Nine years ago I found myself sitting across the desk from the head of London’s Tricycle Theatre. As the Secretary of State for Culture, that would hardly have been a surprising meeting to host – but this one almost felt like a job for the Foreign Secretary.
The theatre had just taken the extraordinary decision to cancel its hosting of the UK Jewish Film Festival. A publicly funded venue had effectively shuttered its doors to the Jewish community. The reason? Because the festival had received a contribution of £1,500 towards its running costs from the Embassy of Israel.
This one incident was a wake-up call to the dangers posed by the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its pernicious obsession with the State of Israel. A once fringe movement had reached institutions funded by the British taxpayer that had nothing to do with international affairs.
This is a deeply uncomfortable trend, with echoes of the past. To stop the spread, the House of Commons will today debate the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. This is a landmark piece of legislation designed to end the growing problem of BDS, and will bring much-needed discipline to the foreign policy narrative of the UK.
It will enable us to make absolutely clear that no public body can unilaterally pursue boycotts, divestments and sanctions of foreign countries. Some of those involved in such campaigns may have well-meaning intentions, but they are aiming at the wrong targets. Instead of focusing on urging the Foreign Office to sanction the world’s worst regimes, wars and genocides – they seem to almost exclusively single out one country above all, using public institutions that have no purview to do so.
The proponents of BDS seek nothing less than the total isolation of Israel both economically and culturally – and some even openly call for its dismantlement. I have personally fought against the divisive BDS movement throughout my time in Parliament and Government, and unfortunately my encounter with the Tricycle Theatre has been far from an isolated case.
By the time I was running the then Department of Communities and Local Government, BDS activists had turned their attention to local government. A growing number of local councils had decided that the best way to spend taxpayers’ money was to freelance with their own municipal foreign policy and ban goods purely on the basis of being from Israel. Divisive, wrong, and a complete waste of public money.
In response to the unique nature of BDS, I issued official guidance banning the Local Government Pension Scheme implementing BDS. The High Court’s subsequent decision to strike this down meant that it was time the Government changed the law, and the Conservative Party’s 2019 Manifesto then made that very welcome commitment. The Bill marks a pivotal moment and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is absolutely right to champion it, seeing the job through since his time as a minister responsible for local government finance.
As the Bill makes its way through Parliament there will also be opportunities to debate and improve this legislation. It is right that public bodies will be able to continue their boycotts of Russia with full legitimacy. There is also nothing to stop a minister disapplying it to a territory such as Xinjiang should the UK Government – as is long-standing convention – decide on a policy of targeted boycotts.
Economic sanctions are a valuable tool, and that is why ministers will be empowered to enable boycotts of any country or territory through secondary legislation. At the heart of this Bill sits the very simple – and long-standing – principle that foreign policy is the reserve of national government.
Of course, the naming of Israel in the Bill has generated intense debate, despite it being almost uniquely singled out by activists. But if my experiences in Government have shown anything, it is that BDS requires a very specific legislative response. The recent history of the Labour Party has shown that harmful ideologies such as BDS and antisemitism can infect our politics disconcertingly quickly. To move forward, we need to challenge and prevent this divisive campaign, which does so much to undermine community relations.
There will be welcome and important scrutiny of this Bill in Parliament, but the principle behind it is absolutely right. Today is an opportunity for parliamentarians across the House to stand united against the BDS campaign. I urge them to take it.