This afternoon Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, co-leaders of the Scottish Greens, will become ministers in Nicola Sturgeon’s government. The appointments come after Green members ratified a cooperation agreement over the weekend. The unity pact is a strategic masterstroke by Sturgeon, handing her an overall majority at Holyrood, insulating her from internal SNP criticism and coopting a rival nationalist party. There is one midge in the porridge, however, and it’s this: the Scottish Greens are unhinged. Not merely eccentric or a little outside the mainstream, but full-blown, solar-powered, honest-to-Gaia cranks.
For an illustration, consider a motion debated at their autumn 2015 conference in Glasgow. I was a political reporter back then and covered the event, and the talk of the weekend was Policy Motion 2. Dry-sounding but incendiary, Policy Motion 2 resolved that Israel was an apartheid state, Zionism a racist ideology and Hamas not a terrorist organisation. The text claimed that ‘historically the Palestinian peoples have enjoyed peaceful religious and ethnic cohabitation’ but had come under ‘colonial occupation’, listing ‘Zionist/Israeli powers’ among the colonisers. This occupation it blamed on ‘the nationalist ideology of Zionism’, which it said ‘advocated that Jews should establish a new nation specifically for Jewish people rather than be citizens of the countries where they lived’.
It described the (re-)establishment of Israel as ‘the Nakba’, the Arabic term for ‘catastrophe’, and asserted that Israel today was engaged in ‘colonisation and ethnic cleansing’. It charged that ‘modern day Zionism, which advocates that Jewish people have a superior right to the land of Palestine, is a racist ideology’.
A few paragraphs later, it forgot the ‘modern day’ qualifier and ‘condemn[ed] Zionism as a racist ideology based on Jewish supremacy in Palestine’. The text ‘condemns Israel's claim to be 'the Jewish State'’ and accused it of giving ‘preferential rights to Jews over Palestinians’, characterising it instead as an ‘apartheid’ state ‘in which non-Jews have inferior rights’. As such, ‘Israel’s claim to be a Jewish and democratic state’ was ‘unacceptable’ to the Scottish Greens.
The motion called for the repeal of Israel’s law of return for Jews at the same time as backing an unfettered right of return for all Palestinian Arabs and their descendants. While supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, the resolution referred to ‘the lands of historic Palestine and its peoples’ and ‘the lands currently designated as Israel and the occupied territories’. The motion didn’t explicitly advocate the destruction of the State of Israel but language like this, and terms such as ‘Post Apartheid Palestine’, don’t require much parsing to catch their drift.
According to the resolution, the security barrier built by Israel to stop Palestinian suicide bombers ‘constitutes the most visible implementation of the segregation of Palestinians into controlled areas, which constitutes a policy of Apartheid’. The barrier had to be destroyed and ‘compensation…paid to those affected by its construction’. The policy endorsed commercial, cultural and academic boycotts of Israel, divestment of local authorities and civil society organisations and other sanctions against the Jewish state. It condemned the Jewish National Fund, a charity that plants trees in Israel, and called for its UK charitable status to be revoked. While urging that Israeli politicians and military leaders ‘be pursued… to stand trial in the International Criminal Court’, the motion demanded ‘the removal of Hamas from the designation as a terrorist organisation’ and ‘the unconditional release’ of what it called ‘Palestinian political prisoners’ from Israeli jails.
The Hamas point was extreme enough to earn the Greens some headlines in the Scottish media, which is generally ill-disposed to Israel. Some supporters of the motion pointed to a 2014 European General Court ruling that annulled the Council of Ministers’ listing of Hamas as a terror group. Yet the ECJ stressed in its judgment that ‘the annulment of those measures, on basic procedural grounds, does not entail any substantive assessment of the question of the applicant’s description as a terrorist group’. The EU swiftly launched an appeal and the judgment was set aside in 2018 by the Court of Justice and Hamas’s appeals dismissed. The Scottish Greens are not such committed Europeans that they rush to incorporate every technical ruling of the ECJ into party policy. The 2014 judgment was a fig leaf for those who looked at Hamas, an outfit that routinely murders Israelis, and couldn’t or wouldn’t see a terrorist organisation.
The debate and vote on Policy Motion 2 was held on a Saturday, which meant no observant Jews could take part. It passed handily and became Scottish Green policy. The party that adopted it will now become part of the Scottish Government. The SNP-Green cooperation agreement excludes international relations, allowing the two parties to speak freely on the subject, but this is the worst of both worlds. The Scottish Government will continue to be hostile towards Israel but will now contain ministers from a party which is anti-Israel and unbound by collective responsibility or party discipline on these matters. Anti-Israel rhetoric can only become more prominent and mainstream in Scotland as a result.
Those who remember the Scotland Act specifying that ‘international relations…are reserved matters’ might wonder how we ended up here. The SNP has been openly pursuing an independent foreign policy for some time. This has included overseas junkets by Nicola Sturgeon played up as state visits; ministerial statements interfering in Spain’s internal affairs; incorporating international treaties into Scots law; meetings with officials of foreign governments to ‘set out Scotland’s perspective on the result of the UK referendum on the EU’; and even a speech to the French parliament in which Sturgeon pledged:
‘Scotland and the Scottish Government is committed to the European Union’
The Scottish Government, therefore, is very much in the business of foreign policy-making and its interests extend beyond Europe and international treaties. Indeed, it pays special attention to the Middle East, or rather one particular country in the Middle East.
During Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge, a military offensive against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, the Scottish Government called for an arms embargo on Israel, a position supported by the Scottish Greens. In a statement to the Scottish parliament, one minister characterised Gaza as ‘the largest open-air prison in the world’. While the Scottish Government does not advocate boycott, divestment or sanctions against Israel, it has issued a procurement policy note in which it ‘strongly discourages trade and investment’ from what it terms ‘illegal settlements’ and warns Scottish companies that ‘exploitation of assets in illegal settlements’ is ‘likely’ to constitute ‘grave professional misconduct’ under procurement law. The policy refers to Israeli settlements; no other states or territories are specified.
In May, there were violent clashes when Israeli police responded to rioting on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, leading to 200 Palestinians and 17 Israel police officers being injured. The Palestinians had reportedly ‘stockpiled stone slabs, rocks and fireworks’ in the compound, which is home to the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque, but Sturgeon echoed anti-Israel propaganda in framing a bungled police operation as a religious assault on Muslims by the Jewish state. She tweeted:
‘Attacking a place of worship at any time is reprehensible, but attacking a mosque during Ramadan is utterly indefensible. It is also a violation of international law. Israel should heed the calls to halt the violence immediately #SheikhJarrah.’
Sturgeon’s grasp of the intricacies of the conflict may be tenuous but she is the head of a government determined to interfere in these matters. Whatever their cooperation pact says, the fact remains that the Scottish Government will now be run by one party that doesn’t like Israel and another that positively despises it.
Now, the Jewish people didn’t return to the Land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile to fret over the pronouncements of an outfit with all the international standing of a community bowls league, but Israeli diplomats, being diplomats, will be alert to every slight, knowing the potential for such things to go viral and be picked up back at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. The opportunities for diplomatic discord are not difficult to see.
Successive UK governments have looked the other way while Holyrood challenged Westminster’s monopoly in foreign policy-making. Boris Johnson’s government is seemingly gripped by the nationalist logic that its mandate doesn’t fully extend north of Gretna and that it must do nothing that could upset the Scottish political establishment. Government by consent of the SNP is a curious state of affairs for a Tory party that plasters Middle England with billboards of Labour leaders in Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket, but not half as curious as the look the Israeli ambassador will give the Foreign Secretary when he explains that he can’t do anything about Holyrood effectively backing BDS, declaring Israel an apartheid regime or recognising a Palestinian state because it would conflict with Michael Gove’s love-bombing strategy.
Johnson, like his predecessors, has been content to allow the SNP to pursue evolutionary independence on a range of matters, not least foreign affairs, because resisting would require time, effort, political capital and gumption. Until now, it has been difficult to get Tory politicians interested because the only damage being done was to the Union. The scope for diplomatic embarrassment or lost investment or ministers taken aside at international summits might make more of an impression.
Heading off tensions in the UK-Israel relationship is reason enough for the government to reassert the reservation of foreign policy, but a prime minister with some mettle would appreciate the larger principle at stake. Johnson either doesn’t or is too scared of his own shadow to do anything about it. They have a word for people like him in Israel: Halash. Weak.