Michael Gove’s nasty little Bill

Are you a decision-maker in a public authority, or someone who sometimes tries to influence such decision-makers? Do you care about ethical investment and not supporting oppressive regimes?

If so, and if The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill which is presented to parliament today becomes law, you will be in for a nasty shock. You will not be able to take a decision (or seek to influence a decision) concerning public procurement or investment when that decision has “regard to a territorial consideration in a way that would cause a reasonable observer of the decision making process to conclude that the decision was influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct (Section 1.1).”

It makes no difference if the “political or moral disapproval” concerns actions by a state on territory where it violates international law, or commits war crimes or crimes against humanity. No matter, either, if the decision which is proposed might itself abet a breach of international law. So if, to give just one example, the decision concerned a possible investment in an Israeli settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territory which infringed article 5 of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, you might find yourself complicit in the infringement unless you broke UK law.

The bill goes further. By Section 4(1) you will not be able to publish a statement indicating that you intend to act in a way that contravenes Section 1, or “would intend to act in such a way were it lawful to do so.” This means, in effect, that your lips must be sealed whatever your views. You must not express an opinion. Whatever happened to freedom of speech? To revert to the example just given: you should not express political or moral disapproval of the investment in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Or, to take perhaps a more extreme example, you must not express disapproval of an investment in China’s Xinjiang Province on the grounds that it might be detrimental to the position of the Uyghurs.

The bill should be vigorously opposed by the Liberal Democrats. It is the brainchild of Michael Gove. It makes little secret that its primary aim is to stifle criticism of Israel’s behaviour in territory it occupied in 1967 and which it still controls. In fact, Israel is the only state mentioned by name in the bill – see Section 3(7) which provides that statutory instruments may not be made to exempt Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory or the Occupied Golan Heights from its provisions. Matters in, say, Russian occupied Crimea, Luhansk, Donbas, or Kherson, or in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, are clearly of far less concern to Mr Gove. Territory occupied by ISIS, of course, is already sanctioned. But were a similar organisation to seize control of territory, it would not be covered by the bill since it would not be a sovereign state.

Gove has form when it comes to Palestine. As I wrote back in 2015, on these matters he is a demagogue, a politician who does not engage with truths that, to him, are inconvenient. I can attest to this myself after seeing him and Melanie Phillips debate against Rashid Khalidi and Jonathan Freedland in an Intelligence2 debate. In the days when he had a column in The Times, as well as in his 2006 book Celsius 7/7, he claimed that sympathy for the oppression suffered by the Palestinians was a sign of Western self-hatred. This is a man who could write that to dismantle Israel’s illegal settlements would make the West Bank judenfrei for Yassir Arafat – ignoring the fact that even before the British Mandate the Palestinians have always made it clear that they intended to have freedom of religion in their state. They have honoured Daniel Barenboim with honorary Palestinian citizenship. The settlements are intended to make the inalienable Palestinian right to self-determination impossible to realise. For Mr Gove, peace plans like that put forward by the Arab League in 2002 which offered a peace which respected the international law rights of all parties only rewarded terror “by ratifying the gains secured by violence and reinforcing the message that the West is too weak to resist aggression (See his column in The Times, 2 April 2002).”

* John McHugo is a member of the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Advisory Group. He is a former chair of Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is, Syria: A Recent History, and A Concise History of the Arabs.

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  • I’m not familiar with the detail of this Bill, but presumably official UK Government sanctions against e.g. Russia would take precedence over this, and the Bill is perhaps intended to stop local authorities implementing their own boycotts that aren’t supported by central Government?

  • Interestingly the only precedent for such a bill was then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 law to stop local authorities from supporting the boycott of South Africa! What an awful precedent to follow when Israel is being accused of practising apartheid by Israeli human rights organisations as well as by Amnesty International and others.

  • This bill is designed to prevent universities and local authorities from taking a moral stand against businesses whose products aid illegal acts against the Palestinians by the Israeli government. In other countries the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has had huge successes – for example the enormous Norwegian sovereign wealth fund was forced to divest, after pressure from activists – but it seems Gove would rather the British did what they were told by government ministers in Westminster, which in this case is to stop complaining about Israel.
    The BDS movement, like the anti-apartheid movement forty years ago, is a grass roots movement, and won’t need help from this or any other government, but legislating to make moral judgements illegal would be a step beyond what even Thatcher thought she could get away with.
    It may appear that the Palestinians would be the losers if this bill is passed, or perhaps ‘free speech in the UK’. More likely, in my view, will be the discovery that placing such an absurd, anti-democratic idea in front of Parliament and the British people will be yet another way the Tories have found to shoot themselves in the foot.

  • I’ve been fighting for fully ethical investment and procurement on Tory controlled Wiltshire Council (where I am an elected member) for the last 2 years. They are OK with green choices now, but don’t care a jot about international human rights and at every turn have been happy to excuse themselves on the basis of what the government may be planning to do.
    As Chair of LDFP I’m obviously concerned about illegal Israeli settlements and war crimes against Palestinians.
    As a member of the Lib Dems – and as a human – why on earth would I be happy with my council tax being invested in any regime that disregards human rights?
    As a party I’d like to see us being very assertive on human rights across the board. We’ve grasped this well for LGBTQ+ rights. Time now to step up up on international human rights.
    We passed a conference motion in September ‘21 calling to ban trade of all types with the illegal settlements. Labour passed a similar one which was immediately dropped by their leadership.
    All Lib Dems need to be confident that #criticismisnotantisemitism.

  • George Thomas 19th Jun '23 - 11:46pm

    I think you’ve put together the argument well and highlighted that it is an area of high concern.

  • John Kelly is right to draw attention to the 1988 Local Government Act, which hampered local authority attempts to combat Apartheid in South Africa. At the time, anti-racist campaigner Andrew Feinstein said “I’m flabbergasted and disgusted by this Orwellian legislation, which corrodes our democracy. It means we have to break the law to stand with oppressed people.” His words are equally applicable to Michael Gove’s attempt to enact an anti-BDS Bill.
    Incidentally, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa began in 1990, less than two years after Thatcher’s government’s futile attempt to defy the will of the British people.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jun '23 - 10:01am

    “This means, in effect, that your lips must be sealed whatever your views. You must not express an opinion”

    It’s already like this in the Labour Party so there won’t be any serious opposition to this bill from Labour MPs. Most will either agree with it or will be too worried about their own position to risk opposing it.

  • If I understand it correctly, this bill would effectively make public procurement decisions against purchasing from Chinese companies such as Huawei illegal….

    I take your point, but expect this bill won’t have been so well thought through and crafted, so the decision against Kaspersky (a company HQ’d in Russia) also becomes open to question.

    I hope the LibDems (and others) take a leaf out of the hacker handbook and find ways to subvert the law to achieve ends the government was not intending !

  • Encouraging to see that Yachad and other liberal Jewish organisations in the UK have come out strongly against this Bill. https://www.jewishnews.co.uk/opinion-we-dont-believe-banning-bds-in-public-bodies-is-the-way-to-advocate-for-israel/

  • Michael Gove’s stated reason for this bill is to tackle antisemitism. By some kind of weird logic, he thinks that because a few of those complaining about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians might be motivated by antisemitism, his bill to substantially limit BDS would reduce the incidence of antisemitism. I’m not sure how any intelligent person could make that mistake.
    Most advocates of BDS are responding to Israel’s 55 year illegal occupation of Palestine, its daily breaches of international law, and its flagrant disregard for the human rights of Palestinians, but even if anti-Jewish racists see BDS as a bandwagon they can jump on, his bill will have no impact on their thinking.
    The only tangible effects will be the easing of pressure on some of the companies doing lucrative business with Israel, and a great deal of irritation for anyone who cares about human rights.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jun '23 - 2:02pm

    @ Andy Daer,

    I’d always considered that Anti-Zionism and anti-semitism were quite different things which, if I understand what your saying correctly, is also the assumption behind your last comment.

    However, this view isn’t universally shared. Melanie Philips ( British Journalist) and Einat Wilf (Israeli Politician) argued the case, in the debate below, that they are one and the same. I would say that many others also share this view even though they may not express it in such unambiguous terms. It would explain why those of us who are critical of Israel’s human rights record are facing such hostility at the moment.


  • @Peter Martin, thanks for the link – I haven’t re-watched it all, but if I remember correctly, Melanie Philips failed to convince the audience. For those who haven’t seen it, refuting all her inaccuracies would take me way beyond the permitted LDV word-count.
    However, she does usefully illuminate one element of the debate about Israel’s annexation of Palestine, because she perfectly articulates how a sense of entitlement can trump everything. What I have never understood is how ordinary Israelis reconcile themselves to settlers attacking their neighbours with clubs, iron bars and sometimes guns, destroying their crops and trees, and sometimes burning their cars or homes – all of it unprovoked, and usually watched over by IDF soldiers. If that isn’t state terrorism, I don’t know what is.

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