Simon Clarke is an MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
“Here there is no place for shades of gray. Either you think it’s okay to boycott Jews, in which case you’ll oppose the bill, or not, in which case you’ll support it.”
It’s the kind of line you expect to hear accompanying a crackling black and white video. From a distant and most dangerous time in history.
Except it wasn’t. Stephen Pollard, the managing editor of the Jewish Chronicle, raised his challenge to British MPs earlier this week.
After days of intense debate on the merits of the Economic Activities of Public Organizations (Activities Abroad) Bill, the second reading was upon us. The proceedings themselves were hotly contested but, despite feverish talks by 50 Tory rebels, went smoothly.
Stronger headwinds are ahead, especially in the Lords, but the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs will widely expect the Government to stay the course.
Ending boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activities by public bodies was never going to be easy for the government. Any problem that passes through the gravitational pull of the Israeli-Palestinian orbit is sure to encounter turbulence. The theme is simply too emotional, too burdened by centuries of conflict.
We must be clear: BDS has everything to do with Israel. A unique and obsessive movement that targets the only Jewish state in the world, singled out for treatment that does not apply to other countries. A movement with roots in the unfortunate history of the Arab rejection of the State of Israel, which predates the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Omar Barghouti, its founder, has advocated the end of the Jewish state. The BDS National Committee even includes a coalition of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, terror organizations banned by the UK.
In the twisted ideology of the BDS movement, if British Jews are on the receiving end of bullying, so be it.
This bill is a valuable opportunity to prevent public bodies from endorsing a platform recognized by all political parties as driving record levels of antisemitism in Britain, once and for all.
Some may wonder why this is a matter of priority, but the UK is not alone. In the United States, state legislatures have introduced measures. In Europe, France and Germany have already led the way in tackling BDS.
Courts have rejected successive attempts by the government to issue guidelines to public bodies to end BDS practices. Consequently, the Conservative Party concluded that legislation was the only way out of the impasse, and duly made an unequivocal promise to end BDS activities by public bodies in our 2019 manifesto.
As Chief Secretary of the Treasury, last year I had the honor of leading the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill, which marked the first legislative step against BDS. This followed another attempt to divest from Israel, this time by a Wirral-based local government pension scheme (LGPS).
This legislation was a historic moment, but then it became clear that a much more specific bill would be needed.
The Government is absolutely right to take this approach, and it was disappointing to see some misunderstanding of the bill from conservative banks this week.
While much of the debate surrounding this bill has (unsurprisingly) revolved around Israel, it is actually universal in scope. The principle is simple: the public authorities have nothing to do with a foreign policy parallel to that of HMG. This mandate is within the gift of the Government. Public agencies are expected to provide local services to the communities they represent, innovate, and deliver the best value.
The legislation will reaffirm that it is for HMG to determine the UK’s foreign and trade policy. Fundamentally, it will empower ministers to pass secondary laws that provide exceptions when it determines that sanctions should be applied. The Government has already announced its intention to introduce this to allow public bodies to continue boycotts against Russia and Belarus.
This will bring some much-needed discipline back to Britain’s sanctions policy, which has been thrown into confusion by the actions of public bodies.
The inclusion of an exemption for Israel and the Palestinian Territories has turned out to be the most controversial part of the bill. However, this is by no means a permanent block; a future government could nullify it with primary legislation. This seems to me a reasonable legislative response necessary because of the unique nature of BDS directed at Israel, and Israel alone.
We must not forget that BDS was entering the heart of mainstream politics through Her Majesty’s Opposition in the very recent past. Given these real dangers, it seems prudent to have additional control against this threat within the legislation. Removing the Israel-specific clause would render the bill moot.
It is worth emphasizing that in no way, shape, or form does this bill affect freedom of expression. There is absolutely nothing in this bill that would prevent private individuals or companies from pursuing BDS. Personally, I may find BDS reprehensible, but those people will still be free to do so.
The bill will inevitably remain a lightning rod, but Stephen Pollard was right to set the test, especially for the opposition.
The Labor front bench’s attempts on Monday to profess its belief that BDS was dangerous rang disingenuous, a clumsy attempt to balance its own opposition to the bill. He was then blown out of the water by the anti-Israel and pro-BDS vitriol that followed from many of his deputies.
It was a repeat of the greatest successes of the Jeremy Corbyn years, a chilling reminder that Labor’s obsession with Israel remains close to the surface and of the need for that clear legislative brake on Israel.
Lisa Nandy has taken pains to stress that the Party had commissioned legal advice discrediting the bill. However, once the evidence finally came to light, it was the Labor Party that faced the most questions.
Its author, Richard Hermer KC, had co-authored a chapter in a book called Corporate complicity in Israel’s occupation: Evidence from the London session of the Russell Tribunal of Palestine. He has also spoken at events for Palestinian Human Rights Lawyers and the Balfour Project calling on the government to petition the International Court of Justice to determine whether Israel is an “apartheid state.”
He was a financial contributor to Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign. It is certainly not the open and shut case that Labor had promised.
For too long, public bodies have been able to hamper Britain’s export trade and damage foreign relations to the detriment of Britain’s economic and international security and the well-being of some of our own citizens. It is right that we act against him. It is right that we remind local government of its own responsibilities, which are vast and growing under this government.
Foreign affairs should be left to Parliament, not councils.