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

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