Crispin Blunt is MP for Reigate.
In 26 years as a Conservative MP, I have watched countless seismic political shifts. But for conservatives, the anti-BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) bill is a stark example of just how precarious our values are. Officially, and innocuously, it is called the Bill for the Economic Activity of Public Organizations (Overseas Affairs), but this banal and insipid title obscures its implications.
With attacks on individual liberties, democratic principles and international law, this bill is a full-scale assault on our own values. Many colleagues have already seen him for what he really is and will fight tooth and nail to oppose him while he remains in parliament. Michael Gove thought there might be a handful of rebels, but with 80 Tories breaking ranks, the crescendo of opposition is palpable.
The bill is a manifest commitment to “prohibit local authorities from imposing their own direct or indirect campaigns of boycott, divestment or sanctions against foreign countries.” It seeks to target the BDS movement, but it has far-reaching implications, as it requires a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Worse yet, the ‘nut’ it cracks is a legitimate Palestinian-led anti-racist campaign that has been unfairly branded anti-Semitic simply for criticizing Israel’s 56-year illegal military occupation and persecution of Palestinians. Yesterday’s debate had a remarkable cross-party consensus that whatever this bill might mean for civil liberties, everyone agreed that BDS was wrong.
The bill would mean that a local council that wanted to avoid spending public money and its workers’ own pension funds on acquisitions from a country that they considered an abuse of human rights, would not be able to do so. They would be forced to compromise with countries with policies incompatible with their values.
This undermines the principle of local democratic representation, effectively centralizing power in Whitehall answerable to Westminster. This means that our party, the party of a smaller state, will dictate that every public body, from local councils to universities, can only contemplate action against any jurisdiction if it is on a central government list.
Unfortunately, there is also a ‘gag clause’. Not only does that prevent public contracting employees from publicly supporting boycotts, but there’s even a ‘double lock’ in place, so employees won’t even be able to say they would, in theory, support boycotts if they could legally do so.
The party I joined had the torch of liberty as its logo. The protection of individual freedom is one of the most current conservative principles par excellence. It was central to our belief system that people could speak their minds, without inciting hate, spend their money however they wanted, and just get on with their lives. This gag clause overrides these rights and responsibilities in favor of central government opinion.
The Israel-Palestine issue has occupied me since my first visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in 1983, while studying Middle East politics at university and during my military service. In 1994, I accompanied Malcolm Rifkind, as the first British Defense Secretary to officially visit Israel as Special Adviser to him when he was Foreign Secretary.
I chaired the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee from 2015 to 2017. The incumbent, my successor but one, Alicia Kearns, made an excellent comment during the second reading yesterday, saying that country-specific legislation undermines our foreign policy.
She is absolutely right. The Government has given itself the power to exempt certain countries from this legislation. However, an additional clause gives Israel permanent protection from being exempted by this government or any future government, unless it obtains the specific approval of parliament by amending this bill. It is the only country in the world with this eternal impunity.
The Minister of Law absurdly maintains that this is an internal measure only, with no implications for our foreign policy, but the threat of boycotts is an important foreign policy tool, and this Law would effectively disarm us. For most countries, it removes a string from our foreign policy noose, but for Israel, we’re breaking the noose in half, preventing the broader community from expressing any disapproval, especially when the government, while carefully saying things correct, has done nothing to support law and justice.
The timing of this unique status for Israel is all the more remarkable given the views of the current Israeli government. Since December 2022, a far-right extremist coalition, including ultranationalist settlers, has gained power and already abused it. The appalling and inciting rhetoric of extremist ministers such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who is not only finance minister but now responsible for the conduct of the occupation, has encouraged Israeli settlers to increase their violence against the Palestinian people. .
Speaking of time, it was deeply disturbing to have to defend the rights of Palestinians to protest peacefully at a time when Israel was launching a large-scale air and ground attack on Jenin. On my way to Parliament yesterday, I saw videos of missile attacks in the refugee camp. Condemning this should not be controversial, nor should support BDS and Palestinian solidarity in general.
What a time, when things have been so bad for so many years, and are getting worse instead of better, for the government to shield Israel from criticism and seek to force public bodies to be complicit in Israel’s policy on the territory illegally occupied.
Worst of all, the same clause that exempts Israel also exempts the Golan Heights and the occupied Palestinian territory. This contradicts decades of stated UK foreign policy goals, as addressed by members on both sides of the chamber.
It is an unprecedented move to recklessly endorse stealth annexation. At a time when the settlers are already emboldened by their extremist government, we propose to feed the fire with the breath of this legal impunity.
The stated purpose of this bill is to address antisemitism. However, specifically exempting Israel and its illegally occupied territories from any broader public commitment to sanctions in the face of truly shocking fundamental violations of international law will only reinforce a sense of injustice.
The Jewish community is deeply divided over Israeli government policy, but the public partnership between Israel and the global Jewish community means that this bill will serve to broaden and deepen any anti-Semitism present in our communities. Nor have we listened to Jewish students and youth groups. The government claims that it knows what is best for the Jewish people without listening to it.
Justice for the Palestinians has always gone hand in hand with the British value of ‘fair play’, as well as an instinctive sympathy for the underdog, both of which are central to my Party and all its values and instincts. In short, this bill is a non-conservative, hardcore catastrophe.