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Unpacking the British government's anti-boycott bill

What you need to know about the British government's anti-boycott bill
6 min read
05 July, 2023
In-depth: What does the proposed new legislation say and what could it mean for Palestine solidarity activism in Britain?

As Israel's far-right government escalates its attacks on Palestinians – with the largest military incursion into the occupied West Bank in two decades and airstrikes on Jenin - the British government looks set not to censure, but to reward these crimes.

A bill seeking to outlaw the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement had its second reading in the House of Commons this week, passing with 268 votes for and 70 against.

The government has been promising for years - under pressure from Israeli ministers and supporters of Israel within the Conservative party - that it would ban BDS.

This bill comes after the failure of other measures to restrict procurement and divestment, including attempts to prosecute local councils supporting BDS, and a legal challenge to the right to boycott

But what does the proposed new legislation actually say and what could it mean for Palestine solidarity activism in Britain?

What does the text of the anti-boycott bill say?

The ‘anti-boycott bill’ is officially titled the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill. It applies to public bodies such as local authorities, universities and some pension funds in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The bill states that public bodies must show no “regard to a territorial consideration” in a way that indicates “political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct” when making financial decisions. 

In effect, this would prevent a range of public institutions from taking ethical issues into account when spending or investing their money, proscribing boycotts against states violating international law or human rights.

The only exception would be when such action is officially sanctioned by central government, concentrating power to take foreign policy stances in the hands of a few ministers. 

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Remarkably, however, the bill explicitly names “Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Golan Heights” as territories which can never be exempted from this protection against BDS activism. Israeli apartheid has thus been singled out for impunity.

Even more outrageous, Clause 4(1) contains what amounts to a ‘gagging clause’ which forbids actors subject to the law from even stating that they would support BDS activism on moral grounds, were it legally permissible.

This provision would mean local councillors or university representatives could, in theory, face fines or imprisonment if they even so much as expressed a pro-boycott view. If this legislation passes, doing so would be considered inciting an unlawful act. 

A broad ‘Right to Boycott’ coalition is vigorously opposing this bill. [Getty]

What will happen if this anti-boycott law is passed?

The practical implications of this bill are wide-ranging. For the first time, a British law would require Israeli settlements to be treated in the same way as Israel, despite their illegality.

This flies in the face of decades of supposed international consensus on this issue, including the government’s own advice to businesses. As such, it promotes impunity for settlements, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

Moreover, while Communities Secretary Michael Gove, the proposer of the bill, has openly acknowledged that the main intention of the bill is to protect Israel from the BDS movement, its consequences will go beyond that.

Unless central government declares certain states exempt, the bill would theoretically shield other human rights-abusing states too. For example, as highlighted by the Labour Party, it could prevent boycotts of China over its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims minority, or action against Putin’s Russia on the back of its brutal invasion and occupation of Ukraine.

What this makes crystal clear, too, is that the British government’s issue is not boycott as a tactic per se but boycotts which have Britain’s ally, Israel, as their target.

Furthermore, the bill could also stifle activism to hold corporations accountable for complicity in environmental or human rights abuses. A state-owned oil company faced with boycotts or divestment by activists seeking to address the climate crisis could, for example, argue that it was being targeted on the basis of “moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

As such, the bill tramples all over civil liberties, from the right to boycott - a longstanding, non-violent form of political protest - to freedom of expression, by outlawing even verbal support for BDS tactics. It belies the government’s professed commitment to free speech and to devolving and decentralising power.

As well as following the pattern of other deeply repressive and anti-democratic laws passed by the British government, including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act, this bill could also pave the way for further authoritarianism.

In the US, anti-BDS laws - which have been passed by over 30 individual states - are now being increasingly used as a template for wider right-wing legislative agendas, including measures to block gun control, abortion access, and anti-fossil fuel activism.

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Who is opposing the anti-boycott bill?

The anti-boycott bill is a brazen attempt to suppress civil society activism in solidarity with Palestinians and wider social justice causes. By seeking to prevent public bodies from making ethical decisions around spending, investments and trade, it poses a grave threat to local democracy, freedom of expression and human rights. 

But we should remember that this legal coercion has been necessitated by the strength of the BDS movement. Boycott motions passed by local councils such as Leicester, Swansea, and Lancaster in solidarity with Palestinians have shown that BDS is winning the argument and gaining ground not only in civil society but at the peripheries of state power as well. This is what has so alarmed the British and Israeli governments, requiring this repressive intervention. 

And a broad ‘Right to Boycott’ coalition is vigorously opposing this bill. These include Palestine solidarity bodies but also human rights groups like Amnesty International and environmental actors like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Jewish groups in the coalition, such as Na’amod, have spoken out loudly against the way the Conservative narrative around the bill positions Jewish safety and Palestinian human rights as being at odds.

Within, and beyond, this coalition are groups who do not practise or support BDS but recognise the threat to democracy and free expression posed by this bill. Notably, the Union of Jewish Students voted to oppose the bill, acknowledging that it would entail a “curtailment” of “the democratic right to non-violently protest”. 

However, when it comes to the chances of defeating the bill in parliament, Keir Starmer – known for parroting Israeli tropes on the BDS movement - offers precious little hope.

His centrist Labour party leadership submitted a so-called ‘reasoned amendment’ to the bill, which was defeated, but has made known its strong opposition to the BDS movement and was whipping its MPs to abstain rather than vote against, which only some did on the second reading.

Even if it passes into law, however, this bill cannot win the hearts and minds of the public and solidarity activism with Palestinians will continue as long as Israeli apartheid remains.

Hil Aked (they/them) is a writer, investigative researcher, and activist with a background in political sociology whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Independent, Sky News and Al Jazeera, as well as volumes from Pluto Press and Zed Books/Bloomsbury. Their first book 'Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity' was published by Verso in 2023.

Follow them on Twitter: @hil_aked