Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ex-MP Jenny Tonge resigns from the Lib Dems

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
The former MP for Richmond Mark, Jenny Tonge, has this afternoon resigned from the Liberal Democrats. The official line appears to be that, having refused to apologise for an insensitive remark about Israel, Baroness Tonge decided to resign the party whip, claiming that her right to an independent view had been undermined.

The controversial comments were made in a speech at Middlesex University last Thursday, in which Tonge predicted that Israel “would not last forever” and that the USA would eventually withdraw political and financial support, leaving it to “reap what it had sown”.

Foolish? Yes. Insensitive? Yes. Racist? Probably. Whichever way you look at it, this reflects very badly on the party and on Tonge herself. Nick Clegg was quick to move in response, effectively issuing an ultimatum. According to The Guardian, Clegg responded rapidly to widespread criticism from many in both Jewish and political circles, insisting that Tonge either withdrew the remarks or resigned the whip. She chose the latter. Said Clegg: “these remarks were wrong and offensive and do not reflect the values of the Liberal Democrats. I asked Baroness Tonge to withdraw her remarks and apologise for the offence she has caused. She has refused to do so and will now be leaving the party.”

I shed no tears for Jenny Tonge, even though in the past I have praised her work as a constituency MP. This is simply the latest in a long line of irresponsible and embarrassing views she has expressed in respect to Israel. She was forced to resign as shadow children’s minister in 2004 after famously intimating that, if she lived in Palestine, she might easily consider becoming a suicide bomber. Two years later then leader Menzies Campbell criticised her “anti-semitic” argument that the Lib Dems had been in the “grip” of the “pro-Israeli lobby”. She has sailed close to the wind on other occasions in respect to her controversial views and Clegg came under serious pressure to remove the whip just two years ago after she made groundless claims that the Israeli military had been harvesting organs from earthquake victims.

I have respect for principled rebellion. I think parliament is all the better for having independently minded people within it. But on this score Nick Clegg is surely right and Jenny Tonge wrong. Presumably if Tonge had issued an apology Clegg wouldn’t have gone as far as to withdraw the whip but in the circumstances there was little alternative available to him. There can be no place in our party for such ill-conceived racism, especially when the individual concerned has a history of expressing the same views. The real question is this: why now? Why has stronger action not been taken previously?

At the very least Tonge’s comments have undermined the efforts of current and previous governments to find a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. At worst, this is racist intolerance and the kindest thing that can be said is that Tonge’s remarks were misguided and her obstinacy in refusing to withdraw them insulting.

The Guardian quoted the chair of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, who argued that “Baroness Tonge's latest outburst is wrong but [also] contrary to Lib Dem party policy. Jenny Tonge is an irrelevant, siren and marginal voice in the Liberal Democrat party and we call on her to resign the Lib Dem whip.” It’s sadly very true, and it gives me no pleasure to see someone of Tonge’s intelligence and capability becoming so marginalised, with her principal contributions being reduced to throwing short-fused time-bombs in from the sidelines.

I find that I agree with Nick. These remarks were wrong and offensive and they do not reflect the values of the Liberal Democrats. However, could that not also be said of the fundamentalist, right-wing, homophobic, and anti-abortion group CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education) which, in addition to promoting a cure for gay people, finds the staff and the finances to provide five Lib Dem parliamentarians (including the president and Scottish leader) with interns? I would argue that CARE’s stance is "wrong and offensive" and does not "reflect the views" of our party. I’d also add that it’s “wrong and offensive” for our MPs to be seen to accept what is essentially blood money from an organisation that took a lead role in the vicious “Keep the Clause” campaign in 1999-2000, or which believes gay people to be “lepers” who are “sexually broken”.

Surely Clegg should be consistent with his own logic and insist that MPs sever their ties with CARE or face expulsion? Or are some fatuous and idiotic comments on Israel more offensive than institutional homophobia?


Michael said...

Surely if you are consistent with your own logic, the Lib Dems should withdraw from the coalition, rather than support a government dedicated to the ruin of the NHS?

Andrew said...

I've argued consistently on this, if you care to look at my posts from May 2010 onwards. I was not supportive of a coalition with the Tories. But now we're in it we have to make it work. It's our government too and we have to take some responsibility for it.

That said, the NHS Bill is a complete and unmitigated disaster and it should now be scrapped I see no positive way of salvaging it, and the government (including our Lib Dems who had to be bullied by conference into making a stand) comes out of it with very little credibility.

I don't see why a badly conceived Bill should necessarily require our withdrawl from the coalition. We simply need to defeat the Bill!

Andrew said...

And we're not supporting a government. We're part of it. That is an important distinction to make.

Andrew said...

I noticed that Helen Duffett, in summarising this piece for Lib Dem Voice's Top of the Blogs, suggests that:

"Andrew argues that Lib Dem parliamentarians should not support any group which is 'wrong and offensive' and does not 'reflect the views' of our party."

That's not entirely true. I believe that parliamentarians should not take money or other gifts - or closely indentify themselves with - such organisations. That's not the same as offering support to those goups on a particular issue, or working with them when appropriate.

Ed said...

I disagree with Jenny but nothing she has said is racist. Crying wolf about antisemitism over what is legitimate political criticism of a foreign government is both cowardly and counter productive.

Andrew said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for your comment.

In regards labelling Jenny Tonge "racist", I think the strongest thing I said was this: "Foolish? Yes. Insensitive? Yes. Racist? Probably." That's a long way from the damning indictment you're suggesting. Actually, I share a lot of the concerns Jenny has about the Israeli government but even someone of my limited political experience understands how important it is to couch such criticisms in the correct terms. I can understand fully why many people might consider such comments racists, and surely so should Jenny. The very best thing that can be said is that she was careless and insensitive in her use of words, and that she should have been able to foresee the ramifications.

As you rightly say there is the world of difference between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of a foreign government. Unfortunately in the case of Jenny Tonge, it was very difficult to determine into which category her remarks fell. And that is the problem Nick Clegg had to wrestle with. I think on the basis that Tonge has "form" on this subject, he was right to ask her to withdraw her remarks. I can only imagine why she didn't take the opportunity to rephrase her criticisms to cause less offence or to ensure her motives were better understood.

But as you've probably gathered, my real reason for drawing attention to this story was to ask a pertinent question about those MPs sponsored by CARE (which in my mind is guilty of crimes far worse than the unwise words uttered by Baroness Tonge) but seems exempt from criticism and sanctions. It seems ridiculous to me that Tonge has effectively been expelled from the party while MPs closely identified with a right-wing "Christian" group that peddles homophobia and promotes a "cure" for gay people escape any form of punishment. Please read the post again in that context before suggesting I'm being cowardly and counter-productive.

Ed said...

Fair enough, cowardly was uncalled for and I retract it. I agree 100% about CARE but still have to differ with you on Tonge's treatment, I'm also not sure there is a substantial difference between calling someone 'racist' and 'racist? probably'.
Best wishes,

Michael Parsons said...

Nothing is more destructive than censorship of ideas so that your views do not meet the test of battle in open discussion. And it shows the weakness of your argument behind all the bluster that it survives only as fugitive sheltered by denial and abuse. Socrates died for the right to think and challenge openly which makes us truly human.
Though I may disagree with a man's views,brother, I would die for his (her) right to express them.

George said...

I did not know that an increasingly unviable two-state solution was mandatory for Libdems, nor that a baroness without specific ministerial responsibilities could be prevented from expressing a contrary opinion, nor that the Israeli lobby was so powerful within our party. A sad day if this is true.

I am delighted she cannot be "whipped" any more, but hope she does not resign from the party.