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.