BOYCOTTS AND ASSORTED BULLSHIT

It is absolutely no accident that a UK government minister chose an Israeli visit for his new "guidelines" on boycotts, and why it was unacceptable for anyone other than central government to decide whose goods, products and services might be blacklisted.  

Local councils should not be in the business of determining their own "foreign policy" Matt Hancock advised.  Only the FCO could determine that, and any other freelance initiatives might imperil national security.  Meanwhile the usual Israeli embassy suspects were wheeled out to complain about this latest manifestation of anti semitism.

Let's just try and unpack some of all that. For starters British boycotts, and indeed the current Boycott, Divesting, Sanctions movement have a long and honourable history on these isles. A sugar boycott in Britain to protest against the slave trade - and the purchase of supplies from elsewhere - had a significant impact on the campaign to abolish slavery.  Nothing concentrates the corporate mind more than some red ink on the order book.

Local councils, individuals and many other organisations were active in the anti apartheid campaigns which ultimately forced South Africa to embrace multi cultural democracy.  Products like Outspan oranges were effectively blacklisted and I can remember buying my first ever bottle of Stellenbosch wine the day Mandel walked free from prison. Very delicious it was too.

And there's a similar broadbased support for persuading public bodies and pension funds to divest themselves of interests in the arms and tobacco trades among others.  All of that would be outlawed under the new guidelines, though the Scottish Government has made it clear it will not accept such strictures north of the border where three councils are already operating boycotts.

And sometimes it's not just about money.  The South African sports boycott - aimed at the sporting solar plexus of a nation with a proud tradition - was at least as effective as the produce variety, and arguably brought the anti apartheid movement greater profile.

So boycotts are woven through the tradition of protest throughout the UK.  And to argue they are imperilling nationational security, or the strategic imperatives of the FCO is, frankly, the most hypocritical hogwash. It is a matter of fact that successive Israeli governments have continued to build illegal settlements on occupied territories, it is a matter of fact that a massive wall now separates many Palestinian farmers from their own crops, and it is a matter of fact that Gaza has essentially become a large open air prison which, with sickening regularity, is overrun by Israeli army and its tanks with little regard for innocent civilian life.

The argument for pursing these punitive policies is the fact that  Palestinian activists have sent rockets into Israel doubtless terrifying THEIR civilian populace and resulting, thus far, in a small number of fatalities.  Yet many Israelis both in that country and amongst the diaspora have long recognised the futility of pursuing policies which not just torpedo any hopes of a two state solution, but so frustrate the more hotblooded Palestinian youth that we have seen a horrendous spate of knife attacks on Israelis, not just at checkpoints but at ordinary bus stops.  

The imprisoning of a nation, the persecution of Israeli Arabs and the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, the expansion of illegal settlements peopled by hardline fundamentalists cannot be seen as a route to peace by any stretch of logic. This is not in any way to condone Palestinian acts of violence, merely to observe that the conditions which breed it are born in the Knesset.

But the important thing to take on board about boycotts is that they are not, and never have been, about any one administration.  Many of us appalled at events in Israel/Palestine are equally disgusted at the way in which the UK government continues to pay homage to the Saudis in exchange for a lucrative UK arms trade. The hardware from these deals is now being deployed in Saudi Arabia's war on Yemen whilst our foreign and defence ministers claim that the fact it is our weaponry in use, and our strategic experts standing in the Saudi war room, somehow do not make us implicit in the death of thousands of civilians.  Besides which humbug a few councils setting their face against ordering avocados seems rather small beer.

The FCO has a long and inglorious tradition of selling to dictators and malign adminstrations not infrequently finding themselves arming two different sides in the same  long standing conflict as the years and  fresh perceptions of self interest roll on. We have been in bed with some truly unsavoury administrations and it's rather difficult to see in what way this re-inforces national security.

As for anti-semitism?  Standing shoulder to shoulder with many campaigners are British Jews and Israeli academics both in Israel and domiciled here. The latter have paid a very heavy price for calling their government to account.  Not at all incidentally, the current Israeli administration has a very large kitty, running I believe at around 23 million pounds,  specifically set up to counter boycott attempts. The very fact that they anticipate such boycotts suggests they are not unaware of the number of international laws  and UN resolutions they routinely flout.

Finally, let us cast a glance at that other constant UK government mantra - the importance  of local democracy and its place in creating Northern Powerhouses in Manchester and elsewhere.  Last time I looked a powerhouse was not something which had to phone Whitehall every time it placed its vegetable order.