Opinion: National influence, international irrelevance?

I remember the day I self-identified as a Liberal Democrat. I was a teenager, perhaps 16 or 17, (disclosure: I’m now in my mid 30s) and was actually watching a political debate that was taking place on what was, at the time, ‘yoof’ TV.

The three main parties were represented. I can’t recall who the other two people were, but the stand-out performance was from Simon Hughes.  Everything he said just made sense and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why the Liberal Democrats were not in Government.  This was the point at which I became politically aware.

I can’t say that I ran out and joined the party there and then, but I have voted Liberal Democrat since and never regretted it or thought of it as a wasted vote.

There has been talk of how Liberal Democrats can influence the Conservatives, providing a counter-balance to Conservative instincts, and to some extent, this may be true. The budget is one area where this can be seen to be evident, and recently, Kenneth Clarke appeared to be following the pre-election line of the Liberal Democrats when he talked about a “Victorian bang ‘em up” attitude to prisons.  Nationally, Liberal Democrat policies are beginning to filter through Government. But do we have any influence at all on foreign policy?

Last year, Simon Hughes wowed me all over again when he said that he had joined the Liberal Democrats because he thought that “Liberalism was the best way of dealing with unfairness in the world that at that time was most obvious in South Africa with apartheid and Palestine, sadly still the case today”.

Operation Cast lead, conducted by Israel against Gaza in 2008/2009, brought into focus for me the injustice heaped upon the Palestinians by the State of Israel and since then the cause of Palestine has been close to my heart, and it is an issue which the Liberal Democrat leadership – alone amongst the main political parties – has been consistently outspoken and honest about. Nick Clegg himself wrote: “The legacy of Operation Cast Lead is a living nightmare for one and a half million Palestinians squeezed into one of the most overcrowded and wretched stretches of land on the planet … And what has the British government and the international community done to lift the blockade? Next to nothing. Tough-sounding declarations are issued at regular intervals but little real pressure is applied. It is a scandal that the international community has sat on its hands in the face of this unfolding crisis.”

So, both the current Leader and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats are as one mind on this issue, and one of them is the current Deputy Prime Minister. So what are they going to do about it now?  Well, so far, and all too damningly, next to nothing.

The bad news is that William Hague, the current Foreign Secretary, has been a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel since he was 15. What is also worrying is that there is no Conservative counterpart to the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.  Are there really no voices to speak up for Palestine within the Conservative party?  How do we realistically influence a Foreign Secretary who explicitly threw his lot in with Israel decades ago? And how do we influence the wider Conservative party when they apparently lack an internal diversity of opinion on the issue of Israeli occupation of Palestine?

In hard economic times such as these, it is only natural that the Coalition Government faces inwards towards the UK and focuses upon navigating out of the recession, this is what the country demands. But this should not mean that we, as Liberal Democrats, should lose sight of the ideals of Liberal Democracy and how these should be applied universally and not just in our own nation. The last Palestinian legislative elections held in 2006 were described as “extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence” by Edward McMillan-Scott, who headed the 30-strong team of MEPs that observed the Palestinian election, perhaps not surprisingly, he is a Liberal Democrat MEP.

The Palestine/Israel conflict was never an issue that I thought the Conservatives would influence Liberal Democrats over, but it appears, sadly, that this is exactly the case. And this troubles me.

The Liberal Democrats should use their influence and show international leadership by supporting Palestinian Civil Society and using Government channels to – as Nick Clegg called for – apply “real pressure” upon Israel to heed the myriad of UN resolutions asking it to end its occupation of Gaza, West Bank, and Golan Heights.

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17 Comments

  • Were any Liberal Democrats at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth? (http://pwccc.wordpress.com/)

    Would you consider inviting Vandana Shiva to Conference?

    The world is moving on and we here in the UK seem to be sticking with the old guys, fighting for corporate interests wherever they may be unable to expand, not fighting for human rights, for dignity, for people. As long as we stick with the old ways of thinking and the old friends we will wake up one day to find we are being influenced, not influencing.

  • The silence from our benches on the Palestinian question is deeply troubling and something which we, the rank and file, clearly need to do address. A good start would be to join Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine:

    http://www.ldfp.eu/home.html

    Some more info here:
    http://www.libdems.org.uk/party_organisations_detail.aspx?title=Liberal_Democrat_Friends_of_Palestine&pPK=52336cb3-87d0-4936-93e9-dfc6e7c43dba

    The fact that such an organisation feels the need to exist at all is, in itself, disconcerting, but as the ‘LibDem Friends of Israel’ is seemingly in rude health I fear that it’s the only way to achieve some sort of balance, especially as there is no tory equivalent.

    I am very much a ‘coalitionist’ by conviction and have been frequently banging on to the rest of the membership here about needing to understand what it means to be in coalition. I hadn’t imagined that our MPs would need educating as well but their total failure to uphold any liberal democrat principles at all shows that they’re completely missing the point of a coalition. Their attitude to the Gaza blockade is just one case in point.

    The tories, on the contrary, seem to have no problem whatsoever disagreeing with the lib dems. By way of an example, on possibly the single most important coalition deal breaker – electoral reform – David Cameron cheerfully trumpets that he certainly won’t be campaigning for it. In fact, the entire conservative party is happily climbing into bed with Labour in order to maintain the status quo of ‘elected autocracy’.

    I hope this Zombie-like attitude is just a temporary paralysis and that our MPs find their voices after the summer break, when they’ll hopefully have time to reflect on the story so far. If they don’t, it’s going be up to us and I think that this will actually start to happen quite naturally unless both parties in this coalition are properly accommodated in the government’s actions.

  • Geoff, though it pains me to say so, Hugo Swire has actually spoken some sense over Afghanistan over the years since elected in 2001, where he has made a number of informed interventions on the subject. Unfortunately when it comes to voting on the subject, I have seen no sign of rebellion against his own side!

  • As a Young Liberal 40+ years ago, the differences were between “evolutionaries” and revolutionaries, but all Liberals shared the fact they wanted a better society – and, broadly speaking, that society would have been looked on as “left” of the current conventional way of life / politics in Britain. I was then an evolutionary, and remain so. If George’s comments are right, that we are losing the young idealists in our midst – for a long time – the future a few years down the line will not be bright. We have to find ways of living in coalition, but still expressing our idealism. And, I may be wrong, but I don’t think saying we will support a smaller “state” ie public sector is the way to do that. Of course we speak of devolution, but at local government level we have to have a mechanism of converting people’s votes and preferences into policy and action. Business and the private sector are incapable of that – in fact their role – in producing goods / delivering services effectively and efficiently has nothing to do with democracy.

  • Tim13

    in fact their role – in producing goods / delivering services effectively and efficiently has nothing to do with democracy.

    I see this move towards privatisation/big society as just that – the politicians washing their hands of anything that they have responsibility for. That is the point, what we will see.

    The whole thing is thoroughly depressing and demoralising for the ordinary people of this country. And I suspect the Tories quite like that too because the depressed and demoralised will not bother to vote next time around.

  • Yes, Mary, I agree.

  • I agree we need to be much more outspoken about israel and palestine (the issue makes my blood boil whenever it comes up! But I based on discussions I’ve had with several young israelis friends, they’lre not well represented by their government either!)

    Regarding our role in international affairs, there was an article on bbc news during the G20 where Cameron was quoted as saying that he wanted Nick to be involved and mentioning China specifically.

  • Yes, there are a few counter initiatives in Israel but they receive little or no support and sorely need the much louder international voices that can be mustered. As I’m sure your friends will tell you Sandra, the key is to keep up the momentum now.

    Israel clearly hopes that, by ‘easing’ the Gaza blockade a little it can prevaricate long enough for this latest initiative to run out of steam so it can continue the building of settlements. The main aim is clearly East Jerusalem where the pace has recently been stepped up as Israel realises that it may finally be running out of time.

    The plan seems to be to have so many settlements on occupied territory that they increase Israel’s bargaining power. This would be a travesty as the settlements have always been illegal.

    While tiny signs of political will to push for a settlement are beginning to emerge around the world, this ain’t going to be easy and it is certainly no time for the LibDems to shut up when we have been so vocal in the past.

    Now is the time to put your money where your mouth is Nick.

  • Jason Mehmet 12th Jul '10 - 10:10am

    Thanks for all the comments on this, some really great contributions to the debate, whilst I can’t reply to everything here I’ll pick out some things I think are key points.

    @ Geoffrey Payne, you said: “Given the level of democracy in Israel we do have to take into account Israeli public opinion”.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, but as I pointed out, Israel is certainly not, as the meme goes, “the only democracy in the Middle East”. The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) had free and fair elections that the international community begged to be held, and then promptly ignored the result. It is neither liberal nor democratic to sidestep that fact. The OPT, then, is an example of a deliberately smothered democracy in the Middle East and as the Lib Dems are in Government we are now as complicit in this situation as all the other Governments before us.

    But as you say, “it is everyone’s responsibility, not just the party leadership, to promote debate on international affairs in the party”. That is one of the reasons I joined the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, and one of the reasons I wrote and submitted the opinion piece above.

    @Kirsten, yes, some big issues you mention, we do need to be putting a distinctly liberal case forward. It needs to be constantly reiterated that we are, in fact a minority partner in this Government, and that we will not have our own way on everything. It is just that we have spent all our political capital on the position of reducing the deficit to detriment of our influence on the international affairs of the Government. More on your second comment below.

    @ George Rowley, great point re: first time voters/teenagers. From my own experience outlined above, I can see Labour reaping the benefits of the debate around the recession during the next election. As a party we need to be pointing out that we are a minority partner and whilst we accept responsibility for some things, we can’t accept direct responsibility for others. I’m not sure how worried the Liberal Democrat party should be worried about being consigned to history at the next election as we could be tarred with the same brush that the Conservatives were before they were last thrown out of Government.

    Clearly, the economy is a big factor. Its recovery or lack thereof will be a huge part of sealing our fate. The General Public will likely not vote Liberal Democrat if they want to remove the Conservatives. But. If we can point to policies we have enacted that are different from the last Government – reform of the electoral system is one, attitude on Palestine could be another – then we stand a better chance of being able to draw clear lines between our policies and the policies of others. Otherwise it will be the classic case all over again of all the parties being “the same as each other”.

    @ Kirsten (2) I agree with your entire second comment.

    That Israel sees the key to success as increasing the size (both in terms of stealing physical land and increasing the amount of illegal settlers) of illegal settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territories is indisputable. On the basis that if Israel can simultaneously drag the “peace talks” on for long enough then the viability of an independent Palestinian State is decreased, or that at the very least, Israel will have already illegally taken control of those parts of West Bank/Gaza/Golan Heights that it wants and rather then the starting position being a call to Israel to remove illegal settlers and occupation forces, the starting position will be a “negotiation” about which bits of Palestinian land can be swapped for which other bits of Palestinian land.

    And that is before we mention the unmentionable… the right of return of refugees.

    We have to keep the pressure on our party, and through our party our Government and through our Government the international community. A good starting point will be a refusal to allow Israel to purchase any form of weapon from UK companies.

  • Jason Mehmet 12th Jul '10 - 11:38am

    @ Kerry Hutchinson, I take your points. The “system” – though on the face of it provides international legitimacy to apply a much higher level of diplomatic pressure upon Israel – appears to be willing to turn a blind eye to the obvious and continuing crimes of the state of Israel. What other state has been an Occupying Force in International Law for literally decades?

    You raise a valid point about Israel apparently being our “strategic partner” in the Middle East. This implies that we have a “strategy” for the Middle East, so what is the aim of that strategy? In public there is unanimous support for an ever-more mythical “2 state solution”, and yet we see that the best way to achieve this is to unequivocally support Israel in her illegal occupation? And to carry on doing so even though the terrorists attacks on 9/11 and 7/7 and the illegal war(s) they have perpetuated can be traced – at least in part – all the way back to the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.

    If a terrorist makes a video expressly telling that one of the reasons why he has committed terrorism is because of injustice in Palestine, and you then choose to carry on ignoring that injustice, and in fact, tacitly support it, well then you should at least be able to point to the direct benefit that having Israel as a “strategic partner” brings to the UK, I’ve yet to see the evidence of strategic benefits.

    Regardless of all the above, is it that we are willing to countenance a so-called “strategic partner” who is committing a war crime every second of every day (yes, allowing settlers is a war crime) on the basis that they are strategically valuable to us. Is this a Liberal and/or Democratic stance?

  • Regardless of all the above, is it that we are willing to countenance a so-called “strategic partner” who is committing a war crime every second of every day (yes, allowing settlers is a war crime) on the basis that they are strategically valuable to us. Is this a Liberal and/or Democratic stance?

    Exactly. How many mothers worry about the company their teenage kids keep, about their children being led astray? When you hang out with the wrong crowd, no one is surprised when they see you going down the wrong path.

    How many mothers on this earth would view us as not the sort of friend they want their kid hanging out with? The UN voted years ago and still it goes on. Are we just as bad as the bully or are we spineless, to weak to stand up for right over wrong? Our best friend is no more than the big bully of the world in my view using force to impose itself on the rest of the global population.

    I’m beginning to come to the view that the British public have access to more information about the world but instead of an informed public we have a public who know very little of the world. If that is the case then international politics will not play as an important role in the next election as it perhaps could. What will be important is increasing unemployment, homelessness, pensioner poverty and demoralisation. The government will continue to convince itself that unemployment, poverty and underemployment is because those who suffer from it require education, training etc, a delusional stance if ever there was one.

    Israel is not the only pressing issue on the world stage. Europe is in an economic mess, Africa continues to struggle economically and politically and the people are left to suffer the consequences of war, corruption and western land-buy-ups not to mention the disasters brought on populations via oil, coltan, precious stones. And we stand buy, wringing our hands or turning our faces away.

    Indeed, the destruction of the environment is the greatest international issue we have ever known. I had grave doubts the politicians would come to an agreement on how best to nurse and repair our environment. Now, after Copenhagen I have no hope for International politics, and truly fear for the future of planet earth. As BP, a company with not much of an ethical history poisons the oceans we have politicians worrying about the market price of shares! Message received and understood!

    Lib Dems, choose your target and go for it. Demostrate to people you are more than lap puppies.

  • Mary is of course correct that there are lots of issues that need addressing and it will always be like that.

    However, each one of us is just one person and, as she so rightly puts it “choose your target and go for it”. Too many people get so overwhelmed by the mass of rubbish that needs clearing up that they throw in the towel and do nothing about everything. Much better for each one of us to choose a few issues that make us really mad and “go for it” with a vengeance!

    Do we know if anyone has put up any motions for Conference dealing with the Palestinian question?

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