William Eichler 02 March 2016

Banning Boycotts—Is history repeating itself?

Mark Twain once wrote: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.’ He was right. In the 1980s the Conservatives attempted to neuter local authorities, and last month they tried again.

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher introduced the Local Government Act which, as well as being deeply homophobic (section 28 prohibited councils from ‘promoting homosexuality’—and was only repealed in 2003), also banned town halls from factoring in political criteria when deciding who to award contracts. It was a law designed to prevent councils from flexing their economic muscles for non-economic ends. It was, in other words, an anti-boycott law.

Last month the Conservatives tried again. Brushing aside their professed love of localism, they issued new guidelines pertaining to what councils are allowed to take into consideration when choosing who to do business with. The main thrust? Councils are prohibited from taking part in what the Government describes as ‘inappropriate’ procurement boycotts, i.e. sanctions or embargoes disapproved of by Whitehall. Anyone found to be in breach of these regulations could, in theory, be subject to ‘severe penalties’.

Both laws were effectively designed to defend a controversial friend on the international stage.

Mrs Thatcher’s attack on councils was a reaction to local authority participation in the then growing campaign of boycotts against a British ally—apartheid South Africa. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had been making inroads into town halls, many of which enthusiastically took up the struggle against the racist regime by refusing to do business with it. This was embarrassing for the prime minister and so she attempted to put a stop to it.

In a comparable manner, today’s clamp down on the ability of councils to use their economic power in support of choice causes is a reaction to the growing pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent campaign consciously modelled on the AAM. As in many policy areas, David Cameron is following the Iron Lady’s career closely.

What is the background to BDS and the Government’s panicked reaction to it? Israel has been occupying the Palestinian West Bank for the last 49 years. Certain powers have been delegated to the Palestinian Authority (PA), but Tel Aviv is the only serious player in the territory, and Palestinians have to sit and watch as Israeli settlements eat into what remains of their land. The Jewish state also occupied Gaza until 2005; it is now strangling the densely populated area in an attempt to overthrow the Islamist group Hamas, which took control in 2007.

Despite most of the world recognising the Palestinian’s right to self-determination, there has been little pressure on Tel Aviv to fulfil its obligations under international law. So, in 2005, Palestinian civil society decided to remedy this. They called for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel to pressure it into ending the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land. And just as they did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s for the AAM, many UK councils have answered the call.

In 2014 Leicester City Council passed a policy to boycott goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Other councils, such as Gwynedd County Council, Swansea City Council, and Birmingham have made similar moves. More significantly, perhaps, the Scottish government has published a procurement notice to councils north of the border which ‘strongly discourages trade and investment from illegal settlements’.

The new regulations are designed to put a stop to this.

What are the arguments the Conservatives offer to justify their position? Firstly, they say, boycotts violate EU procurement directives and the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA)—an international market access agreement. In other words, they go against our free trade obligations.

According to the new guidelines, a local authority is able to ‘take account of wider matters in the procurement process, such as social and environmental factors’, but all suppliers must be ‘treated equally and without discrimination.’ Boycotting Israel would be, according to this reasoning, a form of trade discrimination.

Mark Twain would, no doubt, smile wryly at this argument. One of the reasons Margaret Thatcher opposed the AAM’s boycott of South Africa was her commitment to free trade. For her, boycotts were a crime against economic liberalism. She also believed that, in the long run, free trade would develop South Africa to the benefit of all its people—regardless of skin colour.

This is, frankly, a bizarre argument. How black South Africans were supposed to take advantage of liberalised markets when they were politically discriminated against is unclear; the argument that a rising tide lifts all boats doesn't wash when some of the vessels are firmly chained to the sea bed.

The reasoning offered by today’s Conservatives is similarly pernicious. It privileges the economic rights of Israelis over the human rights of Palestinians. Yes, we have obligations under trade agreements, but we also have moral and legal obligations to challenge an illegal occupation. If Whitehall isn’t interested in doing this, then they certainly shouldn’t prevent local authorities from doing their part.

But, of course, the underlying reasons for banning boycotts are more than just economic ideology; its about geopolitics as well. Local authority boycotts of Israel, according to the Government, are a menace to the UK. As cabinet office minister Matthew Hancock put it, the new regulations ‘will help prevent damaging and counter-productive local foreign policies undermining our national security.’ The Government appears to be suggesting that the interests of the UK and Israel, where national security is concerned, are identical; and that to oppose an illegal occupation in the Middle East is tantamount to putting British citizens at risk.

This is nonsense. Underpinning this is a mindset which conflates a wide variety of actors in the Islamic world. The assumption is that there is little dividing groups such as Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaeda etc, and that Israel is on the frontline of a wider ‘clash of civilisations’. What is good for the Palestinians, so the logic goes, is good for, say, ISIS; and what is good for Israel is good for us.

This reduces a complex conflict to a zero-sum game and betrays a remarkably simplistic approach to foreign policy. Fortunately, many local governments refuse to buy into this black and white view of the world.

The final argument put forward by the Government is that BDS undermines good community relations and is, effectively, anti-Semitic. At the core of this accusation is the question: why Israel? The world is full of human rights abusers, authoritarian regimes, and totalitarian movements—why pick on the world’s only Jewish state? It's a fair question. Israel is far from being the most egregious offender of human rights and yet many UK councils have chosen to boycott it.

The first answer to this is simple: BDS was started by Palestinians and only Israel is occupying their land; if China was settling the West Bank, then BDS would target China. But this doesn't answer the deeper question of why this tiny conflict on the eastern Mediterranean resonates so much with people who have no direct connection to it.

It is, I think, partly because of the relationship between this specific piece of territory and the formation of the major monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is integral to all three and so it has gained a prominence which has little relation to its small size.

More significantly, though, it is because the Israel/Palestine conflict is, in a sense, an anachronism. Zionism—Jewish nationalism—was the movement of self-determination for the Jewish people. However, it could only be realised through the colonisation of territory that was (largely) populated by non-Jews. Furthermore, this could only happen with the help of the British empire which occupied huge swaths of the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War.

While this process meant liberation for one group (Jews) it spelt dispossession for another (Palestinian Arabs). It forever associated Zionism with white-settler colonialism, comparable to such cases as French Algeria, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and, of course, apartheid South Africa. There are many differences between these historical cases but, as Twain would say, they rhyme.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century the regimes that resulted from white settler colonialism ended (at least those where there was organised and sustained opposition). Only Israel’s occupation and settling of the West Bank remains.

Of course there are many evils in the world—white settler colonialism is only one of them. But the modern multicultural zeitgeist sees this one as particularly unacceptable. The modern obsession with Israel and the Palestinians is not because local authorities are becoming increasingly anti-Semitic; it is because they are more conscious of the deplorable nature and history of European colonialism. If you doubt this, then try the following thought experiment: would the world’s reaction to the Israel/Palestine conflict be much different if Israel was a white, Christian state? I doubt it.

Reflecting on his party’s past support for apartheid South Africa, David Cameron wrote in a 2006 article for the Observer: ‘the mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now.’ The Conservative’s recent attempts to undermine the ability of local authorities to challenge colonialism  suggest they are making the same mistakes all over again.

For more on this, visit The MJ (£).

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