The UK Is Trying To Undermine Its Own Democracy
Is this dystopian enough yet?
On Wednesday, the UK Parliament voted 282 to 235 to enact the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (very catchy). While this might sound like yet another boring bit of legislation, that is far from the truth. You see, this bill restricts public institutions, such as councils and universities, as well as publicly funded cultural and sports bodies, from conducting BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel. If that sounds like a limitation of democracy, it is because it is! If that isn’t frightening enough, the reasons why such a bill passed should frighten you even more.
Let’s start by understanding why this bill restricts our democracy. There are two things at play here. Firstly, public bodies are democratic representatives of a group of people. Local council leaders, leaders of cultural and sporting bodies, and even university heads are all voted into power. As such, they act as a democratic collection of power and have a right to fully represent their body. This is a powerful way for the masses to hold large corporations, or the government, to account and protect themselves from tyranny, as together they are stronger than if they are separate. Secondly, it limits free-market economics. Forcing a person or group to buy products or services from a provider they disagree with removes any morals from the market, making it inherently inequitable and unrepresentative of the population. You might say that individuals must take on this burden with their own purchases, but in the world of modern consumerism, it is utterly impractical to do so. Instead, supporting a collective with the know-how, ability, and time to make such purchasing decisions is far more practical.
So, why has the UK government voted in favour of such an anti-democratic bill?
Well, It’s important to understand that this vote was in the House of Commons, where elected MPs vote on the bill. It now needs to be voted on by the House of Lords, which is full of unelected Lords, before it can be passed into law. So weirdly, this anti-democratic bill was put forward by the democratic part of the UK government.
When you look at the state of the current House of Commons and the current ruling government, the reason they voted like this becomes clear.
Firstly, their popularity is dropping. 52% of the UK disapproves of Tory Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, while his Labour opposition, Keir Starmer, isn’t far behind with 42%. These are sky-high disapproval ratings, showing the UK population is displeased with how the government and UK politicians handle themselves and do not represent their interests. This is further reflected by the fact that over 76% of the UK supports a ceasefire in Gaza, yet both Tory and Labour leadership refuse to support this stance. You’d think that this would force politicians to listen to their constituents more, gain popularity and win the next election. But in reality, this disparity between what the British public wants and what the government is doing means the government needs protection from the masses to continue as it is. This bill provides, at least in part, that protection.
So what do I mean by “continue as it is”? Well, this comes in two closely related parts. Firstly, the UK has adopted a rather twisted foreign policy over the years, and secondly, how the government is defying and undermining the ceasefire wants of the vast majority of the British public, even in international courts.
Despite its colonialist past, Britain has very little sway on the international stage. In fact, it has been relatively powerless for decades. This was made even worse by Brexit, which removed us from the EU. But, Britain found a way to regain a sense of international power by cosying up to the US. We parasitically gain influence by having a foreign policy that almost entirely mimics our powerful Atlantic cousin.
What’s more, this sucking-up to the US foreign policy wants means we are treated favourably by the US, enabling our economy to thrive. This “special relationship” has served us well, but it has a dark side though. If we step out of line and move against the US foreign policy, even with democratic expressions such as widespread BDS campaigns, they could turn around and severely hurt the UK. This threat is now even more poignant after Brexit, as we don’t have the EU as a buffer for such retaliation.
The ruling class knows this all too well and fears US hegemony more than they fear the British public.
This has become utterly transparent with the current conflict between Israel and Gaza (I say this, as only 10% of those killed are from Hamas). As I have discussed before (read here, here and here), the US treats Israel like an extension of itself in the Middle East. They use the country to exert pressure on the region, ensuring the US has access to its resources. As such, the US has given carte blanche to Israel, even vetoing a UN landslide vote to enforce a ceasefire in Gaza. Because of the special relationship, the UK must toe the line here and take the US’s stance.
This came to a head in a recent meeting where Foreign Secretary David Cameron was questioned by MPs. Cameron openly admitted that Israel may be breaking international law, but that he isn’t taking legal advice and isn’t in a position to say if they are or aren’t breaking international law. This is, even though that is precisely what a Foreign Secretary is meant to do: take legal advice and call out breaches of international law. During the meeting, Cameron said that, despite his worries, he will continue to send arms to Israel, which is a potential breach of the 1948 Genocide Convention. He also said that he would not support the South African genocide case against Israel at the ICJ.
What a double standard. He basically said, yes, we think Israel is breaking international law and should take actions to ensure they aren’t, but we won’t.
Now, about that South Africa case. Many politicians in the UK mirror Israel’s stance against it, claiming that the preliminary hearing (which will have ended by the time this article is published) could enact binding restrictions (basically a ceasefire) on the IDF, limiting their ability to defend themselves from Hamas. Some have pointed out that “the bar to establish plausibility of genocidal actions is much lower than a final definitive determination, and this puts the Jewish state in significant potential peril”, as Israeli journalist Jeremy Sharon puts it. But this argument is utterly moot.
Firstly, the IDF has more than enough power to safeguard Israel from Hamas with a ceasefire. They have the ability to defend their own borders and take out any potential insurgency with minimal risk to the Israeli population. This is especially true now, after the rampant destruction within Gaza, which has severely weakened Hamas (which 100% should be stopped) and Gazan civilians (which legally should not have been attacked in this way). The only reason Oct 7th happened was because the IDF had a reduced presence in the area thanks to being pulled to the West Bank. What’s more, it’s astonishing to hear the argument that our standards for what constitutes genocide are too high. What a morally corrupt excuse.
But Cameron and others who want to keep the US-UK “special relationship” going have to peddle this nonsense, as it is the only way for them to try and stop South Africa’s case from effectively enacting a ceasefire over Gaza.
With this in mind, you can see why this bill passed the House of Commons. These politicians know that if they let public bodies boycott Israel while the government is taking this illogical, incohesive and immoral position to protect their international influence, it will expose their lack of democratic representation even more than it has already been.
But this isn’t new for the UK. Margaret Thatcher tried to do the same thing when the UK started boycotting South Africa over its apartheid state. In fact, by the mid-1960s, 54 UK councils had already banned goods from South Africa from their offices and schools, and public bodies were a significant force in the UK’s part of ending apartheid.
For those of you who are pro-Israeli reading this. The UK would also boycott Hamas. Our disapproval ratings of Hamas are very similar to our disapproval ratings of the Israeli state. But we can’t because the Israeli state has isolated the Gaza Strip physically and economically from the world. There is literally nothing to boycott or sanction. That is one of the many reasons people have called Israel an apartheid state.
But this South Africa Apartheid parallel has some worrying depths. Nelson Mandela, a man Cameron himself called “a towering figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death — a true global hero”, knew what was needed to end the suffering of the Palestinians. In 1997, he said, “The United Nations took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system…but we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Yet, Cameron and his colleagues are hypocritically actively undermining the very democratic expressions that we used to help solidify this consensus and end South African apartheid to keep the status quo of US homogeny and Gazan suffering. Have we learnt nothing?
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