Free speech and Party politics

The recent controversy regarding Baroness Tonge’s provocative comments and subsequent resignation points towards significant and systemic problems within and surrounding British parliamentary politics. While ‘parliamentary privilege’ allows MPs a certain degree of ‘in-house’ freedom in terms of libel immunity, free speech is always and necessarily going to be limited by Party politics. MPs in opposition are able to voice contradictory opinions fairly openly, but those in government are restricted by the need to present strong, united leadership. Coalition government clearly both compounds and complicates this problem. Liberal Democrat MPs may hold distinctly different views from those promoted by the Conservative-led government, yet the Coalition agreement demands political alignment. This raises several questions: should Liberal Democrat backbenchers be free to contradict the Coalition agreement without fear of losing their whip? Should either Lib Dem or Conservative MPs be able to speak outside of the Coalition agreement? Can Coalition government expect to homogenise varying opinions into a single ‘party line’? Does the conflation of two of the three major parties in the UK inhibit parliamentary debate? Does the two-house political system open or restrict the democratic process? Regarding the latter, although I have concerns about unelected chambers, it can be argued that the House of Lords allows for freer, more open debate than that which can take place within the election-driven politics of the Commons.

Baroness Tonge’s comments about Israel raise a number of these questions. As a member of the House of Lords, Tonge should be able to voice her opinions freely; as a member of the governing Coalition, her statements are required to be representative of both the Coalition and/or her Party’s position. There is also a particular sensitivity in both the UK and the US regarding any comment that has the potential to be (mis)interpreted as anti-Semitic. While this is clearly an important concern, with obvious historical justification, there is a question mark over the extent to which this is also driven by the pressure to get re-elected. In the States, in particular, it is a commonplace that no President will be elected without the ‘Jewish vote’. While this is not so apparent in Britain, might there be a case for seeing the support of Israeli lobbyists in terms of election politics? That Tonge’s recent comment about the historical inevitability of political change in the Middle East was interpreted by some as anti-Semitic reveals the hyper-sensitivity regarding this – undoubtedly sensitive – issue.  On the other hand, the current inflammatory situation in the Middle East means such comments are perhaps likely to risk mis- or over-interpretation, and this is something of which politicians should be aware.

As I write this, I realise that any discussion of the ‘politics’ of election-led party politics leads towards larger debates about both the nature of democracy in general, and the British parliamentary system in particular. Although these are matters beyond the scope of this blog, a few related questions come to mind: does our democratic system of government in fact restrict some of the freedoms that it intends to protect? Is there really any alternative? Does parliamentary democracy actually encourage free and open debate, or simply present a forum for competition between two parties seeking future election? Does this dialectic of freedom and competition in some sense feed into neoliberalism’s emphatic espousal of free market economics as the basis of human freedom? Is the increasingly PR-driven Commons simply another marketplace, whereby party politics is another product to be consumed by the voting public? And finally, is absolute free speech ever possible within political society, and should free speech be valued above other political concerns within both the domestic and international sphere? Where domestic and global politics overlap, for instance, is the need for diplomacy sometimes more urgent than the right to free speech?

Lucy P

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Freedom of Speech in UK Parliament: Jenny Tonge and Israel Comments

Baroness Jenny Tonge resigned from the Lib Dem grouping in the House of Lords this week after refusing Nick Clegg’s request to apologise for comments made about the continued existence of Israel.  The ultimatum given by Clegg and Tonge’s consequent resignation have sparked debate over the interpretation of the comments and brings into question the degree of free speech permitted to representatives in our own government.

During a meeting at Middlesex University with speakers such as pro-Palestine activist Ken O’Keefe, Baroness Tonge said: “Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there forever 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.”

Her comments came under harsh criticism from many government figures.  The Israeli ambassador, Daniel Taub, stated at a Community Security Trust dinner that the country has “no intention of going anywhere”.  This was backed up by chancellor, George Osborne, who said: “I’ve got a message for Jenny Tonge. The state of Israel is going to be around a lot longer than you are, Jenny.”

Deputy Prime Minster, Nick Clegg said: “These remarks were wrong and offensive and do not reflect the values of the Liberal Democrats … The Liberal Democrats have a proud record of campaigning for the rights of Palestinians, and that will continue, but we are crystal clear in our support for a two-state solution.”

Baroness Tonge has made controversial comments before, being removed as the Lib Dem children’s spokeswomen in the House of Commons in 2004 after suggesting she could consider becoming a suicide bomber.  However, in this situation she believed that Clegg acted “very hastily and ill-advisedly” is his dismissal of her and claims her comments were taken out of context.  She said the comments “followed a very ill-tempered meeting in which Zionist campaigners attempted continually to disrupt proceedings. They mouthed obscenities at the panellists, to the extent that university security attempted to remove them from the premises.”  Tonge further added that: “The comments I made were in protest at the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and the treatment of Israeli Arabs.”

Clegg’s decision has been supported across government parties with Robert Halfon, the conservative MP for Harlow, describing Tonge’s comments as seeking to “delegitimise Israel” and representing “an extreme anti-Israel view”.  He also brought in the debate over free speech stating that: “I agree with free speech and she is welcome to go and say all these conspiracy theories on Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park … but she represents the Liberal Democrats”.

Tonge claims that her views are shared by “many, many people” and that she based her comments “on what is happening to Palestinians in those areas, let alone what is happening now in East Jerusalem… The American people may get fed up of backing this state that angers everyone and irritates everyone.”

The potential misinterpretation of her comments was supported by Lib Dem supporter and Jew, Benedict Birnberg, in a letter to the Guardian.  Birnberg said that: “To say, as she is quoted saying, that Israel would ultimately lose US support, a view expressed by many people, has been clearly deliberately misinterpreted by the powerful Israeli lobby, goaded on by its ambassador”.

The topic of Israel is particularly controversial, however Tonge’s resignation ultimately brings to light the matter of free speech within the UK government.  It demonstrates the difficulty of balancing personal and party views and whether or not personal opinions should be presented when representing a political party.  As problematic as individual ideas can be, should party representatives resign their personal free speech in order to comply with party views?

Carys B

Letters to the Arab World: Rana Kabbani writes to Riyad al-Turk

In the fourth episode of BBC Radio 4’s series in which authors tell of their personal perspectives on reshaping the Arab World, Syrian writer and broadcaster, Rana Kabbani, reads her letter to political prisoner, Riyad al-Turk.  Kabbani talks to al-Turk about the recent uprisings against the political oppression in Syria and across the Arab world.  She speaks of the new hope that she sees for democratic change and how it reminds her of al-Turk’s struggle, spending nearly 20 years in prison for his political beliefs.  Kabbani describes al-Turk’s history, telling of how he was taken from his home without being allowed to take so much as change of clothes or say goodbye to his two daughters, to be imprisoned in a cell the size of a coffin.

Kabbani tells al-Turk of the inspiring stories of modern Arab revolt against totalitarian dictatorship.  In particular, she recalls the image of Egyptian security vans shooting water canons and bullets at protesters who acted by turning and facing down the forces as they fell to their knees in what she describes as ‘a communal and courageous act of prayer’.  These events have inspired hope in Kabbani and she hopes one day to be able to meet al-Turk again in their own hometowns, free from oppression.

The full letter is available to listen to at:


Biography of Riyad al-Turk

Riyad al-Turk is a prominent opposer of the Syrian regime and has been called ‘The Old Man of Syrain Opposition’.  He was secretary general of the Syrian Communist Party since its creation in 1975 and up until 2005.  Al-Turk has spent almost 20 years in prison as punishment for his political beliefs.

Al-Turk was first imprisoned in 1952 after opposing the military regime that took power through a coup.  He spent five months in prison where he was tortured but never tried.  In 1958, al-Turk was incarcerated again by Egyptian leader, Nasser, for protesting against the merger of Syria and Egypt.  He was held for sixteen months, once again being tortured but never put on trial.

Al-Turk was responsible for forming the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) after a split from the main Syrian Communist Party.  The party strongly opposed the Syrian regime and focused on pluralist democracy.  The regime tried to repress the party and in 1980 al-Turk was once again arrested and imprisoned.  This imprisonment lasted for almost eighteen years, with al-Turk being placed in solitary confinement in a cell about the length of his body.  He was not allowed to exercise and for the majority the time not given anything with which to occupy his mind.  Furthermore, for the first thirteen years al-Turk was not permitted any communication with or information about his family or friends, including his two daughters.  He suffered ill health which he was not treated for and upon his release in 1998 had to be taken to Europe for care.

Following his release, al-Turk remained relatively politically inactive, until 2000 when debates arose after Syrian dictator, Hafiz al-Asad, died and his son succeeded him.  Al-Turk took a prominent role in the Damascus Spring, which demanded democratic change.  He was once again arrested in 2001 and put on a trial seen by many as unfair.  In 2002, he was sentence to three years in prison for ‘attempting to change the constitution by illegal means’, leading to international protests.  Al-Turk was released after fifteen months and returned to his political activities.

In 2005, al-Turk stepped down from his role as secretary in the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) but still remains an influential figure.  He also became a prominent member in the Damascus Declaration, a statement of unity from Syrian opposition activists and organisations.

Carys B