Politicians Don’t Feel Unsafe, They Feel Uncomfortable

When discomfort is perceived as danger, protest is seen as harassment.

by Janey Starling

6 March 2024

A young girl holds Palestinian flags at a protest in London, October 2023. Future Publishing/Reuters

As the Israeli military ravages Gaza, the UK government has become preoccupied with concerns over safety. Not for Palestinians – who have experienced over 150 days of genocidal onslaught – but for our own politicians, who don’t like constituents disagreeing with them. 

It was concerns for MPs’ safety that drove the ceasefire debacle in parliament last month, when the Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle broke parliamentary protocol to prioritise Labour’s tepid ceasefire amendment over the SNP’s. Prior to the vote, Labour politicians had voiced concerns about feeling unsafe. Deputy leader Angela Rayner said she was “scared” when confronted by a bereaved Palestinian man at an event, whilst shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves called pro-Palestine protests “intimidating”.

Safety, however, isn’t a feeling. Safety is a real, material set of conditions: a roof over your head and freedom from violence or injury. British politicians aren’t at risk of being bombed or seeing their children dismembered. Yet it was their speculative safety in the spotlight while Palestinians under military assault became a footnote in the vote.  

It’s true, of course, that two British MPs have been killed in recent years. But it’s a cheap shot for politicians to invoke their deaths to avoid engaging with the public about an ongoing genocide. When politicians say they feel unsafe in this context, they mean they feel uncomfortable being challenged by their constituents. 

The conflation of discomfort with danger has devastating consequences. Last week, the Israeli occupation army reported that it opened fire on starving Palestinians because it felt “unsafe”. It’s an old line; lethal aggression framed as self-defence has legitimised the slaughter of Palestinians for decades. British politicking and Israeli assault – the two sides of the imperial coin – are spearheaded by the same thing: dominant powers feeling unsafe.

If this is unsafe, what do we call it when entire Palestinian families and bloodlines are annihilated? When hospitals can barely function and ambulances are bombed? Over the past five months, harrowing footage has shown videos of six-year-old girls without faces, fathers carrying their children’s body parts in plastic bags and doctors holding a press conference surrounded by corpses. The dehumanisation of Palestinians is compounded by our national narrative that centres British politicians’ comfort above all else. 

When discomfort is perceived as danger, protest is seen as harassment. And when political dissent is positioned as a threat to national security, our human rights are at risk. As sure as night follows day, when politicians begin to cite safety concerns, curtailment of democratic freedoms isn’t far behind. Civil liberties will always play second fiddle to securitisation. Judging by Sunak’s doublespeak at the lectern last Friday, the government plans to corrode our democracy under the guise of protecting it.

Sunak’s emergency address was an authoritarian wishlist written in Islamophobic ink: curtail protest rights; threaten to remove immigrants’ “right to be here” if they speak what is considered “hate” at protests; reference streets being “hijacked” by “extremists” and “redouble support” for surveillance programme Prevent. It was framed in response to pro-Palestine protests, but entrenches an established anti-Muslim, anti-protest agenda that promotes surveillance in the name of “safety”. The name of Sunak’s “Safety of Rwanda” bill shows us he already has a cynical definition of this word. 

It’s curious how the social capital of playing the protector is often afforded to the violent perpetrators. If we use another very British example, the high-profile transphobic lobby that is obsessed with “women’s safety” has, in material terms, driven transphobic hate crimes to historic levels, but done nothing to end violence against women. In the same vein, it’s inevitable that Sunak’s measures to “combat the forces of division” will create even more far-right racism and state violence for Muslims.

The dominant force of division is, of course, the state itself. Trans people and Muslims alike are sociological folk devils; minority groups in society positioned as a threat to social order. The government’s self-authorised mandate to marshal these manufactured threats justifies state control for everyone. In reality, the marginalised groups identified as the enemy within face crushing systemic oppression already. If anyone is unsafe, it’s them.

As we enter a new era of counter-terrorism, we must be clear-sighted on who is actually safe, who isn’t, and what the politicisation of safety entails. Concern for those who feel unsafe can’t outweigh the rights of those who are materially unsafe. Securitisation actively creates conditions of unsafety: increased police powers create increased police violence and it will always be the most marginalised people whose rights are violated. We now have a government that, through its citizenship-stripping measures, wields statelessness as a security policy. It’s sinister.

And what about Palestinians’ safety? As mass slaughter and starvation rages in Gaza, a permanent ceasefire is critical. Palestine solidarity activism in Britain has primarily made our politicians uncomfortable because it’s ruptured the illusion of representative democracy. Thousands of people have seen that emails to MPs don’t translate to votes in the chamber, and so are exercising their democratic rights through protests, pickets and direct action. In response, it’s sickening to see politicians deflect from a genocide by fixating on domestic ‘safety’. By safety, they appear to mean unchallenged state power: the most dangerous notion of all.

Janey Starling is a feminist campaigner and co-director of Level Up.

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