First Tim Farron, now Anne Marie Morris

In about 1987, when I was a student at Edinburgh University, one of our lecturers was speaking about some aspect of the history of the Reformation in 16th century Germany. During the course of his lecture, he referred to one of the reformers as “the nigger in the woodpile.” He then paused, realised that it probably wasn’t the wisest expression to use, said something apologetic, and moved on. It was a mildly amusing moment, but nobody batted an eyelid, or said anything about it afterwards. We knew that it was an colloquial expression, and we knew what he meant.

Even in the 1980s, one didn’t say the word “nigger” in polite company. Indeed, as a child in the mid-1960s it was made clear by my parents that it was a word that we didn’t use. For a politician to use the expression in 2017 strikes me as remarkably inept.

But, according to the BBC, that is exactly what Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris did.

“Ms Morris was discussing the impact of Brexit on the UK’s financial services industry at an event organised by the Politeia think tank, which was attended by other MPs. Suggesting that just 7% of financial services would be affected by Brexit, she reportedly said: “Now I am sure there will be many people who will challenge that but my response and my request is look at the detail – it isn’t all doom and gloom.” She went on: “Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is in two years what happens if there is no deal.”

And, as the BBC headline put it, “MP Anne Marie Morris suspended for racist remark.”

What is interesting about this is that she was not actually speaking about race at all, and I would guess that the subject of race didn’t actually enter her mind when she used the expression. To put it another way, she did not say anything racist, and to describe her words as a “racist remark” seems to be stretching the truth to breaking point – at least according to my understanding of the phrase. It would be much more accurate to say that she was suspended for using an offensive word.

Being offensive

Which brings us to the reaction.

“Announcing the suspension, Theresa May said she was “shocked” by the “completely unacceptable” language. “I immediately asked the chief whip to suspend the party whip,” she said in a statement. “Language like this has absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.””

Well, there you go. An MP can be suspended for using bad language in a public meeting. Personally, I think this is silly beyond belief, and a sign that the country, or at least the Prime Minister, has gone raving mad.

However, more to the point, I think what ought to be said is that it looks to me like the crime of Anne Marie Morris is remarkably like the crime of Tim Farron – at least, if it is true (as most people seem to believe) that Farron resigned because of views he held on same-sex relationships. That crime is offending people of a certain group.

Hence, former MP David Laws wrote:

But as a gay man, I do not wish to be “tolerated”. I wish to be respected for who I am. And I want a party leader whose respect for human equality comes before outdated and frankly offensive religious views.

Laws was speaking about how he felt – and the use of the word “offensive” tells us that he was offended by certain views that he understood Tim Farron to hold. David Laws was offended not because Tim Farron had offended him personally, but because Tim Farron’s view about a certain group – a group that had suffered because of “prejudice” (a word that Laws used 6 times in his short piece) – were offensive.

And that is exactly the same the same as the crime of Anne Marie Morris. She said something that was offensive, and because it concerned a group that has suffered because of prejudice, she had to be suspended.

I think that it is worth noting that David Laws managed to use the word “outdated” to refer to traditional Christian teaching four times in his piece. The point is that the times are changing. Forty years ago, Farron’s views would not have caused him any political problems, and Morris’s choice of words would not have gotten her suspended.

And, perhaps more to the point, just as it seems pretty clear that Farron holds no hostility at all towards people based on their sexual preferences, there is also not a shred of evidence that Morris holds any hostility to people based on their race.

What should we think?

Three quick comments:

1. When Farron resigned, he said To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.” The reaction of Theresa May indicates suggests that the Conservative Party are also a “progressive liberal party” in 2017 – or at least, Theresa May thinks they should be.

2. In one of my articles about the resignation of Tim Farron I wrote

“. . . nobody went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. They went after him because he was suspected of not being an orthodox believer in the tenets of political correctness. And in a “progressive liberal party in 2017” there will be no room for those who transgress that orthodoxy.

I think that what happened to Anne Marie Morris illustrates that perfectly.

3. I dare say Tim Farron would not like to be compared to Anne Marie Morris, and might argue that his crime was completely different. I also suspect that a lot of Christians in Britain will not appreciate me saying this.

But we need to face up the fact that increasingly, holding to the teaching of the Bible on certain matters is likely to make Christians, to use the Prime Minister’s words, “completely unacceptable” to many people, and mean that we may be seen as having “absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.”

It seems to me that Christians, more than ever before, need to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Particularly when we are in the midst of politicians.

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Saudi Arabia’s appalling behaviour doesn’t stop. The continuing support of the British and American governments is shameful.

Saudi Arabia’s appalling behaviour doesn’t stop. The continuing support of the British and American governments is shameful.

Saudi Arabia continues to be in the news.

1) There is the blockade of Qatar. Saudi and a few other unsavoury Arab governments have imposed a blockade on Qatar – an act which is, in an of itself, extraordinary. They have demanded, among other things that Qatar cease support for various publications – most notable Al Jazeera, most astonishingly, Middle East Eye. Why? To quote Doug Bandow (a respected foreign policy expert, whose 1988 book “Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics“, published by Crossway, remains in print)

“Until recently, life in Qatar was quite pleasant. But then Saudi Arabia, backed by President Donald Trump, who has gone from critic to fan of the ruling royals there, led an effort to isolate its smaller neighbor. With supreme irony, Riyadh, whose people have done more to fund and man terrorist attacks on Americans than any other nation, accused Doha of backing terrorists. “

Al-Jazeera may not be perfect; like most major media organisations it is scarcely impartial; but it still, like the not-quite-perfect BBC, provides a useful service, especially in the context of the Arab world. And, as has been said, the Saudi demand that Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera is the equivalent of the EU demanding that the British government shutting down the BBC.

As for Middle East Eye, it is edited by David Hearst, (former chief foreign leader writer for The Guardian), is not funded by Qatar, is independent of any government or movement, and is highly respected. The Saudi demand that Qatar shut it down is absolutely preposterous.

Have you heard the stern condemnations of Saudi Arabia’s demands coming from Downing Street and the White House? Nor have I.

 

2) Then there’s Yemen. Saudi Arabia invaded two years ago, and since then have repeatedly bombed civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, and funerals. They have also imposed a blockade, ensuring that there are shortages of food and medicine. The result is that children are dying of malnutrition, and (as reported by Daniel Larison)

“Yemen’s cholera epidemic is already the worst in the world, but daily it is growing even worse:

The death toll from a major cholera outbreak in Yemen has risen to 1,500, Nevio Zagaria, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Yemen, said on Saturday, and appealed for more help to put an end to the epidemic.

Last week there were 200,000 cases of cholera in the country, and now there are almost 250,000. In another week, unless things change quickly, there will be even more. Cholera is treatable, but it requires being able to deliver the right medicine in sufficient amounts to the sick, and right now the Saudi-led blockade and the devastation of Yemen’s health care system make that very difficult. Aid agencies are working extremely hard to contain the epidemic, but they are doing so without adequate funding and with scant or no cooperation from the governments with the means to help. The civilian population is now especially vulnerable to preventable diseases like this one because of severe malnutrition caused by years of blockade and war. Because of the damage to the country’s infrastructure, it is difficult for people to find enough clean drinking water. The near-famine conditions make it much easier for disease to spread rapidly, and they make it more likely that the disease will kill many more people than it would have otherwise. These are man-made disasters inflicted on the people of Yemen as the result of deliberate policy choices by their neighboring states and their Western patrons.

The U.S. and other coalition supporters can still try to repair some of the damage they have helped cause, but after more than two years of working to bring about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis it is doubtful that any will make a serious effort.”

 

3) And the latest is that

“A report on the foreign funding of extremism in the UK was given to Downing Street last year, it has been revealed, but Theresa May is still to decide whether to make its findings public.”

Home Office minister Sarah Newton said: “The review into the funding of Islamist extremism in the UK was commissioned by the former prime minister and reported to the home secretary and the prime minister in 2016.

The review has improved the government’s understanding of the nature, scale and sources of funding for Islamist extremism in the UK. Publication of the review is a decision for the prime minister.”

So why has the government not made its finding public? Because it is believed that it points to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in funding and supporting terrorism.

Tim Farron is absolutely right when he says

““It is a scandal that the government are suppressing this report. The only conclusion you can draw is that they are worried about what it actually says. We hear regularly about the Saudi arms deals or ministers going to Riyadh to kowtow before their royal family, but yet, our government won’t release a report that will clearly criticise Saudi Arabia. “All this government seems to care about is cosying up to one of the most extreme, nasty and oppressive regimes in the world. You would think our security would be more important, but it appears not. For that Theresa May should be ashamed of herself.”

Relationships, apparently

It’s not the first time. Back in September, Jeremy Corbyn questioned Theresa May in the House of Commons about British support and said “The British Government continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used to commit crimes against humanity in Yemen, as has been clearly detailed by the UN and other independent agencies.” May replied “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.” I find that statement horrifying and shameful.   The fact that she probably had seen the report into the funding of Islamic extremism in Britain when she made that statement probably makes it worse.

One could go on. The Saudi government practices public beheading of convicted criminals, had close links to the 9/11 hijackers, forbids its citizens from becoming Christians, bans the selling of Bibles, and tolerates no church buildings on its territory.

My view is that this is disgraceful. It seems to me that if most other Middle Eastern countries behaved like Saudi Arabia, the American government would be doing all it could to topple the government. But different rules apply to Saudi Arabia.

Why? It’s about “alliances”. According to the Washington Post,

. . . .When the operation began, support for a key ally was a foregone conclusion, one official said. “There was this great sense of ‘this is the right thing to do,’ ” the official said. . . . Despite repeated strikes on schools and hospitals, officials see little choice for now but continued support, given the intense desire to shore up a bilateral relationship . . . .”

What we need to remember is that the Saudi government is not an ally of the British or American people. It is an ally of our governments and politicians. Alas, we the people are not entirely without responsibility for our politicians.

The resignation of Tim Farron: 4) The place of Christianity in public life

In my first three articles about the resignation of Tim Farron, I looked successively at

All these things show that Tim Farron faced various problems. Some, undoubtedly related to his own personal qualities – including the matter of whether he had been as wise (and as consistent) as he ought to have been. But he faced a problem which is much more significant – because of what it says about modern culture, and about the future of Christianity in the public square.

Aliens and strangers

The problem is two-fold.

Firstly, it is ideological. The culture is changing. While Christian values used to be, to at least some extent, part of western culture, that is rapidly changing. Christians who hold to the values of the Bible are now aliens and strangers in our culture – pretty much like the Christians in the pagan world of the Roman Empire in the days of the apostles. In a strange sort of way, we find ourselves back in New Testament times.

Anna Strhan is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent and, author of a recent book about how conservative evangelicals see themselves fitting into modern Britain – entitled Aliens and Strangers. In a recent blog post on the Tim Farron’s resignation, she tells of how the minister of a church, in a question and answer session after the sermon at a Sunday evening service, stated that the ‘social and political tectonic plates of Britain are shifting radically, as we move from once-Christian – at least nominally – through to post-Christian Britain….’

Tolerance and liberalism

But this is not just about secularisation. There is a second problem: western society’s increasing unwillingness to tolerate views that it finds unpalatable. In particular it does not like beliefs that are seen as criticising or condemning other people or groups of people.

Hence:

  • Bernie Sanders was horrified that someone can believe that those who reject Jesus Christ stand condemned. He feels that is an insult to Muslims, and is therefore Islamophobia.
  • Many have been horrified at Jenny Tonge’s strong criticism of the actions of the Israeli government, and see this as an insult to Jews, and therefore antisemitism.
  • David Laws is horrified at the thought that someone can believe that same-sex relationships are immoral. He sees this as an insult to gays, and therefore homophobia.
  • And apparently there is widespread horror at the belief that abortion amounts to deliberately killing a human being, because this amounts to condemning women who have abortions, and since men cannot have abortions, if you are against abortion, you are a misogynist.

Strhan speaks about Christians feeling that “wider society is not especially liberal” when it comes to their holding to traditional Christian teaching as private beliefs. One could say that it comes down to an increasing unwillingness to tolerate what seems to be intolerance – but I think that Strhan’s use of the phrase “not especially liberal” is much more helpful in the current political context.

What is liberalism?

The question for the Liberal Democrats is “what exactly does it mean to be liberal?” David Laws says “you cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, … and speaks about “Tim’s failure to be able to give direct and liberal responses on his own attitudes to homosexuality. ” For Laws, being liberal seems to mean not to disapprove of a person: “as a gay man, I do not wish to be “tolerated”. I wish to be respected for who I am.” He speaks about recognising the equality of all people regardless of “sex, sexuality, race, creed or colour” and concludes “Tolerating irrational prejudice has nothing to do with the liberalism I know and love.”

Ian Dunt (and Tim Farron) see liberalism differently. Speaking of the pressure Farron came over about his own personal views, Dunt  (in an article entitled The illiberal persecution of Tim Farron) says

“After a while, he had to give in and say gay sex wasn’t a sin. The sight of him doing so troubled me deeply. It felt like a witchhunt. And it looked like someone having to renounce a tenets of his faith in order to satisfy modern societal norms.”

“This is not liberalism. Farron is entitled to think gay sex is a sin. That, after all, is in the Bible that he adheres to. He is entitled to think abortion is wrong. What he is not entitled to do is to limit the freedom of others to do these things. Liberalism is not about approval. Liberalism couldn’t give a damn what you approve of. It is the belief that each individual must be free to do whatever they like up until the point where it limits the freedoms of others. As long as he does not plan to stop gay men having sex or women having abortions, Farron can hold whatever spiritual mumbo-jumbo in his head about their actions that he likes. Liberalism is defined by actions, not thoughts.

It is hard to shake the feeling that Farron has essentially been persecuted because of his faith. It is not really his record that is under question. It is that his personal convictions are unsayable among liberals. And that seems to completely miss the point of what liberalism is about. ”

Notice that Dunt is willing to accept a distinction between sexual behaviour and sexual orientation, whereas for Laws, sexual behaviour is part of what you are. Laws thinks in terms of respecting people groups; Dunt thinks in terms of allowing opinions and actions. And, significantly, Dunt speaks about freedoms 6 times in 1000 words, but Laws doesn’t mention freedoms at all in his 600 words.

How should we then live?

For Christians, the message is that we need to get used to being aliens and strangers in our culture. In fact, we need to be comfortable with it – as comfortable as a Christian can be in the present world. This is not our home, and we should not expect the culture that surrounds us to be Christian. If we do expect our culture to be be Christian, we are going to be perpetually disappointed. That was not a mistake the early Christians (living in the pagan Greco-Roman world) made. We need to stop making it. And church leaders need to ensure that Christians to see this, and to enable them engage with their neighbours in ways that help people see the Christian message positively.

That is the message – the crucial lesson that we need to learn from Tim Farron’s resignation. But there is, I think, a practical application – about the nitty gritty of the messy business of Christian political involvement. The story of Tim Farron shows what a messy business it is. It also shows the need for wisdom – particularly for those who get actively involved, but even for those who just vote. (Of course, one could make a case that Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics at all, but since that is very much a minority viewpoint, I’ll not address it.)

Liberalism and the golden rule

It seems to me that the main political lesson Christians should take from this is the need to value tolerance – or, if you prefer, ‘liberalism’. Tim Farron ended his resignation statement with a call for tolerance:

“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”

But he didn’t just use the word tolerance. He also used the word “liberal” – the word that Anna Strhan used when she spoke of evangelicals feeling that wider society is not especially liberal when it came to what they believed. The word “liberal” is used in many different ways, of course, but Strhan is using it in the way the way that Farron and Ian Dunt were using it. This is what Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel would have hoped for in Babylon; it is what the early Christians would have hoped for in the midst of the pagan Roman Empire.  They would have wanted society to have been happy to allow them to believe what they believed – and to respect their right to believe it.

And if we want it for ourselves, then the words of Jesus Christ – that we should do to others what we would like them to do to us – suggest that Christians should forthright in supporting tolerance towards beliefs that we strongly disagree with. In other words, we ought to be, in the best sense of the word, liberal in our politics.

The Resignation of Tim Farron: 3) What it says about the Liberal Democrats and their culture.

In my first article about the resignation of Tim Farron, I considered it as an indication of the growing hostility in western culture to some traditional Christian beliefs. In my second article, I looked at what it told us about Tim Farron as a person.

However there is a third angle that I want to look at. In his resignation statement, he said  To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.”

I think that is the crucial sentence in his resignation statement. It is crucial because it tells us about what Farron felt – and it was those feelings that led him to resign. But it is interesting because he did not say “To be a leader of a political party in 2017 . . .”; he said “To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017.” In other words, Farron felt that there was something about his party that made his position particularly difficult.

For me, this raises questions about his relationship with individuals in the party. A party, in the end, is made of people. The philosophy of parties drifts, and their policies change – sometimes remarkably quickly. These things are important, but they are fluid. But it is real individuals that a leader has to work with; and his relationship with those colleagues has a big impact about how much pressure he feels under.

I know virtually nothing about the relationship between Farron and his colleagues, and I don’t know much about what they thought of his Christian beliefs. But there are three individuals in the party whose cases throw interesting light on the party and on Farron’s resignation.

The roll of Brian Paddick

The first is Lord Paddick. Many people assume that the event that triggered Farron’s departure was the resignation of Paddick as the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, since Paddick said “I’ve resigned as Lib Dems Shadow Home Secretary over concerns about the leader’s views on various issues that were highlighted during GE17,” and Farron stepped down within 24 hours.

According to the Independent

Lord Paddick, a former police officer and London Lib Dem Mayoral candidate in 2008 and 2012, did not specify what views he referred to, but during the campaign leader Tim Farron came under heavy scrutiny for his repeatedly refusing to deny that he considered gay sex to be a sin. Lord Paddick is gay, and a practising Christian too. He has been married to his Norwegian husband for eight years, but prior to this spent ten years married to a woman, Mary Stone. “

So, not only did Tim Farron not say what exactly the problem was, but neither did Paddick. And that is not the only thing I find odd about Paddick’s case.

Paddick has said (via twitter) “Tim decided weeks ago to stand down (he didn’t tell me) and the timing of our resignations was pure co-incidence.” Many Lib Dem activists have blamed Paddick for Farron’s resignation and been quite angry at him. However, not only does it seem unlikely that Farron’s resignation was sparked by Paddick’s resignation; it also is not at all clear (at least not to me) that Paddick resigned because of Farron’s views about same-sex relationships – though the Guardian seems certain that he did.

Apparently Paddick wrote an explanation for LibDemVoice, but it was taken down, and he has, so far, declined to post it elsewhere. At any rate, I find Paddick’s resignation slightly puzzling, and am not really surprised that most people assume that he thinks that Farron’s views on sexuality make him unsuitable to be leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The case of David Laws

If Lord Paddick kept his cards close to his chest, the same cannot be said of David Laws, the former Yeovil M.P. Laws, in a highly critical article, wrote

“you cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, which fail to respect our party’s great traditions of promoting equality for all our citizens. . . . Far more importantly, Tim has propagated the dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.”

Laws clearly thinks that it is impossible to hold traditional Christian beliefs about sexual morality and be leader of a liberal party. I think that Laws is talking nonsense. For a start, he speaks about the “the party’s great traditions” – as if it would have been unthinkable at any time in the past for a leader of the Lib Dems or its predecessor parties to hold traditional Christian views on same-sex relationships. But more strangely, his statement that it is a dangerous myth “that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral”, must, if taken to its logical conclusion, means that it is a dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in who are having affairs with other people’s spouses, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.

But it still leaves the question of whether such views were common enough in the party to have caused Farron to feel isolated.

The case of Jenny Tonge

While much attention was focused on Paddick in the aftermath of Farron’s resignation, and a reasonable amount on Laws, it seems to me that the story of Baroness Tonge actually throws much more light on Farron’s departure.

In 2003, Jenny Tonge (at that time MP for Richmond Park), visited the Gaza Strip, and what she saw led her to say of Palestinian suicide bombers: “If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself“. She repeated her comments on Sky News, but added “I do not condone suicide bombers, nobody can condone them“. She made clear that she thought that suicide bombers actions were “appalling and loathsome”, but refused to apologise: “I was just trying to say how, having seen the violence and the humiliation and the provocation that the Palestinian people live under every day and have done since their land was occupied by Israel, I could understand“.

Charles Kennedy, the party leader at the time, said her comments were “completely unacceptable” and “not compatible with Liberal Democrat party policies and principles” and “there can be no justification, under any circumstances for taking innocent lives through terrorism.” He said this despite the fact that Tonge had never suggested that there could be any justification for their actions, and had made it clear that she believed there could not.

Tonge continued to be outspoken about Israeli government policy. In September 2006 she said: “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“. In response, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell wrote to Tonge commenting that her unacceptable assertion had “clear anti-Semitic connotations”. Tonge responded that her comments “were about the Israeli lobby in politics. They were a big distance from being about Jewishness or anti-Semitism“.

After further outspoken attacks on Israeli government policy in 2012, she was asked by party leader Nick Clegg to apologise for her remarks. She refused to do so and resigned the party whip. I can see where both of them are coming from.

Jenny Tonge had said

“Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. . . . Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.”

Nick Clegg responded:

“Jenny Tonge does not speak for the party on Israel and Palestine. Her presence and comments at this event were extremely ill-advised and ill-judged. The tone of the debate at this event was wholly unacceptable and adds nothing to the peace process. The Liberal Democrats are wholehearted supporters of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue.”

Note that this was an honest disagreement about Lib Dem Middle East policy, and about the fact that Tonge was saying things that didn’t fit with party policy, and that were going to cause serious offence to many voters. Nick Clegg felt that as party leader he had to distance the party from her. There was no mention of antisemitism. This was about Middle East policy.

What is strange is the public comments from people that one would not normally look to about Middle East policy who were unhappy with Tonge’s comments:

The chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, said:

“I am appalled at Baroness Tonge’s remarks. They are dangerous, inflammatory and unacceptable. I commend Nick Clegg for his decisive action. Views such as those expressed by Baroness Tonge have no place in civil public discourse.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews had condemned her remarks. In a statement issued before Tonge’s resignation, the chief executive, Jon Benjamin, said:

“Given her long-standing, pernicious views on Israel, her comment that Israel ‘is not going to be there forever’ is both sinister and abhorrent. There is no place for someone like Jenny Tonge in mainstream political parties in this country and it is time for the Liberal Democrats to act quickly and decisively, once and for all.”

That is odd. I would look to the chief rabbi for comment about Jewish religious teaching. I would expect that the Board of Deputies of British Jews would be interested in the matter of the welfare of Jews in the UK. Why did they feel that they had to comment about Jenny Tonge’s comments about Israeli government policy? Why are they so defensive about the policy of a foreign government?

In October 2016, Tonge finally left the party. While the Guardian said that she “quit the party after she was suspended over alleged antisemitic comments,” the Independent’s account was more accurate, and explains that she was suspended after chairing a meeting at the House of Lords at which a speaker allegedly compared Israel was to ISIS and suggested that Jews were to blame for the Holocaust.  She said:

“I was chairing, I did not make any speeches, I introduced the speakers and in the course of that meeting there was a great rant.  I remember the rant very well but I don’t remember hearing very much of it. It was a rant. I didn’t know what this person said.  You do get ranters at these meetings and I think the best way of dealing with them – if you challenge them they go on and on and on and on – the best way is to just say ‘yes, thank you very much, next speaker’.”

So what did this speaker say?

“Just as the so-called Jewish state in Palestine doesn’t come from Judaism, Muslims will say that this Islamic State in Syria is nothing to do with Islam. . . . It is a perversion of Islam just as Zionism is a perversion of Judaism.”

The speaker later referred to a rabbi as a “heretic”, adding he “made the economic boycott on Germany which antagonised Hitler, over the edge, to then want to systemically kill Jews wherever he could find them as opposed to just make Germany a Jew-free land“.

Baroness Tonge refused to say if, having read the words, she finds them offensive, instead describing the remarks as “incomprehensible”, and said that she would not have intervened to stop or eject the speaker if she had heard him, adding,

“I think I would have said ‘thank you very much, next speaker’. Because that, I know I’ve chaired many meetings, I’m an old lady, if you take issue with something a speaker has said the whole thing escalates. . . . If I had been comprehending or hearing even what that man was saying clearly it might have been different, but I didn’t. . . . The Israeli embassy is offended all the time by anything that is ever said in criticism of the Israeli government and they always translate it as being anti-Semitism, which it is not, it is criticism of the Israeli government.”

She said she “wouldn’t have thought” there was anti-Semitism at the meeting but that she could not speak for every person at the meeting individually, and added “I know that I have never been never have been, never will be anti-Semitic.

Tim Farron’s roll in the case of Jenny Tonge

What was Tim Farron’s roll in all this?

On 11th October, 2016 (two weeks before the meeting in the House of Lords that resulted in Tonge leaving the party), Farron was questioned by the Home Affairs Committee as part of their inquiry into antisemitism.

He was questioned specifically about Baroness Tonge. He said that he had “no desire to … be defensive about [her remarks] and that he considered them to be “unacceptable.” He also emphasised several times that Jenny Tonge did not have the party whip. He was careful not to say that he considered either her or her remarks to be antisemitic, but nor did he deny that they were.

On May 2nd, 2017, Farron, in the course of a speech where he addressed the problem of antisemitism, said: “I believe in liberal outcomes but sometimes you have to be muscular. And that is why I dealt with Jenny Tonge the way I did and why I dealt with David Ward the way I did.

It seems to me that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Jenny Tonge might be antisemitic. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that she is not. And yet year after year she was accused of it, and her name was associated with it. And while Tim Farron never accused her of being antisemitic, he never publicly defended her from the accusations. And in a meeting in which he addressed the question of antisemitism, he spoke as if Jenny Tonge was part of the problem.

Of course, everything depends on how one defines antisemitism. But according to any standard definition, she most definitely is not. Parliament’s Home Affairs select committee said ” it was not antisemitic “to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent”. Neither was it antisemitic “to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.” “

However, by the same token, the question of whether Tim Farron is homophobic depends on one’s definition of homophobia. David Laws never actually said that Farron was homophobic, but in saying that Farron held “illiberal and prejudiced views” he got very close to implying it.

The heart of the matter

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. While there are difference between what happened to Jenny Tonge and Tim Farron (Farron never appeared to be in conflict with party policy, and went out of his way not to be outspoken) – they are actually very similar. Both were hounded because they were seen as friends of prejudice – prejudice against groups that are generally perceived as “victim” groups. In other words, they had offended against the canons of political correctness. Their offences might not have been seriousness, they might not have technically committed any offences at all, but accusations had been made, and the very hint of antisemitism or homophobia meant that they were not to be trusted.

In other words, nobody went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. They went after him because he was suspected of not being an orthodox believer in the tenets of political correctness. And in a “progressive liberal party in 2017” there will be no room for those who transgress that orthodoxy.

Or, to put it another way, Farron felt obliged to resign as leader for exactly the same reason that Tonge felt obliged to leave the party.

Which makes it ironic that Farron made no effort to defend Baroness Tonge from the incessant charges of antisemitism.  She seems to have noticed it too, but restricted herself to a short comment on Facebook:

“Nothing becomes Tim Farron more than his passing! He is sticking to his principles (Christian Evangelical).  Maybe he at last understands, that when it comes to Palestinians, I stick to my principles too, supporting human rights and international law. “

I think that I would go a bit further. I am reminded of the famous poem by the German Pastor, Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.