This week (26 April 2022), the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, along with forty-seven other civil society organisations, released a statement opposing government plans to introduce an ‘anti-boycott bill’ to stop public bodies from boycotting or divesting from companies involved in human rights abuse or environmental destruction. Such a bill will threaten so many campaigns for social and climate justice, including international solidarity campaigns like ours in support of Palestinian rights.
While the statement is intended to raise alarm about the government’s plans, it also reveals something exciting: a wide range of organisations committing to defend our collective right to use boycott and divestment tactics. Signatories include: nine national trade unions (representing millions of workers between them); faith-based institutions; climate justice organisations, large and small; anti-militarism and anti-war groups; human rights groups; community organisations; and more. When the bill is finally tabled, likely before the summer recess, we expect even more to take up the call to defend our #RightToBoycott.
What We Know About the Anti-Boycott Bill
The text of the bill has not appeared yet, but we have indications of its contents based on the government’s 2016 attempt to ban local government pension schemes from using ‘divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and UK defence industries’. PSC took the government to court over it, and we won a landmark case in the Supreme Court in 2020, forcing the government to scrap its unlawful regulations.
The government hit back threatening primary legislation to ‘ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries, or those linked to them; the sale of goods and services from foreign countries; UK firms which trade with such countries, where such an approach is not in line with UK Government sanctions’.
In February of this year, we had another hint of what’s to come, when Robert Jenrick MP introduced an amendment to a pensions bill intending to prohibit local government from making investment decisions out of sync with ‘UK foreign and defence policy’. In press comments, Jenrick made clear that he is on a crusade to ‘outlaw Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ in relation to Israel, though the final wording of his amendment makes room for a much broader application.
The forty-eight signatories to our civil society statement know that Palestine solidarity work may be the initial target of the impending bill, and we’re proud that so many have taken a stand. But it was not only Palestinian rights that brought so many groups to the table. Statement signatories like Campaign Against Arms Trade, CND, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace know that dozens of US states have introduced legislation initially aimed at the BDS movement, now used as a template to take down climate justice campaigns focused on the oil and gas industry and campaigns against firearm and ammunition manufacturers. Undoubtedly UK-based mining, fossil fuel, weapons, and other industries currently targeted with divestment are eagerly awaiting a new tool to silence campaigners for justice.
There is also good news from the US on this front: the anti-BDS laws are being successfully challenged in courts around the country, depicted brilliantly in the new documentary ‘Boycott’. And campaigns for Palestinian rights, climate justice, for an end to the military and prison industrial complex are all thriving, largely because movements there have pushed on despite the difficulties. Now it’s our turn to follow suit.
Boycotts and Divestment: Time-Honoured Tactics
It’s obvious why BDS tactics are such an annoyance to this government: they are effective and time-honoured tools used to campaign for justice. Who could contest the moral standing or efficacy of the Bristol bus boycott of 1963 over racist hiring practices? Who wouldn’t support the boycott of Nestle products over its predatory marketing of baby formula in the Global South (a 1970s campaign spearheaded by statement signatory War on Want)?
These are not the types of boycotts the government is currently aiming to prevent, but it has nonetheless already started its propaganda campaign to convince the public that boycotts and divestments are divisive or discriminatory, so it’s important for us to remember how integral such campaigns have been to social change in this country for decades.
Of course, there have also been significant successful campaigns in this country focused on getting public bodies to boycott and divest, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, focused on local council ties with Barclays bank, Shell, and other companies with operations in Apartheid South Africa and Namibia. Unlike the boycotts mentioned before, these are the type of campaigns that could be banned by the anti-boycott bill. It’s this historical experience which has led the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives Committee to sign on to our statement. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government passed similar restrictions, trying to prevent public bodies from taking ‘political action’ (namely boycott and divestment campaigns) targeting apartheid.
The Government’s Plans Contradict its own Policies—and Recent Actions
The government’s stated rationale for its impending bill is to ensure a ‘coherent approach to foreign relations’. But it will take legal magic to find wording that would make its anti-boycott bill coherent with existing policy.
Public bodies have guidelines that enable them to stop procuring from or investing in companies over ‘grave professional misconduct’ or ‘social and environmental factors’. This means that if a company is found to be involved in illegal activity, whether it’s racial discrimination, modern slavery, environmental degradation, or human rights violations, no current UK policy or law could reasonably force a public body to continue to do business with them.
Our statement affirms that not only is it the right of local authorities to cut ties with abusive companies, it’s a responsibility. Local authorities should absolutely cut ties with companies like JCB whose equipment is used for home and business demolitions in Palestine and India, or other companies involved in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise; they should surely divest from mining companies wreaking havoc on indigenous communities in Latin America, or companies involved in exploitation of Uyghur communities.
Despite its apparent revulsion over boycott and divestment tactics, the government has been promoting this kind of action to public bodies in relation to the Russian war on Ukraine. In March, the government issued a policy note encouraging public contracting authorities to go beyond government sanctions and ‘consider how they can further cut ties with companies backed by the states of Russia and Belarus’. The note gives step-by-step instructions about how to screen for companies to cut ties with, based on location.
Such blatant contradictions may stand up in grandstanding speeches by government officials, but will they pass the legal scrutiny needed for drafting a bill?
How Can We Fight Back?
Just days after we published our statement, we saw the devastating passage of the Policing Bill, despite really effective organising against it (with a key role played by Netpol, also a signatory of our statement). Coupled with the draconian Nationality and Borders Bill, and so many other pieces of repressive legislation, it’s clear that we are in one of the most difficult political moments of this era. The anti-boycott bill will be another one to add to this ugly collection, chipping away at all of the same fundamental rights and progressive values: the right to protest, to campaign for justice, to make collective decisions based on principles of equality, and to hold institutions to account. The communities already most vulnerable will be affected even more, whether it is those already targeted with police harassment and violence in Britain, or the Palestinian people struggling against colonialism and apartheid.
It’s our duty now to prepare for a long-term fight to have all of these laws reversed. In the shorter term, we need to be especially wary of the chilling effect trap. The government would love nothing more than for us to throw away our megaphones, placards, and petitions, not only because they force us to, but because we’ve convinced each other that campaigning is useless or too risky.
When Thatcher tried to ban local councils from taking action against apartheid, the whole movement mobilised in protest and simultaneously increased their anti-apartheid campaigns’ intensity. That should serve as our guide. Our job now is to understand our shifting political terrain and design our strategies accordingly. When it comes to the upcoming anti-boycott law, we’re starting our pushback strong with forty-eight organisations representing millions of people ready to fight.