Opinion: Why we should condemn the academic boycott of Israel

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The University and College Union’s (UCU) proposed academic boycott of Israel has attracted opposition from many people who might usually be numbered among Israel’s harshest critics. The (Palestinian) President of Jerusalem’s Al Quds University is among those opposing the boycott, in a joint statement with the (Israeli) President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

As a Liberal Democrat, my opposition is rooted in our party’s fundamental liberal belief in free expression, particularly in situations involving conflict resolution.

To boycott Israeli academics, including liberal individuals who strongly disagree with the Israeli government, is not only illiberal, it is also perverse. Imagine a boycott of British universities and academics, based on our government’s disgraceful conduct of the war in Iraq!

Almost worse is the suggestion that Israeli academics might be exempted from a boycott if they distance themselves from their government’s policies. Presumably the proponents of the boycott are planning to summon up the shade of Joe McCarthy to supervise this exercise in thought control?

The proposed boycott is also perverse because it singles out Israel among all the countries of the world. Israel, for all its faults, is a parliamentary democracy. Its universities, like British universities, are open to all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. I have been to the Hebrew University and met Arab students, including some who came from the Palestinian territories, and some who came from Israel itself. There are also many overseas students at Israel’s universities. Israel enjoys the same academic freedom as does this country and other democracies.

The tragic irony of singling out Israel is that no other Middle Eastern country has academic freedom, so why only boycott Israel? When other Middle Eastern countries are infringing human rights in ways that directly affect academic freedom, why is the UCU silent?

To randomly select an example, Amnesty International’s 2007 report on Saudi Arabia says: “Hamza al-Muzaini, an academic who allegedly criticized a cleric in an article, was fined in May by the Ministry of Information. He was physically attacked and branded an ‘infidel’ in September by a group of young men as he gave a speech on reform of the school curriculum.” Where is the UCU’s condemnation of this? Why is it only Israel that stands condemned? The UCU is naïve to focus on Israel, while ignoring the brutalities inflicted by dictatorships across the Middle East.

The motion to be debated at conference (printed in full, below) does not seek to deny that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are suffering immensely, with severe problems at their academic facilities. The way to change this is to bring about a peaceful solution that includes a Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

For this to happen, there must be maximum dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics, and the wider international community of academics, including in this country. Slamming doors in the face of dialogue with Israeli academics will help nobody and will actually make things worse, delaying the negotiation of a two-state solution and a Palestinian state.

* Matthew Harris is a London Liberal Democrat activist who first joined the Liberal Party in 1986. You can find further information at www.stoptheboycott.org.

This is the full text of the motion to be debated at the Liberal Democrat federal conference in Brighton on Sunday, 16th September, at 2.50 pm.

Academic Boycott of Israel
Finchley & Golders Green
Mover: Monroe Palmer
Summation: Jonathan Davies
Conference notes that, at its annual conference on 30 May 2007, the University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion effectively calling for an academic boycott of Israel.

Conference believes that:
i) Academic freedom and the exchange of ideas are of paramount importance in conflict resolution.
ii) Many Israeli academics have been at the forefront of opposition to illiberal Israeli government policies, so it is entirely counter-productive to sever links with such academics.
iii) It is wrong to boycott individuals on account of their nationality, whatever policies their country’s government pursues.
iv) Israeli academics can no more be held accountable for Israeli government policy than British academics can be held accountable for British government policy.
v) It is perverse for academics to boycott only Israel, if other countries with far worse records of academic freedom are not also to be boycotted.
vi) Israeli universities are centres of free debate and discussion including Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.
vii) A British academic boycott does nothing to bring a negotiated solution to the problems of Israel and Palestine closer, and is in fact actively counter-productive, as it discourages dialogue between the very people who should most be talking.
Conference further notes that the boycott has been condemned by the Palestinian president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, in a joint statement with Menachem Magidor, the Israeli president of the Hebrew University in West Jerusalem.

Conference therefore:
1. Condemns the UCU’s decision to call for an academic boycott of Israel.
2. Urges the UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, to fulfil her manifesto pledge to put any pro-boycott resolution to a referendum of the union’s full membership.
3. Urges all UCU members to vote to reject the boycott proposal.
4. Urges academics to continue to engage in the fullest possible dialogue with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.
5. Condemns academic boycotts in general.

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39 Comments

  • Daniel Bowen 5th Sep '07 - 9:58am

    The problem with this motion as Chris Paul points out is that it’s factually inaccurate. The UCU motion calls for robust internal debate with its members on a boycott. It does not (effectively or otherwise) call for a boycott.

    Most of its ‘believes’ points are tendentious. Israeli academics are notoriously reluctant to get stuck into the Israel/Palestine debate (presumably for fear of intimidation). I am agnostic on the boycott itself, but have no idea why this exercise in propaganda disguised as fact has been allowed onto the Conference agenda.

  • Matthew Harris 5th Sep '07 - 11:21am

    Thanks for comments. Chris Paul is right that the Palestinians in the Occupied/Disputed territories most certainly do NOT enjoy the same democratic rights (including academic freedom) that all citizens enjoy in Israel proper. The situation for Palestinians in the territories is appalling (the situation for people in Israel, under regular rocket attack and with regular attempted suicide bombings, is not so great either). The way to change that is to bring about a two-state solution – and a boycott would NOT help to bring that about.

    Chris and Mr Bowen are quite right that the UCU has not boycotted Israel, merely called for a discussion of a boycott. But if you read the UCU motion (http://www.ucu.org.uk/circ/html/ucu31.html) itself, it is clear that its framers are effectively calling for their union to prepare the ground for a boycott, which the framers clearly favour.

    As for the suggestion that Israeli/Palestinian academics are “notoriously reluctant” to debate the issues – as if! Israel is a very noisy society, in which nobody is reluctant to debate anything! Can we have some examples of this alleged reluctance? And the suggestion that these academics would suffer “intimidation” in Israel is simply wrong. Israel’s policies in the territories are often very wrong, but the country itself is a normal democracy like Britain. Has Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch ever suggested that Israeli academics suffer from “intimidation”?

  • AlexInGreenwich 5th Sep '07 - 1:50pm

    I agree with boycotting the boycott but not:

    >>that no other Middle Eastern country has academic freedom,

    Despite Lebanon’s recent troubles and a certain amount of office politics, its universities are areas of debate and discussion. Please don’t let Lebanon’s achievements be buried under the current avalanche of negative reporting.

  • Hywel Morgan 5th Sep '07 - 6:30pm

    “Israeli academics are notoriously reluctant to get stuck into the Israel/Palestine debate (presumably for fear of intimidation).”

    I’m not a huge fan of the Isreali government but I’m not sure how true that would be.

    After all how many mathematicians, physicists etc were open critics of UK government policy in Northern Ireland

  • Matthew Harris 5th Sep '07 - 6:50pm

    Re:- Lebanon, I apologise for getting that wrong. I do not know as much about Lebanon’s nascent democracy as I ought to, and I am happy to accept that academic freedom is burgeoning there. It is not burgeoning in any other Middle Eastern country, bar Israel. All the others are repressive dictatorships.

    To Kerry, I pose five questions:

    1) Do you support a boycott of all countries with bad human rights record, or ONLY of Israel? If the latter, please explain why.

    2) How does Israel’s dreadful behaviour outside its borders in Hebron, etc, alter the fact that it is a democracy?

    3) Does Britain’s occupation of Iraq mean that Britain is not a democracy either?

    4) How would a boycott solve the problems that you mention?

    5) Would you also advocate a boycott of those American academics who refuse to condemn Guantanamo Bay? Shall we boycott anyone in Russia who refuses to condemn what’s happening in Chechnya? Or is it ONLY Israel that we condemn for human rights abuses, and nobody else? Please explain.

    As to why this motion was submitted and accepted – as liberals, some of us find an academic boycott abhorrent. That includes Sir Ming Campbell, who has vocally opposed a boycott.

  • This whole affair highlights deep seated problems in my union. Rest assured, no-one who does not boycott Israel as an individual will do so as a result of UCU policy: UCU are impotent over their own members, let alone over the public here or elsewhere.

  • Daniel Bowen 5th Sep '07 - 8:23pm

    9. I find the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine abhorrent. The problem with the motion, as Harris fails to acknowledge, is that it is factually inaccurate – propaganda thinly disguised as fact.

  • Kerry, I’ve been a close observer and occasional participator in the boycott debate for some time. I agree with your points about inequality, the disgusting behaviour of the extremist Jewish residents of Hebron, the need for Israel to uphold its side of the existing peace plans (pressure from the US as peace-broker will be crucial) – and you didn’t mention the disruption of farmers and families by the separation barrier.

    That said, we do not have to agree with the boycott to support Palestinians. If it offered any tangible benefits I’d think again, but this boycott won’t help towards a negotated settlement, is neither sufficient nor necessary to draw attention to the suffering of Palestinians, and in general will be of no practical use whatsoever to Palestinians on the ground. The boycott has no objective and no endpoint, and the arguments people use to defend it have become pretty nasty, pretty low. The emphasis is far too much (obsessively?) on punishing Israel and not enough on supporting Palestinians. There is no benefit from a union messing around with its members’ academic freedom (and please remember that academic freedom is not just an abstract concept) and no benefit from excluding a country and a group with a long history of, and particular sensitivity to, exclusion. I also find your points about democracy being alien to Israelis a little weird and deterministic in the context of this discussion (btw plans for the Jewish democracy were heavily influenced by the British Mandate).

    I also feel you’ve not adequately accounted for your selective focus and punishment of Israel. Some of your points about this are over-simple. Some relate to Israel’s existence as a state where Jews have self-determination (the Palestinians would understand better than anyone: no state, no rights). The right of return for diaspora Jews relates to this – many Jews have immigrated to Israel because of antisemitism in their place of origin.

    But I want to particularly thank you, Kerry, for a critique of Israel which avoids exploiting anti-semitic canards. This is so rare. You make a decent case.

  • Matthew Harris 6th Sep '07 - 5:14pm

    Could Daniel Bowen please pinpoint the “factual inaccuracies” in the motion? I do not believe that there are any.

    Sludge has responded eloquently to many of Kerry’s points, so I shall not repeat what Sludge has said.

    But Kerry, the logic of saying that we should only censure liberal democracies is that any country can “get out of jail free” by saying “Oh, we’re not a democracy, so the rules don’t apply to us anyway”. That cannot be what you have in mind.

    Are you really saying that none of the new states created since World War II can be democracies? Not Japan, not India, not Israel? What about the new democracies of central and eastern Europe? I profoundly disagree. Plus Britain itself has only had universal adult suffrage since the 1920s! Respectfully, also, your definition of Ashkenazi Jews is wrong; Ashkenazi Jews include those coming from Western European countries that DO have a democratic tradition.

    Presumably you also support a “right of return” for those hundreds of thousands of Jews forced to leave Arab countries? A two-state solution would give Jews a right of return to the Jewish homeland and Palestinians a right of return to the Palestinian homeland.

    It is hilarious to suggest that “most, if not all” of the 120 members of the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) are “ex-generals or other high-ranking soldiers.” There are Israeli Arabs among the people elected to the Knesset, who would be surprised to discover that they’d ever served in the Israeli armed forces. There are a lot of ex-soldiers at the top of Israeli politics, but to suggest that most Israeli MPs are ex-generals, etc, betrays a great ignorance of Israeli politics.

  • Daniel Bowen 6th Sep '07 - 8:07pm

    Matthew there are a number of factual inaccuracies.

    Firstly the motion claims the UCU conference ‘effectively called for’ an academic boycott. It did not. (Which makes the even sloppier ‘Conference therefore’ 1 at least equally inexcusable).

    Most of the Conference Believes section is at best tendentious. If academic freedom was so paramount in conflict resolution, then bingo! So much would be sorted. What was human rights anyway? And academia in Israel is such a hotbed of criticism of the Israeli regime? What nonsense.

    Kerry is spot on. Matthew, if you are to be seen as anything other than biased and partisan (I understand you are an officer of Lib Dem Friends of Israel), let’s have your opinion on the illegal operation, collective punishment in Palestine, etc….

  • Jonathan Davies 6th Sep '07 - 9:29pm

    Do you believe in jaw jaw rather than war war? If so, do you believe a boyccott will help acheive a solution to the problems in the Middle East, whatever you believe that solution should be.

    The motion deliberately addressed the boycott, not the solution to the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, not least because there is another Conference debate on that very topic.

  • OK, I spoke too soon, Kerry. You’ve mentioned ‘bantustans’, intended to subliminally equate Israel with that universally-acknowledged beacon of evil South Africa. And you’ve mentioned the Jewish Lobby as if Jews have a universal outlook and identical interests. I retract my comment about your decent critique 🙁

  • Daniel Bowen 7th Sep '07 - 12:33am

    Jonathan what a nonsense argument. I can’t believe Conference is even discussing the boycott. How did you know there would be two motions on the agenda?

  • Daniel, have you even read the UCU resolution calling for a boycott – oh sorry – calling for a campaign for a boycott? What exactly do you think the difference is? In 2002 it was a failed moratorium on individual Israeli academics. In 2003 it was a failed motion to boycott Israeli institutions. In 2005 it was a failed motion to boycott three Israeli institutions. This time round it’s all of them – again. That was my union – the former AUT. NATFHE has its own history of Israel boycott policy.

    To imply that a resolution to campaign for a boycott (in the form of staging debates and circulating boycott calls) isn’t a call for boycott is at best obtuse.

  • "Thomas Knill" 7th Sep '07 - 12:58am

    What Kerry should have said is the “Organised Claiming to Speak for Jews Lobby” (OCSJL).

    Lobby groups only ever represent the people who hire them, seldom the people they claim to speak for.

    Sadly, though, those Jews (however defined) who dissent from the views promoted by the OCSJL are derided as “self-hating” and as traitors to their community by the OCSJL and its afficionados.

    Unsurprisingly, many remain silent.

    While an academic boycott of Israel will distress Israeli academics and intellectuals (who have little influence in their country), the headbanger tendency will just use it to reinforce its collective perception that the whole world is out to get them.

    There is only one Gentile the Israeli government listens to, and that is “Big” Dick Cheney.

    If the US military-industrial-petro-chemical complex tells Israel that the continuing subjugation and humiliation of the Palestianian people has to end, end it will.

  • Matthew Harris 7th Sep '07 - 1:35pm

    Kerry, your comment about the Israelis attempting to fool “the goyim” speaks volumes about where you are really coming from on this.

    Daniel, Jonathan knows that there are two motions because he has read the publicly available Conference Agenda, emailed to all Conf Reps some weeks ago. The two motions are: 1) this one and 2) another one (from the Foreign Affairs team) about Israel/Palestine in general (not the boycott).

    In the US, it is estimated that 90% of the Jewish community typically votes Democrat. The conservative Christian Coalition, with its very strong pro-Israeli views, is a far larger group of voters than is the Jewish community, and a key part of the Republican base – much more influential than the so-called Jewish Lobby. Indeed, it’s often been said that a two-state solution that’s backed by the American Jewish community could be scuppered by opposition from American Christian fundamentalists who would not want Israel to cede any territory that is namechecked in the Bible. So don’t blame Israel’s Jewish supporters for the USA’s position.

    Yes, Daniel, I am a partisan – I am a partisan for a peaceful two-state solution that gives peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike. I am quite open about being an officer of LDFI.

  • And what’s a ‘goyim’?

  • Yes, I somehow forgot to point out the ‘goyim’ reference. Lurker, a goy (plural: goyim) is Hebrew for ‘non-Jew’. I think of it as a contemptuous, or at very least wedge-driving, word which shouldn’t be used. I’d be very surprised if anybody in the Israeli government, let alone Regev, has used it.

    When Kerry says that “the Israeli government … might want the goyim to think that” she intends us to get the impression that the Israeli government seeks to pull the wool over the eyes of all non-Jews. Kerry’s unsubstantiated claim Israeli government has secretly discounted the idea viable prosperous Palestinian state is pernicious in itself – but even if it had, why would it try to hoodwink just non-Jews? This is a straighforward insinuation that Jews have universally shared interests, and that all Jews want to prevent Palestinians getting a state. A defamatory stereotype along the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ lines.

    How come it’s so rare to have a conversation about supporting Palestinians which doesn’t involve defaming Jews?

  • "Thomas Knill" 7th Sep '07 - 7:23pm

    Sludge wrote: “Lurker, a goy (plural: goyim) is Hebrew for ‘non-Jew’.”

    It is the normal term for Gentiles used by anyone speaking Yiddish, not necessarily contemptuous. The US English word “guy” may well derive from it. If you’re a guy, you’re a goy, so to speak (joke).

    Sludge wrote: “This is a straighforward insinuation that Jews have universally shared interests,”

    Sludge, you are trying to have your cake and eat it.

    You cannot, on the one hand, say that not all Jews think alike and should not be lumped together, yet at the same time deride Jews who do not support ideas promoted by Jewish elites as “self-hating”.

    Sludge wrote: “A defamatory stereotype along the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ lines.”

    You cannot defame a group of more than about 12 people. See Brown v DC Thomson.

  • Matthew Harris 8th Sep '07 - 1:10pm

    Shabbat shalom, Kerry and everybody else!

    Kerry, I see some common ground emerging. We are both keen to work with what might be called “liberal opinion” among Israelis, e.g. you mention a Zionist rabbi who agrees with many of your criticisms of Israeli government policy, and you mention those dedicated Israeli groups fighting for human rights, etc. Do you really believe that a boycott would make those groups’ work easier, rather than harder? It’s interesting also re:- the security barrier, that Israel’s own Supreme Court has just ordered a re-routing of part of it after being petitioned by some Palestinian people. Where are the Supreme Courts to protect people’s rights anywhere else in the Middle East?

    Re:- ‘goyim’, we have got into the semantics. I’m not anti-semantic (sorry, old joke!), but it’s a word with a troubled history. Among English Jews, it is the height of bad taste to refer to other people as “the goyim”, as it implies a casual contempt for non-Jews. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on it, for those who care: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goyim

  • Hywel Morgan 9th Sep '07 - 12:34pm

    “two-state solution”

    I’m never sure what to make of people suggesting this as it seems to be from the “lets just all play together nicely” school of optimistic diplomacy.

    How would such a solution practically work. Two states based on the pre-67 boundaries create a Palestine split into two bits so at the very least there would have to be a right of passage across Israel between the two. The other option is to draw some new boundaries. I don’t honestly see how either of those are even vaguely a starter for getting Israeli approval.

    There is also the (huge) issue about what to do about Israel settlements in what would become part of the two state Palestine.

    The idea of a single Israel/Palestine with very strong constitional protections for all would be a possibility but I think the boat has long since sailed for that to be practical!

    The other possibility – which maybe how the Palestinian authority is developing – would be a three state solution (Gaza/Israel/West Bank)

  • Who am I? You mean am I an undercover anti-boycotter of renown? No – you’re unlikely to have ever heard of or from me before, in any shape or form, but I’ve been following this boycott since 2002. Now forget about who I am and follow my thread instead.

    Kerry, thank you for highlighting the disruption and damage to the fabric of Palestinian day-to-day life as a result of the wall and an extremist fringe of religious supremacists whom the Israeli government has failed to deal with.

    Aggressive acts against Palestinian non-combatants must be pointed out by those who witness them, loudly, in detail, without rhetoric, and unstintingly. They speak for themselves.

    Boycotting Israel, which has been boycotted since its inception, will not help Palestinians – academic boycott least of all. It will hurt Jews.

    You mention Anata. In 2007 the IDF and border police, reported to have been harassing civilians there for 2 years allegedly (I have to use ‘allegedly’ because they have not been convicted) inexpicably opened fire on a group of children and killed 10 year old Abir Aramin. Nobody was prosecuted. Rather than fomenting boycott, a Palestinian-Israeli group called Combatants for Peace was formed to bring those responsible to justice. Abir’s father, a co-founder, said “I will do all I can to protect her friends, both Palestinian and Israeli. They are all our children.” Hywel, I think that’s an example of what you (mildly, OK) disparage as “lets just all play together nicely” approach? Would you tell him to his face that he’s barking up the wrong tree? Because this is what an international boycott effectively does.

    Thomas, I’ve never called anybody ‘self-hating’ in my life – don’t understand your point there.

  • "Thomas Knill" 9th Sep '07 - 11:04pm

    What is one to make of the following?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6985808.stm

    Answers, please.

  • Matthew Harris 10th Sep '07 - 3:04pm

    Re:- BBC’s story about Russian neo-Nazis in Israel, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. These people have gone to Israel on the basis of having a Jewish heritage, but have carried with them the Jew-hatred of the Russian Far Right. I suggest that they go back to Russia and see what sort of welcome they get, as Jews, from the real neo-Nazis. Actually, very sad, indeed pathetic.

    I agree that a two-state solution will be hard to achieve, but what is the alternative? More bloodshed, more hatred, more fear? We all have to go on trying to bring about a two-state solution, involving painful compromises by both sides.

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Sep '07 - 9:36pm

    I believe an academic boycott of Isreal is counter-productive and I will support the motion at the Liberal Democrat conference.
    However I do despair at what the Isreali government would appear to have in store for the Palestinian people who have been forced to be refugees in their own land. The repression is set to get worse and worse year after year.
    I think the Liberal Democrats should consider a policy of applying economic sanctions against Isreal, and should certainly not sell arms to that country.

  • "Thomas Knill" 10th Sep '07 - 10:06pm

    “I suggest that they go back to Russia and see what sort of welcome they get, as Jews, from the real neo-Nazis.”

    I wonder, too, what kind of welcome neo-Nazis, real or otherwise, will get from Russians, considering that the real Nazis killed up to 25 million of their fellow countrymen (citizens of the former Soviet Union, that is).

  • Hywel Morgan 10th Sep '07 - 11:16pm

    “I wonder, too, what kind of welcome neo-Nazis, real or otherwise, will get from Russians, considering that the real Nazis killed up to 25 million of their fellow countrymen”

    There is a growing neo-Nazi movement in Russia with WWII apparently now being covered as a nationalistic struggle to defend the motherland rather than opposition to Nazism

  • Matthew Harris 11th Sep '07 - 10:34pm

    Geoff Payne has said something very important. He has strongly criticised Israel (which is his right, of course, as with criticising any other country), while still opposing the academic boycott. In other words, he has drawn a distinction between two separate issues: academic freedom, on the one hand, and Israel’s policies, on the other.

    I disagree with those calling for economic sanctions, etc. Come and join the debate at this fringe meeting:

    The way forward to peace
    Speakers: Michael Moore MP; the Deputy Israeli Ambassador. An opportunity for an update on the quest for peace and a secure two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Wine and light refreshments.
    18.15 – 19.30 Tuesday
    Thistle Hotel, Renaissance North

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