Newbury, Berkshire, is a relatively prosperous place which tends to mind its own business. “O little town of Newbury, how still your ruins lie”, goes the song in the Liberator song book. Occasionally the town has been at the heart of protests, such as those at Greenham Common and against the Newbury by-pass.
There is nothing more British than the public meeting. It is a great expression of our democracy. If three people and a dog turn up, it is clear that people care more about “Emmerdale” than they do about the item under discussion. But, occasionally, an issue hits a nerve and people turn up for a public meeting brimming with passion and, yes, outrage, to make clear that this (the subject for discussion) is something up with which they will not put.
We get accused of being very insular in this country. So it was very gratifying to see standing room only (with additional people turned away for safety reasons) at a public meeting called, at shortish notice, in Newbury Town Hall this week to discuss the situation in Gaza.
This may be something happening 2,270 miles away, but there appears to have been a sea change in the mood of the UK. No longer are people prepared to give the state of Israel the benefit of the doubt. There was a remarkable outpouring of outrage on behalf of the Palestinians at the meeting. Many speakers had personal connections to the situation. A couple of people spoke briefly and bravely in favour of Israel. But the overwhelming message of the meeting was: this has to stop.
One lady, quoted by newburytoday.co.uk said:
I consider my best friend someone who comes to me and tells me a difficult truth. Sometimes it’s difficult but that’s what you do. There comes a point when you say to your friend, ‘you are becoming a pariah and you are putting us all in danger’.
It weakens our credibility if we are not prepared to acknowledge good work done by our political opponents. This meeting was organized by Richard Benyon, Conservative MP for Newbury, and also attended by Judith Bunting, Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, who spoke in the debate. Richard spoke with great passion, eloquence and knowledge in defence of the Palestinians, calling the Israeli response “disproportionate” and saying that we should not sell any arms to Israel. On this issue, Richard is at the enlightened end of Conservative party thinking.
An ICM poll, published yesterday, found that a majority of British voters, 52%, believe Israel acted in a disproportionate manner during the recent Gaza conflict. It found that 19% thought Israel had acted proportionately while 29% of those polled did not know.
Goodness knows what will happen next, but the message from middle-England is clear: The Israeli actions are disproportionate and there needs to be an immediate restoration of dignity of life for the Palestinians.