The battle for the soul of Britain’s Conservative Party

A number of MPs in the Conservative Party, once Israel’s friends, are looking for any excuse to turn their backs on Israel because they are in thrall to “public opinion.”

A MAN leaves the Conservative Party convention last month in the UK. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN leaves the Conservative Party convention last month in the UK.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In case you were ever wondering how important a Member of Parliament is in British politics, a good rule of thumb is to see if his name is prefixed with “Sir.” If his name begins in such a way, the chances are he’s really not important. It generally signifies longevity of service rather than any particular distinction and it’s usually given as a sort of going home present from the prime minister, laden with heavy inference (“goodnight, God bless, you’re not going anywhere in my government”).
And so we come to the speech of MP Sir Richard Ottoway during the House of Commons’ recent debate on whether to recognize “Palestine Statehood.” This was a debate from which most Conservatives abstained, it being regarded as pointless and premature, giving the Labour motion a false margin of Pyrrhic victory. But despite my above rule of thumb, Sir Richard’s speech is particularly noteworthy.
Not least because it contained four very sensitive and intelligent paragraphs sharing his support for Israel from 1948 onwards, followed by one of the most extraordinary and ridiculous passages I have ever heard spoken in the House of Commons.
Sir Richard then claimed: “I realize now ... looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly because it makes me look a fool... .”
Let’s leave aside the fact that Israel’s drift from world public opinion may be more of a reflection on world public opinion than on Israel, informed to a large degree by a deeply biased media. Let’s also ignore the fact that the so-called “annexation” of 950 acres of land was in fact no such thing, but was a declaration by Israel that certain uncultivated areas of land near the 1949 Armistice Line was “state land.” That is, nothing actually happened to anyone or anything. It was an annexation without an annex. No, the real surprise was that a long-serving politician of Sir Richard’s experience could claim with a straight face in Parliament that a declaration by an Israeli official in relation to a fairly modest sized area of uninhabited land “outraged” him more than “anything else” ever.
More than, say, Islamic State (IS) beheading a British soldier and re-instituting slavery; Boko Haram kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls; or the shooting down of a passenger jet by Russian rebels. His claim is so hyperbolic it must conceal a deeper truth.
That truth is that a number of MPs in the Conservative Party, once Israel’s friends, are looking for any excuse to turn their backs on Israel because they are in thrall to “public opinion,” which in turn is influenced by a growing Muslim population which tends to be highly hostile to Israel, and a growing number of associated activist groups. Thousands and thousands of anti-Israel activists lobbied Parliament before the debate on Palestinian statehood. I know one MP who claims to have received more emails on this than on any other subject. It is in this context that many MPs are slowly coming to the view that Israel is a toxic brand that they need to move away from to enhance their popular appeal.
The irony is bitter. In the same debate about Palestinian statehood, Andrew Bridgen, a hitherto unknown Conservative MP, launched into an attack on the “Jewish lobby.” A couple of days later, Sir Alan Duncan MP, special envoy to the Yemen, blamed a “powerful financial lobby” in America for its approach to the Middle East. They couldn’t be more wrong: it is not a mythical Jewish lobby causing support to flow to Israel; it is pressure from those opposed to Israel, including in the media, causing its support to come unstuck.
Whatever the pressures, this all poses a challenge for Israel’s supporters in the Conservative Party. The Conservatives, for whom I have stood for Parliament, have for many years been the natural home of British Jews, still quietly but firmly Zionist, and with an emphasis on family, traditional values and enterprise. Whereas the other parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) have long been dominated by those who seek to demonize Israel, the prime minister proudly calls himself a Zionist and his Chief Whip has delivered breathtaking speeches on anti-Semitism and written a compelling book on Islamic extremism. But the absence of positive Conservative voices from the recent debate spoke volumes. As does the absence of disciplinary action for clearly anti-Semitic references to a “Jewish lobby” by Andrew Bridgen. There is a battle going on for the Party’s soul.
The challenge is how to ensure that the strength of Israel’s support within the Conservative Party does not further decline, even while our country’s demographics are transforming.
To ensure that the Party remains a home for Britain’s Jews who, albeit quietly, continue to offer firm support for Israel and like so many, want to fight for a world free from Islamic extremism.
A compelling response to this issue must include the need to ensure that the Conservative Party understands the resonant truth that Israel’s fight is the same one that Britain faces. Our leaders have made powerful cases to assault the brutality of Islamic State.
They must now have the courage to explain that Israel faces enemies of a highly similar nature. The attacks on settlement-building are easy but they are not the “touchstone” issues. Borders will be drawn up as they always are, through bilateral negotiations, once two willing parties are committed to the rule of law. The prior issue is whether the Conservative Party will adhere to its roots and lead a renewed fight in favor of the only free democracy in the Middle East in its battle against terrorism, or whether it will instead become a craven follower of popular trends.
Whatever the choice, this is a debate that the Conservative Party cannot abstain from.
The author is a writer and barrister in the UK.