Crispin Blunt is a man used to ploughing a lonely furrow. Whether in defending the mandate of Heaven that gay men should have access to poppers, or in standing up for Imran Amad Khan after his conviction for child sex offences, the Reigate MP has often championed causes that few other Conservative MPs have shown an interest in.
His recent accusation that the Government is “aiding and abetting war crimes” by supporting Israel during its war on Hamas is the latest example. This is hardly a surprising line from the co-director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians. But it is one in a Conservative Party that is remarkably united in supporting the Israeli cause.
In fact, the pro-Israel tendency amongst Tory MPs is stronger – and the Arabist tendency weaker – than ever before. Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) has previously claimed around 80 per cent of Conservative MPs as its supporters. It provides more overseas
jollies fact-finding missions for them than any other organisation. By contrast, the two most prominent members of the Conservative Middle East Council are outside of Parliament.
Why is this? It can’t be for votes. On the (not unreasonable) assumption that Jewish voters are more sympathetic to Israel and Muslim ones to Palestine, basic numeracy would see MPs throw in their lots with Britain’s almost four million Muslims over its 300,000 or so Jews. Twenty-six seats had a Muslim population of more than 20 per cent based on the 2011 census. Only one – Finchley and Golders Green – can say the same for Jews.
If demography isn’t destiny, then the best explanation for Tory MP’s tilting towards Tel Aviv must lie in a mixture of principle, politicking, and the notable tendency for Arabist MPs to have found themselves on the wrong side of history over Brexit.
Historically, according to Leon Epstein, “the Conservative Party generally stood aloof…from Zionism”. Inter-war attitudes ranged from apathy to the Balfour Declaration, to linking Zionism with Bolshevism, to open anti-Semitism. After Israel’s creation, Arabist tendencies remained strong amongst former and future ministers, with Anthony Nutting, Ian Gilmour, and Dennis Walters all helping establish the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding in 1967.
As is habitual with modern Toryism, it was Margaret Thatcher who most changed the party’s attitude to Israel. Whereas Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home had refused to arm Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur War, the Finchley MP became the first British Prime Minister to visit Israel. She viewed it as Britain’s best Cold War ally in the Middle East. Between sheltering an Austrian Jewish girl as a teenager and serving as Finchley’s MP, Thatcher also retained a lifelong affinity for Jews and Israel.
Nonetheless, she was still shrewd enough to encourage the creation of the Conservative Middle East Council in 1980, urge negotiations with the PLO, and share a Cabinet with pro-Arab voices such as Peter Carrington and Ian Gilmour in her first term. In urging support for a two-state solution whilst encouraging increasing economic and diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, Thatcher set the tone, according to James Vaughan, “for the improved Anglo-Israeli relations of the 1990s and 2000s”.
Improving Conservative relations with Israel took place in the context of changes in the politics of the American and Israeli right. Ed West has highlighted how, from an initial sympathy with the Palestinian cause, Israel’s victories in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars – alongside Soviet support for its opponents – turned Republicans towards Tel Aviv. Israel also built its connections with American Evangelicals from the 1970s onwards. A higher birth rate amongst Orthodox Jews also made its politics more conservative.
Meanwhile, since the 1970s, anti-Zionism has also become an increasingly powerful tendency with the Labour left (as Monday’s debate made abundantly clear). On the basis that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friends, pro-Israel voices therefore became increasingly comfortable on the right. By the time Michael Howard was Tory leader, he could easily call Israel “a friend in good times and bad” at the CFI’s annual dinner.
Since the party has returned to power, the pro-Israel Tory tendency has undoubtedly been dominant. In a 2014 visit to the Knesset, David Cameron described himself as “a British minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable” – a theme his successors have continued.
Theresa May celebrated Britain’s “pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” during the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Boris Johnson described himself as Israel’s “life-long friend, admirer, and supporter of Israel”, whereas Liz Truss called herself “a huge Zionist”. For Rishi Sunak to say Britain stands with Israel “not just today, not just tomorrow, but always” is the latest iteration of this wholehearted support.
Nonetheless, despite the CFI’s best attempts, an Arabist minority on the Conservative backbenchers did persist. Cameron’s support for Israel during its 2014 intervention in Gaza prompted both the resignation of Sayeeda Warsi and the vocal criticism of several backbenchers. A few months later, 41 MPs voted to recognise a Palestinian state.
Yet a quick look at those MPs who did so points towards why similar levels of criticism have – so far – been lacking during the present crisis. A noticeable number are no longer in the Commons. Some – like Charlotte Leslie and James Wharton – subsequently lost their seats in the traditional manner. But several high-profile rebels – like Alan Duncan, Nicholas Soames and Sarah Wollaston – found themselves on the wrong side of the party over Brexit.
As Daniel Hannan highlighted all the way back in 2006, it is “striking how often Tory supporters of Israel turn out also to be Euro-sceptics, and Tory Arabists to be Europhiles.” It’s not a perfect alignment. Both Steve Baker and Blunt, amongst those trepid 41, yield to few in their antipathy for Brussels.
But there is undoubtedly a long-standing crossover between the desire to “lead in Europe” and LARP as T. E. Lawrence. It’s a particularly Foreign Office view of the world. That tendency is becoming less common amongst Tory MPs. Not only because a few of the most prominent exponents of it are now out of the Commons, or because few public schoolboys now read Seven Pillars of Wisdom under the covers. It’s because of the changing nature of an MP’s role.
As ConservativeHome has repeatedly highlighted, MPs are increasingly becoming particularly well-enumerated local councillors. If electoral reality means MPs now have to spend their time mostly preoccupied by potholes, it reduces the space for the foreign-policy specialists. It is noticeable both Tom Tugendhat and Alicia Kearns, for example, sit for seats with majorities above 45 per cent.
The Conservatives are therefore now an instinctively pro-Israel party. The upside of this is that we go into the current crisis with less of a chance of tearing ourselves apart than Labour. Yet even those Tory MPs most vocal in support of Tel Aviv can lament the diminution of the Arabist voice on the Conservative benches.
An appreciation of the Arab perspective and a willingness to criticise the excesses of Israeli policy are inevitable aspects of realpolitick. But we should also aspire for our party to be a broad church.
A situation when Labour, representing the vast majority of seats and votes of British Muslims, becomes a party of Palestine and the Tories one of Israel would be just as antithetical to national harmony as one in which we were the party of India and Labour the party of Pakistan. Or us the party of white voters, and they the party of ethnic minorities. This Balkanisation must be avoided.
We can be proud of the strength of Conservative support for Israel. But we should never allow it become it to become unthinking, uncritical, or unchallenged.