October 24, 2023 - 1:25pm

And lo, the blame game has started. Sir Mark Rowley, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, yesterday claimed that his officers don’t have the legal powers they need to crack down on the sort of blatant antisemitism we have seen at recent Gaza demonstrations; Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, says they do.

In fairness to Rowley, he did co-author a report back in 2021 arguing that existing extremism legislation was too narrowly focused on counter-terrorism. Meanwhile, successive governments have chosen not to ban the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

But in a country where multiple officers were once dispatched to confiscate some golliwog dolls from a pub, and where people can get paid a visit for abrasive tweeting, the idea that the police are powerless to uphold “taste and decency” is not plausible.

So how else to explain the Met’s inaction? The root of the problem likely lies in an excessively narrow, and indeed woefully counterproductive, interpretation of their mandate to keep the peace.

The police want to maximise individual safety and minimise any confrontations between officers and demonstrators. On the face of it, these are perfectly laudable goals. 

In practice, however, this seems very often to amount to allowing the ugliest and most potentially violent elements of any protest to set the tone — and even to the police tacitly enforcing the mob’s definitions of taste and decency on everyone else.

More than once over the past couple of weeks, protesters sympathetic to Israel have had their activities curtailed on the grounds of a perceived danger that they might upset the peace and even get hurt.

This sounds reasonable until one realises that what that means is that they would have angered the nastier elements of the pro-Gaza demonstrators, who might have kicked off and threatened them. And that instead of stepping up to protect everyone’s right to protest, the police shut the victims down for the sake of a quiet life.

Even in less egregious cases, it sometimes appears that the police are more concerned with the wellbeing of rioters than in preventing public disorder.

This is not a new problem. The public was angry at the lackadaisical early response to the 2011 London riots, and it has been a persistent issue ever since. It is also a very hard one for politicians, as more powers won’t fix it. It needs a cultural shift in attitudes to public order policing among those charged with carrying it out.

In an article in today’s Daily Telegraph, Rowley writes that “the chasm between our country’s legislation and public expectation is becoming more evident.” This may be so, but the chasm between public expectations and police conduct is at least as deep. The British people, when asked, strongly support “harsh” policing in the face of civil disorder, with polling from last year suggesting they are broadly in favour of proposed new protest powers.

We don’t want to know if the hoodlum on the roof of the bus “is now down safely”. We want to know he was arrested. The King’s Speech is imminent and reportedly rather thin, so perhaps Braverman will find space to give Rowley the new laws he apparently needs. But that’s no guarantee the police will use them — and if they don’t it’s the Tories, not the Met, who will be on the ballot next year.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.