At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a hundred and five years after the guns fell silent on the Western Front, a crowd assembled next to the Cenotaph, Britain’s monument to its war dead, squinted, shuffled, raised phones into the low November sunlight, and waited for somebody to ruin the moment. Since the Hamas attack on October 7th, there had been four consecutive Saturdays of protests in central London, to oppose Israel’s retaliation in Gaza. The fifth march, coinciding with Armistice Day—the anniversary of the end of the First World War—was seen by the British establishment as one too many. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, said that it would be disrespectful. The Metropolitan Police asked the protest’s organizers to cancel it. But most people could also see that it was wrong, on almost every conceivable level, to try to shut down a large-scale peace march on the day when the country gathers itself to reflect on the waste and horror of war. Suella Braverman, who would soon be fired as Britain’s Home Secretary, either did not see this, or could see it very plainly, and chose to inflame the situation anyway. Braverman, the current idol of the right wing of the Conservative Party, has described the pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “hate marches.” On November 8th, she published an op-ed in the Times of London saying that the police “play favourites” with left-wing and anti-Israel protesters, as opposed to their firm handling of nationalists and soccer hooligans. It was a stunt, designed to provoke everybody all at once. On the eve of Armistice Day, a spokesperson for Sunak observed crisply that Braverman’s article had not been approved by the Prime Minister—“and we are looking into that.”
On Saturday, I reached the gates of Downing Street, within sight of the Cenotaph, at 10:30 A.M., as a group of around a hundred far-right nationalists were scuffling with police. They were mostly white men, wearing jeans, tweed caps, Fred Perry jackets, and other subtle emblems of London’s more violent soccer fan clubs: Chelsea, West Ham, Millwall F.C. There were soccer chants—“England till I die”—and Union Jacks draped over shoulders. “You get your truncheons out,” they sang at the police. Many masked their faces. Not far away, the pipes and drums of the London Scottish regiment sounded, ahead of the brief military ceremony—and two minutes of silence—to mark the Armistice at eleven o’clock.
The energy in the crowd centered on Tommy Robinson, a founder of the English Defence League, an extremist Islamophobic organization that formally disbanded in 2015. Robinson, a compact, aggressive presence, whose given name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, is said to be exploring a comeback. He was wearing a green body warmer under a maroon jacket with plastic goggles set into the hood. Even though the pro-Palestinian march was gathering more than two miles away, and the police were enforcing an “exclusion zone” to keep protesters away from the Armistice Day events, and the place was crawling with soldiers, Robinson and his supporters had shown up, in their words, to defend the Cenotaph. “You see how they’ve just treated our people coming in to pay their respects?” Robinson said, showing me a video on his phone of the violence from a few moments earlier. “There’s no opposition here,” he said, sounding a touch disappointed, “so why wouldn’t you just let us in?”
The reaction of Britain’s leading politicians to Israel’s war with Hamas has been terse and pedestrian; they are apparently unwilling to acknowledge the full tragedy of the violence or the political imagination that will be required to end it. Sunak doesn’t seem terribly interested in diplomacy and has stayed strictly within the shadow of the U.S policy response to the crisis and the instinctive sentiment of the Conservative Party, which has become increasingly pro-Israeli since Brexit. (Trade between the U.K. and Israel was worth seven billion pounds in 2022.) Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, has a powerful reason for never wanting to talk about Israel or Palestine, and that reason is Jeremy Corbyn, his predecessor, whose leadership was dogged by allegations of antisemitism. Last month, it took Starmer nine days to modify his apparent support for the cutting of power and water supplies to Gaza, and his reluctance to criticize Israel’s prosecution of the war has led to the resignation of around fifty Party officials so far. On November 6th, John Casson, a former foreign-policy adviser to David Cameron, the country’s Prime Minister between 2010 and 2016, told the BBC that the shallowness of the political debate in the U.K. reminded him of the prelude to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “So far, what we’ve got is a posture. ‘Stand with Israel’ is a posture—it’s not a policy,” Casson said. “Given the chilling loss of civilian life—thousands of innocent lives every week—we have a responsibility to set out a description of the exit from the cycle of violence.”
In the vacuum, other voices have found purchase. In the early weeks of the war, Humza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland, whose in-laws were trapped in Gaza, was a rare national voice of realism and despair. Last week, Yousaf, who has been reunited with his wife’s closest family members, described himself as “beyond angry” at Braverman’s rhetoric. “If Armistice was about anything, my goodness, it’s about peace,” Yousaf told reporters in Dundee. Elsewhere, bad actors have thrived. On November 7th, the Community Security Trust, an organization that has monitored antisemitism in the U.K. since 1984, recorded its worst thirty-two-day period on record: a total of more than eleven hundred incidents, including twenty-four cases of children being abused on their way to or from school. The entrance to the Wiener Holocaust Library, Britain’s foremost Holocaust archive, had “Gaza” scrawled on it in red paint. Online, the Palestinian flag and the poppy, the symbol of remembrance for Britain’s war dead, were juxtaposed. Videos circulated of Muslims praying in the streets of Westminster and volunteers, selling poppies to raise money for veterans, caught up in pro-Palestinian sit-ins in railway stations. A fake audio recording went around of Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who is Muslim, seeming to suggest that Armistice Day, rather than the protest, should be rescheduled. “You have a police force who work for Sadiq Khan whose job it is to oppress the English people,” Robinson told me, by the Cenotaph. “And people have had enough. That’s what you’re seeing today.”
The first Armistice commemoration took place on November 11, 1919. King George V requested two minutes of silence: one for all who went to fight and who had come home, and one for those who did not return. “All work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease,” the King wrote. Factories came to a stop. Prisoners stood in their cells. “The hush was complete; it was eerie; it was silent prayer and a thanksgiving,” the Pall Mall Gazette reported. When the first “great silence” ended, an ex-serviceman stepped forward and buttonholed William Kay, the Lord Mayor of Manchester, on the steps of the Town Hall. “May I state the case for the living as well as the dead,” he asked, according to the Manchester Evening News. “Not here. This is not the place or time,” came the reply. In the twenties and thirties, the Armistice became a frequent occasion for antiwar protests, by war widows, pacifists, and veterans who felt that the day’s rituals had become too martial and celebratory. On the evening of November 4, 1934, three hundred women stood under umbrellas in the rain in Trafalgar Square, many wearing white-poppy rosettes—for peace—after their request to stage a protest on Armistice Day was denied. They struggled to be heard. “The authorities have also refused to turn off the fountains in the Square and let us have loud speakers,” Mary Millar, of the London Co-operative Women’s Guild, complained.
On Saturday, inside the exclusion zone, the bugles and the silence were immaculate. Even a hovering police helicopter drifted away. You could hear the sound of every falling leaf. I fell into step with Lewis, a former private in the Parachute Regiment, who served in Afghanistan and was carrying two beers in the sunshine. “It went much better than I thought it would,” Lewis said. Next to him, his friend was speaking loudly into his phone: “Makes me proud to be fucking English, you know?” Lewis thought it was a shame that Armistice Day and the pro-Palestinian march had to be separated and so heavily policed. “The poppy is there for everyone, but, personally, it doesn’t feel that it is,” he said. “There is so much protest and conflict in this country alone, with the people who live here, you can’t really portray such a . . . I don’t know the word . . . such an innocence?” While he was speaking, a car cut across Parliament Square with Palestinian flags flying out its windows. “Fucking knobhead!” Lewis’s friend yelled. “It seems to me you have to be one way or the other,” Lewis said, “and the town has been blocked off in that way.”
I walked along the banks of the Thames to meet the peace march. Between the two public events, Londoners did ordinary Saturday things: jogging, kayaking on the river, playing in the park. A sticker on a road sign on Lambeth Bridge showed Iván Illarramendi, a forty-six-year-old Spanish Israeli, who was thought to have been taken hostage by Hamas from Kibbutz Kissufim, which is about a mile from the Gaza Strip, on what was supposed to be another normal Saturday. Illarramendi and his wife, Dafna, a Chilean national, were later found to have died in the initial attack on the kibbutz, which killed fifteen others, including eight migrant workers from Thailand. On Vauxhall Bridge, by the route of the protest, the Communist Party of Great Britain was handing out literature describing Zionism as a “racist, antisemitic and reactionary tool of imperialism.” A volunteer was explaining how the Nazis had supported Zionism. “Truth is truth,” he said, shrugging. Against the walls of the headquarters of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the police were detaining a group of white men, one of whom was wearing an England soccer jersey under his yellow hoodie. The police arrested at least a hundred and twenty-six people at the protests on Saturday, the majority of whom were right-wing men, looking for a fight. “I think it’s helmets-on time,” I heard an officer say, jogging to join a barricade of vehicles and riot police, blocking in a beered-up crowd outside a pub close to Tate Britain.
The pro-Palestine protest was a tide that asked you to step aside. An estimated three hundred thousand people marched from Park Lane to the U.S. Embassy, on the south side of the Thames. The silence was gone. It was all sound and locomotion: flags and flares, pigeons startled by the constant drone of two circling helicopters, and placards and chants, made up of the contested language and imagery of the conflict: “Exist, resist, return”; “Humanity vs. ‘Israel’ ”; pictures of watermelons. The chorus of “Palestine will be free” was answered, not always, but often, by “From the river to the sea.” I saw a small cardboard sign that read “Hamas Are Terrorists, Free the Hostages.” Its bearer was deep in conversation, and that was in line with the amicable, almost positive atmosphere of the protest. When a posse of masked men emerged from a side street, looking for a scrap, volunteers hustled the march to the other side of the road. “Just stick with me,” a protester, who didn’t want to give his name, said to his young son, as they crossed Vauxhall Bridge in the sunshine, and flares went off behind them. The man’s wife, a British Muslim, described learning about Armistice Day in school. “ ‘Armistice’ means ‘ceasefire.’ That’s what we are asking for. People don’t actually understand,” she said. “It’s like the same thing they are repeating,” her husband replied. “It’s again a genocide.”
As the light failed, splinter groups of all kinds had run-ins with the police. A group of a hundred and fifty pro-Palestinian demonstrators was detained for aiming fireworks at officers. On the banks of the Thames, someone filmed a few dozen men chanting, “Who the fuck is Allah?” The following afternoon, Braverman gave her verdict, on X, formerly known as Twitter. While the Home Secretary mentioned “counter protesters,” she was mainly concerned with the chanting and placards at the peace march. “This can’t go on. Week by week, the streets of London are being polluted by hate, violence, and antisemitism,” she wrote. “Further action is necessary.”