About 20 years ago I was travelling back to Manchester from London on a crowded train.
As the train was about to leave the station, a man sat down opposite me carrying a dark briefcase and proceeded to take out his mobile phone.
That man I instantly recognised as Alastair Burt who was the MP for the constituency neighbouring mine.
These were the heady days of the John Major government in the interregnum between Thatcher and Blair.
When Mr Burt began speaking to ‘John’ on his mobile phone I wondered whether this was the PM at the other end with instructions for his Under Secretary of State at the Department of Social Security.
Being a Labour party voter at the time, I’d remained decidedly unimpressed by Mr Burt. He lost his seat in 1997 and returned to a safe Tory seat in 2001, but he all but disappeared during the Blair and Brown years, so I gave him little thought.
But politicians have stamina. With the return of Tories to power, albeit as part of a coalition, Mr Burt was back in business and soon found himself as Under Secretary of State At the Foreign and Commonwealth office with a Middle East portfolio.
So, when I heard that Mr Burt was in Israel and had made a speech at Bar Ilan University, I was intrigued to hear what he had to say and prepared to not be impressed.
A link to this speech (edited and audio only) can be found here.
After what appeared to be a nervous start Mr Burt both surprised me and didn’t.
He surprised me after a slow beginning because he was quite convincing on his and his government’s commitment to, and support for Israel. He surprised me due to the often charming and sincere way he delivered the medicine.
He’s no great orator but he is a competent speaker.
It was the medicine which did not surprise me; the toeing of the party line about how illegal settlements detract from Israel’s image abroad and how the occupation weighs heavily on the Palestinians; how the stringent restrictions against Gaza are counter-productive to Israel’s interests; how building in ‘occupied East Jerusalem’ is illegal.
He told his student audience how those that were always against Israel will remain so, but many who used to support Israel now remain silent. Mr Burt is a ‘former’ member of Conservative Friends of Israel. Hmm.
Although there was nothing exceptional or new in this, and Mr Burt went on to praise Israeli high-tech, medicine and Nobel laureates, a couple of things struck me whilst I listened.
Firstly, as ever, it always has to be Israel that has to make ‘painful compromises’ and see the ‘Arab Spring’ as a reason for greater urgency in negotiations and not an excuse to avoid them.
Her Majesty’s government never acknowledges that the PA is still dedicated to Israel’s destruction, refuses to recognise its right to exist and daily demonises Israel and Jews in its policies, institutions, schools and media.
Neither does Mr Burt and his party appear to wonder for one moment whether a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza would pose a threat to Israel given that there is no guarantee that it would not become a proxy for Iran with a Hamas government.
With Egypt apparently willing to tear up its treaties with Israel, with the Road Map ditched by the Palestinians and Jordanians also making noises about the existing peace agreement with Israel, any deal with the Palestinians can be dishonoured in a heartbeat. But Mr Burt does not live in Tel Aviv, a short missile distance from prospective Hamas launch sites.
HMG appears to be labouring under the same delusion as the Left and appeasers in Israel itself, namely that Israel must do everything in its power to create a political reality that presents a clear and present existential threat, whilst the Palestinians need do nothing except make demands which make that thereat more lethal.
So I wondered why, if HMG so loves Israel and claims to be its strong ally and friend, it wants it to speed along its own self-destruction.
This is what is known as politics, diplomacy or realpolitik. We can’t really blame politicians for issuing platitudes posing as policy; is that not what politicians always do? Problem is, they believe their own rhetoric and spend much time and diplomatic effort pursuing illusion and refusing to see the truth. The truth cannot be confronted because it means that they would have to confess the futility of peace talks where one of the parties has never wanted a peace which will destroy its own raison d’être – namely the destruction of Israel.
It also struck me and at least one member of the audience, why it is that Britain has arrogated to itself the right to travel the world criticising the policies of other countries. I don’t see Indians or Brazilians or the Japanese coming to the UK and putting its policies under a microscope. Israelis neither. Maybe they should every time an Afghan is abused or a missile goes astray in Helmand and wipes out a village. Maybe some junior minister from the Knesset with a north west Europe portfolio should go to the LSE and berate the Met for poor policing of the riots or using disproportionate force in kettling demonstrators or for taking money from journalists. At least he won’t be arrested as a war criminal now the moment he steps off the El Al plane at Heathrow.
And this so often comes pretty close to patronising. It goes something like this: we are your friend and trading partner (nudge, nudge) and we believe that that relationship would be even stronger, and your country will be a better place, if you were as good as us at human rights, civil liberties and, oh yes, democracy. Yeah, we know you are surrounded by millions of people who want to destroy you, but peace is never that easy. Once you have dismantled the settlements and withdrawn behind the 1967 lines the Palestinians will be so happy about their freedom that peace will reign and all will be well with the world. What’s that you say? You did that in Gaza and look what happened. Ah.
So it is a bit rich when Mr Cameron swans off to Saudi Arabia, a country with an appalling civil and human rights record, where thieves have their hands amputated and people have their head hacked off for offences which would be minor in most Western countries, where women’s rights are non-existent, freedom of religion is curtailed and democracy absent.
Yes, that Saudi Arabia, birth place of Osama bin Laden, center of Salafism and cradle of Wahhabism, the source of funding for UK schools which teach antisemitic tropes and encourage hatred of Jews.
Yes, the same Saudi Arabia which has lots of oil and spends shed loads of money on British arms and tries to hush up any investigation into illegal sweeteners for defence contracts.
Yes, Saudi Arabia whose king gets a full-blown state visit with all the trimmings.
The same Saudi Arabia where no Under Secretary of State visits to tell them that cutting off people’s heads and oppressing women, funding Islamist schools and sending troops into Bahrain to suppress the same Arab Spring which shot Mr Cameron to Tahrir Square to proclaim victory for democracy, is wrong and gives them a bad image.
But that’s what politics is about, isn’t it? It’s about hypocrisy, fudges, and defence contracts. It’s about not upsetting your constituents so you get re-elected. It’s about looking after your country’s self-interests and telling your friends ‘do as I preach’.
Politics is a dirty business, especially when you have to do that business with regimes you don’t like, as William Hague has said when challenged.
Look, “nobody’s poyfect!”.
So don’t ask me to put too much faith in an Under Secretary’s ability to be of any relevance whatsoever. Mr Burt is a nice man but he isn’t going to change anything. Don’t expect him to appear at a Damascus university criticising the Assad regime any time soon.
Oh yes, friends may criticise, but is it not also incumbent upon these friends to criticise even more the actions of those who would destroy your friend and are not that shy to publicise that fact? Instead, we get Obama-esque audacious hope with a good helping of cant thrown in for good measure.