How long does it take for the Liberal Democrats to learn a lesson?
In 2004, Jenny Tonge said she would consider becoming a suicide bomber if she were a Palestinian. When challenged on it, she said she “could understand” why people choose to become civilian-targeting terrorists. Her party’s response was weak: Charles Kennedy simply asked that she step down as spokeswoman for children.
Her party appointed her to the House of Lords a year later.
In 2006, she wheeled out an anti-semitic trope about financial power, claiming “the pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party.” Menzies Campbell was weaker than Kennedy – he sent a letter he referred to as “a severe reprimand”, and then failed to act any further when she doubled down by repeating the allegation.
Again, her party didn’t seem to view this as a stain on her record. In 2009, Nick Clegg appointed her as their Lords spokeswoman on health.
She evidently hadn’t changed her views. In early 2010, she demanded that Israel launch an independent inquiry into false and unfounded allegations that an IDF aid mission to Haiti was harvesting organs from Haitians, a reiteration of the blood libel. Clegg went no further than Kennedy had six years earlier; he removed her from her front bench job but allowed her to continue sitting as a Liberal Democrat peer.
Entirely predictably, by 2012 she returned to her favourite theme. Calling Israel “America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East”, she said “Israel is not going to be there forever” and predicted that “Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.” Given that she had previously met with the leader of Hamas, an anti-semitic terrorist movement with genocidal ambitions towards Israel’s Jews, it seems hard to believe that she can have thought that what “they” would reap would be very peaceful or pleasant.
This time, eight years after the first offence, Clegg got a little tougher. He told her to apologise or resign the whip, and she chose the latter.
Since then, the Lib Dems have largely been spared the repeated embarrassment of Tonge’s increasingly bonkers pronouncements because they are able to say that she is no longer a Lib Dem peer. But there’s a troubling detail – while she is technically an independent member of the House of Lords, it seems that she is still a member of the Liberal Democrat party. Like many others who tout anti-semitism, she has apparently been tempted by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but hasn’t yet defected.
Last night, she chaired an appalling meeting in the House of Lords. The occasion was (of course) the launch of her campaign for Britain to apologise for ever having supported a homeland for the Jewish people in the first place. But things got worse as the event was opened to the floor. As The Times reports:
‘An audience member was applauded after suggesting that Hitler only decided to kill all the Jews after he was provoked by anti-German protests led by a rabbi in Manhattan. The speaker, described on a blog as an ultra-orthodox Jew, said that in the 1930s Rabbi Stephen Wise, whom he described as a heretic, “made the boycott on Germany, the economic boycott . . . which antagonised Hitler, over the edge, to then want to systematically kill Jews wherever he could find them”…
The speaker compared Israel to Islamic State, and said the best way to atone for the declaration was to prevent such things happening in future. “Just as the so-called Jewish state in Palestine doesn’t come from Judaism, this Islamic State in Syria is nothing to do with Islam. It is a perversion of Islam just as Zionism is a perversion of Judaism.”
…Another audience member suggested that the “Zionist movement” had power over the British parliament comparable to the power which was once believed to have been wielded internationally by Jews.’
I’ve chaired plenty of political meetings over the years, and I know that you can never completely rule out the possibility of there being a nutter in the audience. That’s rather different from what went on at Tonge’s event, though. For a start, this wasn’t a lone nutter – it was several, and the audience apparently saw fit not to challenge them at all.
Nor did the chair, Tonge, seem to object to what was being said. If someone stands up in a meeting I’m chairing and when starts to spout racist rubbish, I will shut them down, tell them they’re unwelcome and move on to someone sane. In this instance, the very opposite happened – video from the event shows her thanking the speaker who recounted the slur that American Jews provoked the Holocaust and then using it as an opportunity to plug the idea of boycotting Israel.
To reiterate, despite her history of poisonous slurs, Tonge is still a member of the Liberal Democrats. And apparently they welcome her with open arms, having tweeted a picture yesterday of her campaigning alongside their candidate in the Richmond Park by-election.
Isn’t it time – indeed, wasn’t it time some years ago – for the Liberal Democrats to expel this person from their party properly, and have nothing more to do with her? Tim Farron’s three predecessors failed to settle the matter – he should kick her out once and for all.
Only 12 years overdue, the Liberal Democrats have suspended Baroness Tonge.