‘Having been caught out lying about Jenny Tonge, Nick Clegg took refuge in objecting to a personal accusation of racism that had not been made’
What follows is a true story. It is also a parable. But its main character is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. As mention of them normally ensures deep sleep, I should state immediately that what follows is about all our politicians and not just about the second-rater who leads our third party.
Before the summer, Nick Clegg was invited to give the annual lecture to the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. He treated his audience to a supremely empty speech in which he put his career on the line by coming out strongly against Nazism and fascists. Grateful as we were to hear that the LibDem leader was not a supporter of Hitler, it struck me that we might expect more. Having rather expected him to do this, I came prepared.
After Clegg’s peroration, there was an opportunity for questions, so I got in first. I expressed my belief that fighting anti-Semitism should, like charity, begin at home and therefore what was he, Clegg, going to do about the conspicuous presence on the LibDem benches in the House of Lords of Baroness Tonge?
For those lucky enough not to know of her, Jenny Tonge is most famous for saying in 2004 of suicide murderers who blow up Israelis, “If I had to live in that situation — and I say that advisedly — I might just consider becoming one myself.”
Though this statement and the resulting outcry got her booted off the LibDem front bench it also — as these things do — got her kicked upstairs into the Lords. Thus she became Baroness “Boom” Tonge. And she has taken her new role seriously — becoming, against some competition, perhaps the shrillest anti-Israeli member of our degraded upper house. For instance, in 2006 she entered classic Der Stürmer territory, saying: “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips. I think they have probably got a certain grip on our party.” The idea that anyone has a grip on the LibDems would certainly surprise its membership.
Back at our meeting, I asked Clegg to address the issue of Jihad Jenny. He assured me that if she said anything like that on his watch she would be in serious trouble. He even did those determined hand-gestures he shares with David Cameron to show that this was something to which he was really, passionately committed.
Fortunately, a colleague in the room went next and pointed out to Clegg that much worse had been said by the peeress on exactly his watch. This year, she met Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Mesha’al, in Damascus and praised him as “shrewd, plausible and actually very likeable”. Last year, she shared a platform in London with the British Palestinian activists and fellow suicide-bomber wannabe Azzam Tamimi, describing him as “very brave”, and declaring that he “deserves a tribute from all of us”. The speech to her London audience singled out the “Jewish lobby” in the US as being responsible for all the world’s ills. It was almost as though she was auditioning for a role in Channel 4’s documentary by Peter Oborne “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby”.
Anyhow, Clegg dodged the question by pretending that he had become LibDem leader a year after he actually had. So I wrote to him asking for clarification on this matter. Here is what Tonge had said on the following dates. Here was the date he became leader. Would he kindly take the action he had promised at a public meeting?
After two months of silence from Clegg, a newspaper picked the story up in a quiet bit of August and Clegg’s office dismissed it as “selective quotes from a meeting of which there is no recording or transcript”.
Then a month later, Clegg was interviewed in the Jewish Chronicle by Martin Bright, who described him as “beyond angry. Incandescent almost gets it, but that still doesn’t capture the full fury of the man”. Surely something to behold. But what was it that made Clegg so terrifyingly, tremblingly enraged? My letter? No, it was, pace Clegg, “the very suggestion that I might explicitly or tacitly give cover to racism, I find politically abhorrent and personally deeply offensive.”
In his defence, he explains that he is “half-Dutch, quarter Russian, quarter British” and “married to a Spaniard”. Perhaps this apparently educated man is unable to see that this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not his party harbours a conspiracy theorist and bigot on its benches. Having been asked specific questions and having been caught lying, Clegg simply took refuge in objecting to a personal accusation of racism that had not been made.
Why do I tell this sorry tale of an unsorry man? Partly to illustrate that this kind of behaviour is endemic yet unpunished in our politics and media. And also simply to reassure myself and others that it is natural for us to still feel disappointment at this state of things.