Updated: Jun 10, 2021
In his recently published diary the Conservative politician and former Minister Sir Alan Duncan, denounces in forthright terms his own Government’s appalling acquiescence in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and its damaging interference in Britain’s internal affairs through lobby groups, especially Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). At the same time, his diary shows a disappointing lack of empathy for his Labour opponents who have been the primary targets of Israeli interference.
I conclude that the gravity of this problem demands more of people like Duncan. If, as he indicates, Israeli interference has been corroding public morality and our ability to purposefully manage our own affairs in the UK, we need to treat this as a major national problem, rather like a pandemic or a war. This means being prepared to reach out to one’s erstwhile political opponents and tackle the problem in partnership with them.
I became aware of Alan Duncan’s vigorous defence of Palestinian rights from his speech of October 2014 to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He complained that Britain had granted Israel impunity with respect to its illegal occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian land, and contrasted this to its opposition to other cases of illegal territorial expansion, such as when General Galtieri seized the Falkland Islands, Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, and Russia annexed the Crimea and engaged in subterfuge in Eastern Ukraine. He roundly condemned western Christians who colluded with Israel’s settlement project, and some Jewish organisations in the UK for unreasonably accusing people of antisemitism “more often than not as a diversion from the actual issues in question”.
Duncan joined Theresa May’s Government in July 2016, thinking that his experience as an oil trader and his contacts in the Middle East would be helpful to Britain’s foreign affairs. He was soon to be disappointed, finding himself disqualified on account of opposition from Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). He ended up with a portfolio that pointedly excluded the Middle East save for Oman, becoming Deputy to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in other matters. Subsequently, in early 2017, an Al Jazeera undercover operation showed us an Israeli operative conspiring with House of Commons staff to destroy Duncan’s political career.
Despite opposing Brexit, Duncan intended to remain tight-lipped and, in his own words: “loyal to Theresa, loyal to Boris… out of the news”. However, he found it increasingly difficult to contain his criticism of Johnson whom he described as a “circus act” and resigned when Johnson was elected Conservative leader in July 2019.
When Duncan published his diaries in April 2021, he did not mince his words. He denounced pro-Israel lobbyists for their “disgusting interference” in British public life and for damaging British foreign policy in the Middle East, and accused HMG of complicity with that interference. He was particularly scathing about Stuart Polak and Eric Pickles of CFI whom he described as just wanting “to subjugate Palestinians and destroy all genuine advocates for Palestine”. He expanded on this in a Mail+ interview, saying that CFI “interferes at a high level in British politics in the interest of Israel, on the back of donor power within the UK.” Duncan also denounced Priti Patel as deceitful and morally corrupt, on account of her unapproved visit to Israel in late 2017 (coordinated by the self-same Polak), about which she lied, both to the Prime Minister and the public.
But Duncan reserves his worst words for the grovelling behaviour of the very Government to which he belonged, and notably:
accuses Polak and Pickles of “entrenched espionage” that should prompt an inquiry, saying “it’s corrupt, but the whole system buys into it without realising how wrong it is”;
describes his Government’s indulgence of Netanyahu’s behaviour as that of “supine, lickspittle, insignificant cowards”, and;
castigates the Government for not objecting: (a) when Naftali Bennett, the pro-settlement party leader in Israel, said that all Judea and Samaria belongs to Israel, and; (b) when the Israelis intended to evict 500 Bedouin from the E1 area on the edge of Jerusalem and turn it into settlements.
He goes on to say that: “the rules of propriety, and all the morality and principle that goes with it, are discarded and rewritten to accommodate this exceptional pro-Israel infiltration into the very centre of our public life”.
Duncan has singularly unflattering words for a long list of other public figures, notably Michael Gove (an “unctuous freak”), “the odious Matthew Elliott”, the “execrable duo” of special advisers Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, Gavin Williamson (“a disloyal, and inexperienced schemer”), the “brainless Iain Duncan Smith”, and the “inarticulate” Sajid Javid who is “just sucking up to the CFI”. Given his views on colleagues, I suspect Duncan would have done much better by resigning earlier and alerting us to their nature before they gained an unassailable parliamentary majority, and by causing an overdue stink about the role of the Israel lobby.
The Labour party dimension
I wanted to see how Duncan treated the defamation meted out to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. What did he really feel about the period from 2015 to 2020 when the pro-Israel lobby, the mainstream media, the Government, the Blairite faction in Labour, and others endlessly pilloried Labour as “antisemitic”, and often “institutionally antisemitic”?
I had myself taken a close look at the allegations against Labour, and found them at odds with hard evidence about the incidence of anti-Jewish prejudice across the political spectrum, and that mainstream media had systematically avoided any mention of that evidence.
I did not expect Duncan to be uncritical of Corbyn, but hoped that his comments would show some light and shade, and empathy for someone who, despite political differences, was “in the same boat”. Like Duncan, Corbyn’s Labour posed an obstacle to the Israeli Government’s plan to dominate the whole of Palestine and silence dissent. But it was Corbyn who, as Labour’s prime ministerial candidate, posed the greater threat.
Unfortunately, I found Duncan defaulting to a rather one-dimensional Daily Mail script, saying Corbyn was a “farce of a leader”, had “no credibility”, was “our Fidel Castro”, and wanted “to nationalise everything”. Whatever Corbyn’s shortcomings, Duncan never mentions the fact that he was the first prime ministerial candidate to take seriously the plight of the Palestinians, and a leading figure behind the opposition to our disastrous invasion of Iraq – that Duncan supported.
Duncan describes Corbyn’s supporters as “far-left nutters”, and a “rather nasty, ideological base”, singling out “the odious Chris Williamson, the hard-left Labour MP who is probably the most hated man in Parliament”. I have spoken at length with Chris Williamson and, whatever his politics, find him a decent human being, who has correctly called out Jeremy Corbyn for being unreasonably apologetic in his response to antisemitism smears.
At one point his diary (1/8/18), Duncan endorses one of these smears against Corbyn on account of a meeting he had hosted in 2010. The main speaker was Hajo Meyer, a Holocaust survivor, who spoke about “The Misuse of the Holocaust for Political Purposes”. Duncan should have known better than to criticise Corbyn for hosting a meeting on a legitimate topic.
On 4/09/18, Duncan speaks of a bitter feud between the “Jewish community” and Corbyn’s Labour Party. I was surprised to see him treating the Jewish community as a monolithic entity without reference to the diversity of opinion among Jews, and not so much as alluding to the many Jews who wholeheartedly support Jeremy Corbyn (including more than 30 that the Labour Party is investigating for “antisemitism”). Duncan goes on to critique Corbyn for continuing “to attack the manner in which Israel was founded” and seeming to “challenge the right of Israel to exist at all”. I find this farfetched, because Corbyn has never said or implied the latter.
It is commendable that Alan Duncan has stood up for the Palestinians and called out our Government’s hideous complicity with the machinations of pro-Israel lobbyists. I would love to see him build on his achievement by organizing a broad-based campaign to bring this appalling situation to an end. However, this will mean taking the time to engage with, and properly understand, erstwhile political opponents.
We cannot successfully combat the problem of Israeli interference, and the media bias that facilitates it, simply at the level of party politics. Clever and well-resourced lobbies will play divide-and-rule, exploiting party and sectarian rivalries to get what they want. In this vein we have seen:
right-wing/Blairite Labour excoriating left-wing rivals for “antisemitism”;
Conservatives blaming Labour as a whole on the same grounds, despite evidence that prejudice against all minorities (including Jews) is higher among Conservatives, and;
Lib Dems aligning themselves with the dominant media narrative, not out of principle, but for party-political advantage and fear of being monstered with adverse publicity in the media.
It is time for us to treat this type of politically motivated distortion of facts as a national problem, like a pandemic or a war, and not allow ourselves to be manipulated in this way.