You can be a ‘liberal democracy’, or you can ban boycotts – not both

by Thomas Seal

19 February 2016

The boycott ban shows Britain’s values are all relative once our exports are threatened, says Thomas Seal.

When you listen to them speak, it sounds like the Tories don’t like big government calling all the shots.

They like people to make democratic decisions about the things that affect them. They hate the nanny state telling us what to do. A few months ago, a minister even boasted they were ‘the party of devolution’.

So when they announced this week that they will ban public bodies from participating in boycott or divestment campaigns, I was really shocked.

The new procurement restrictions to be imposed on councils, pension funds, NHS trusts and others will be announced during Matthew Hancock MP’s upcoming visit to Israel.

This is fitting, because the most politically fraught boycott to be affected by these new laws would be Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), whose members refuse to buy goods or services that support or come from Israel until the illegally occupied land of Palestine is free.

Israel’s parliament made it a civil wrong to promote this campaign in 2011, meaning the state can revoke funding for boycotters and sue them. Now the UK government is following suit.

It is easy to follow the causal rationale of banning an action.

‘Don’t do that – then this bad thing won’t happen.’

But what about when you ban inaction?

‘You can’t not do that. You must do it.’

Hancock says boycotts like BDS can fuel anti-Semitism.

But his party was more expansive back in October, when a spokesperson said: “Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, alongside Labour-affiliated trade unions, are urging councils to use their procurement and pension policies to punish both Israel and the UK defence industry.

Wait a minute…

“Separate hard-left campaigns against British defence companies threaten to harm Britain’s £10bn export trade, destroying British jobs, and hinder joint working with Israel to protect Britain from foreign cyber-attacks and terrorism.”

So it’s about our (entirely ethical) defence industry and Jeremy Corbyn? Does that mean ethical dissent will be silenced when it threatens economic or party interests?

Boycotts are democratic.

A common complaint is that democracy balances too much on a single vote every five years – along party or geographical lines we may dispute.

Mass opinion can be communicated through industrial action or protest, too. But in a consumer society, our most frequent and tangible impact on the world is made up of financial transactions at a corporate, local or even individual level.

So, ironically, boycott and divestment is the liberal democracy promoted by Britain expressed in its purest form: a democratic market decision. The market can reject firms if it disagrees with their practises. Councils won’t join boycotts if a majority of voters don’t want them to.

But did the Conservatives receive a clear mandate to make this serious change to nation’s public procurement?

Anna Lappé said it best: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

And make no mistake, the people who run the companies profiting from public contracts are doing just this.

One of Westminster’s favourite contractors, G4S, has been awarded huge contracts for everything from tagging criminals to housing asylum seekers (despite attracting frequent controversy).

G4S – a British firm – also transfers prisoners from the occupied Palestinian territories into prisons within the state of Israel, in contravention of the fourth Geneva Convention. It also provides equipment and services to the checkpoints across the West Bank and the terminals surrounding the blockaded Gaza strip.

Now your local council or NHS Trust may have no choice but to pay for their services, and your pension fund may not be able to divest from companies contributing to the contravention of international law – whether its members like it or not.

Does it even make a difference?

Boycotts don’t just impose economic pressure – they also generate awareness.

In the case of BDS, money talks, but the public message is what really concerns Israel, whose economy thrives on ever more generous foreign aid deals from their allies in the US and UK.

This ban is an illiberal, top-down attempt to stop thousands of people protesting in one of the only ways they can. It is happening in the US, France and Canada, too.

Boycotters in the US can be fined enormous sums.

Liberals swooned at the election of the dishy new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau. And what is more cute and liberal than opposing people’s right to free expression?

France, too, has cracked down hard. Its high court recently ruled that promoting BDS is illegal and anti-Semitic.

Even those who merely want to mark goods and services from the occupied territories alone are subject to the official insinuation of Nazism.

EU bodies published new guidelines in November for labelling products made in Israeli settlements. Labelling, not banning. In response to this, Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labelled Jewish products.”

Is BDS anti-Semitic? Surely the only insult to Jewish people is to suggest they must all agree with the occupation of Palestine, or else.

You may disagree with the aims of boycotts, you may believe they just won’t work – but you cannot ban them without revealing the murky reality behind the spotless liberalism Britain and its allies claim to defend.

Photo: Ted Swedenburg/Flickr

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