Jenny Tonge and Political Reality

28 11 2010

Category: Politics, Middle East, Anti-Semitism

It’s hard to feel sorry for a man because he’s been elevated to the House of Lords, but I do.

That man is Monroe Palmer – click here for a profile. The reason I feel sorry for him is that I can’t help wondering whether his elevation is an act of enormous cynicism by his party, the Liberal Democrats: That they have installed him as a counterbalance to Baroness Jenny Tonge.

Monroe Palmer deserves to take his place on the red leather benches. He has worked tirelessly as a councillor and campaigner, putting in years of work in the community. Had his party not been in the doldrums for most of the decades of his activism he would certainly have been an MP and in all likelihood have had a ministerial career too.

However, Monroe Palmer is also Chairman of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel and the fact he holds that role is unlikely to be a coincidence…

Let me put it in context. That context is Jenny Tonge. She already sits on the Lib Dem benches in the House of Lords and she is a hate-filled and hate-fueled politician. That she continues to sit on the Liberal Democrat benches ought to be a source of shame for them.

This is what she had to say on 12th November 2010 in the Lords debate – click here to read the debate – on the Strategic Defence and Security Review:

The treatment of Palestinians by Israel is held up as an example of how the west treats Muslims and is at the root cause of terrorism worldwide. Even Tony Blair has now admitted this publicly.

Why do we let it continue? Is it Holocaust guilt? We should be guilty-of course we should. Is it the power of the pro-Israel lobby here and in the USA? I do not know.

Or is it the need, maybe, to have an aircraft carrier called Israel in the Middle East from which to launch attacks on countries such as Iran? The cynic might think that that is why HMS Ark Royal and the Harriers can be dispensed with-we already have a static Ark Royal in a strategic position, armed to the teeth and ready to fight, provided that we do not offend Israel.

Jenny Tonge has form. She was sacked as the party spokesperson for Health (she is a doctor) for giving credence to a blood libel about Israeli rescue workers in Haiti – click here for a news report. Before that she was asked to quit as Spokesperson for Children after empathising with suicide bombers – click here for a report on that. She later said that the western world was in the financial grip of the Israeli lobby.

So what’s this got to do with Monroe Palmer? A few weeks ago Liberal Democrat Peer, and British Government Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Alex Carlile said that he felt that Jenny Tonge’s connection to the party could have cost them up to 2 seats at the General Election (click here for full report):

I thought the comments [about Israeli rescuers in Haiti] were completely outrageous, inexcusable and incomprehensible coming from a person with such a strong political record…In my view, if a person makes comments of that kind, however strongly felt, it makes them an ill fit in a party that has the word ‘Liberal’ in its title and means it.

In the past Nick Clegg has equivocated on Tonge. He gave a dreadful interview – click here to read it– after she met Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Damascus – click here for a report (she said he was “shrewd, plausible, and actually very likeable“).

Accused of hypocrisy in his refusal to censure her, Clegg went on the attack railing against anyone who accused him of racism. Except no-none had. It’s an old political trick; when cornered go on the attack, and respond strongly to a completely different point. He also denied Tonge could be categorised as racist, and went on to say that:

the sad thing is that Jenny Tonge says many other things that are worth listening to and are completely obscured by what has become polemicised. It does a disservice to her.

And it does a disservice to his party that she says anything at all under the auspices of the Liberal Democrats.

Clegg said that Tonge was very sorry about her remarks. She didn’t sound it, telling Press TV – click here for the Press TV interview – that it was the Zionist lobby that got her the push from her front bench role.

That echoed remarks by her in 2006 – click here for report that:

The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party.

The biggest clue those remarks cannot be true is that she has kept the party whip despite everything she has said. In April 2010 Lord Wallace, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords defended her – click here. The worst he would say was that she let her emotions overtake her.

And Tonge has some enthusiastic supporters on her own benches. Earlier this month Lib Dem peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury – click here for full report – said:

Europe cannot think straight about Israel because of the Holocaust and America is in the grip of the well-organised Jewish lobby.

That’s an echo of EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht’s repulsive comments in September 2010 that were barely reported in the UK – see here for article.

So how does this lead us back to Monroe Palmer? On 11th November 2010 Nick Clegg spoke at the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel annual dinner – click here for report – and acknowledged that Israel had not always had an ‘equal voice’ within the party.  Making Monroe Palmer a peer came after that speech.

There’s a problem with that. Letting those who relentlessly peddle anti-semitic tropes share a bench with those who disagree with them is not equality, it’s window dressing.

In fact it’s worse, and illiberal. It is suggesting that Palmer has been ennobled as some sort of counterbalance to Tonge rather than on his individual merits. That is a perversion of liberal values. It’s the Lib Dem equivalent of the Iranians suggesting they have no human rights problems because they have a Jewish MP (poor fellow).

Maybe Clegg has a genuinely new understanding of the situation. But in that case why not boot out Tonge and Phillips after their remarks earlier this month? The clue is in Lord Carlile’s comments. Before the General Election this year the Liberal Democrats were trying to appeal to a Guardian and Independent reading demographic with little affection for Israel. More than that he was out to scoop up anti-war votes and votes from the left of the Labour Party; again constituencies antipathetic to Israel.

You could put it as strongly as to say it has suited Clegg to have Tonge banging her drum and appealing to certain sectors that might not traditionally be Lib Dem voters. It certainly hasn’t suited his electoral purposes to punish her too harshly and appear pro-Israel. There is also a staunchly anti-Israel strand in Liberal Democrat opinion.

Now times are changing. The party is in government. Lib Dem support has collapsed and Clegg has little chance of attracting the radical vote. While he’d rather not alienate her sympathisers within the party, there’s little mileage in standing up for Tonge, and, as Lord Carlile points out, possible electoral advantage in wooing, or at least ceasing to alienate, supporters of Israel. Which could make Monroe Palmer’s peerage part of a cynical electoral ploy.

And if, as part of Clegg’s realpolitik, Jenny Tonge finds that she becomes dispensable she shouldn’t be too surprised, and she shouldn’t blame anyone but her own views and her own party.



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