didn’t work, the marchers came anyway. Instead of a difficult but controlled set piece along a well-supervised route, we spent a long torrid day chasing our tails, reacting to pop-up demonstrations and disorderly groups in various parts of the city, where we had none of the controls in place and insufficient resources to regain the initiative.

We never made that mistake again. It is always better to direct than react, and as the Met’s ex-public order chief, no one knows that better than Commissioner Rowley. Politicians should stick to what they know. Chief Constables are operationally independent for a reason.

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