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The Boycott Ban Is a Threat to Democracy

The government’s anti-boycott bill is an attack on our political freedoms – and while it currently targets solidarity with Palestine, its ramifications apply to every social justice campaign.

Protesters attend a rally to express solidarity with Palestine. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Since the 2019 general election, there have been three Conservative Party leaders and prime ministers. While each professed to represent a clean break from their predecessors — whether on the economy, defence, or crime — there has been one alarming consistency in the respective policy prescriptions: the assault on civil liberties.

The proposed ‘Anti-Boycott Bill’ embodies precisely that. It aims to ban public bodies from partaking in boycotts or divesting from companies or countries that are committing human rights abuses.

Despite global events — from the Covid-19 outbreak to the Russian invasion of Ukraine — disrupting the legislative timetable and delaying its introduction, the Conservative commitment to the policy remains firm.

Peter Leary, campaigns director at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), says the bill amounts to a violation of fundamental civil rights: ‘It will severely limit the ability of local authorities, universities, and public sector pension funds to make financial decisions that reflect voters’ and members’ concerns over illegal and unethical practices, including those that support the rights of Palestinians.’

In February last year, Conservative MP Robert Jenrick tabled an amendment that would ban public sector employees from boycotting Israeli investments within their pension pots. He argued that authorities administering public sector pension schemes ‘may not make investment decisions that conflict with the UK’s foreign and defence policy’. It passed comprehensively.

Civil Liberties Under Attack

Amnesty International condemned the amendment, suggesting it amounts to an undermining of pension schemes’ obligations under the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. But their criticism — as with many others levelled at this increasingly authoritarian government — has fallen on deaf ears.

In the last eighteen months, a raft of draconian bills have been put forward, attacking the right to strike and protest as well as strengthening the powers of the police and allowing tougher sentences for protest-related offences. The legislations differ in their targets but are united in the overarching objective: to suppress the public’s historically effective tools for demanding change.

The latest bill isn’t the first time that the Tories have clamped down on boycotts. In 2016, PSC challenged similar proposed regulations that attempted to restrict Local Government Pensions Scheme (LGPS) from divesting from companies involved in or profiting from Israel’s human rights violations. The PSC won a landmark case against that effort in the Supreme Court in 2020.

But what should have dealt a death blow to the attempt to criminalise Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has instead led to a renewed determination. And though this bill does not explicitly specify a ban on Israel, its proponents often justify it as a means of tackling anti-Israel sentiment. In fact, Michael Gove has previously suggested the campaign to boycott Israel is a ‘crime worse than apartheid’. The bill currently sits with the Department for Levelling Up, the department overseen by Gove himself.

There are few concrete paths available for Palestine to resist Israel’s colonial domination and human rights abuses. BDS constitutes a peaceful avenue that has been relatively successful in isolating Israel and drawing attention to its ongoing occupation.

The need for such action couldn’t be more urgent. In 2023, Palestinians are being murdered at an unprecedented rate, more homes continue to be demolished, more illegal settlements have been erected, and more Palestinian prisoners have been repressed.

‘There is no doubt that international pressure is essential as Israeli policy and violence grow ever more extreme,’ Peter Leary says. But, even if the bill passes, many actions will continue. ‘Individuals will still be free to campaign for Barclays to divest from the arms trade, or to boycott Puma over its sponsorship of football in illegal settlements, and we fully expect that these campaigns will continue to grow.’

But the PSC is under no illusions about the dangerous precedent this could have, which goes beyond one singular cause. ‘Many people in this country care deeply about human rights and the environment, and the Anti-Boycott Bill threatens their ability to insist that public bodies make ethical choices about spending and investment.’

It’s not just about Palestine, either. ‘Other progressive movements that use boycott or divestment tactics will also be affected,’ he adds. ‘It could hit campaigns against deforestation, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of children and workers.’

The concern he expresses has been echoed by other human rights organisations. A civil society bloc of more than fifty trade unions, charities, NGOs, and climate justice and other organisations have combined to form the Right to Boycott coalition, collectively opposing the legislation and launching combined advocacy strategies against it.

Even organisations that disagree with the BDS movement have conveyed concern. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and other Jewish youth groups recently passed a motion at the UJS conference in support of the democratic right to protest and against the bill’s attempt to curtail them.

Local Government Resistance

History may not always repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In this case, the attack on local government rights bears an uncanny resemblance to moves made by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s as the anti-apartheid campaign in Britain grew.

Local bodies were central to the upsurge in momentum. From the 1960s to the 1980s, more than 100 local authorities banned South African goods from their offices and schools.

In 1981 Sheffield became the first local authority to pledge that it would end all links with apartheid. It withdrew pension fund investments from companies with South African subsidiaries and barred South African sports teams from its playing fields.

Others swiftly followed suit, including Cambridge, Newcastle, Glasgow, and most inner London boroughs. Local Authorities Against Apartheid (LAAA) was set up to coordinate local agency action, and by 1985 more than 120 local councils had taken some form of anti-apartheid initiative.

By the mid-1980s, approximately two-thirds of the UK population lived in local authorities that were committed to ending apartheid and one in four Britons said they were boycotting South African goods.

The Thatcher government’s response was to introduce the Local Government Act in 1988, which restricted local authorities and other bodies from boycotting trade and business with South Africa.

It ultimately proved insufficient in the face of a steadfast global anti-apartheid campaign, which supported widespread civil disobedience in South Africa itself. However, the existing cohort of Conservatives are keen to take a leaf out of Thatcher’s playbook and resume the journey to autocracy.

Andrew Feinstein, anti-racist campaigner and former MP for the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela, says that boycotts by Britain’s local authorities were instrumental in bringing apartheid to an end.

Yet the ability to exercise those rights is now being crushed. I’m flabbergasted and disgusted by this Orwellian and disturbing legislation which undeniably corrodes our democracy. It means we effectively have to break the law to stand with oppressed people. This undoubtedly calls into question whether Britain is a truly functional democratic state for its citizens.

He concludes frankly: ‘I often find myself wondering: what would the late Desmond Tutu say about what Britain is becoming?’

There is a growing public awareness about Britain’s sinister trajectory. The onus is on the widest coalition possible to unite, organise, and mobilise to protect civil liberties — and that must include defending the right to boycott.