Nick Clegg: I won't silence Jenny Tonge

No, I won’t silence Jenny Tonge to gain Jewish votes

By Martin Bright, September 18, 2009
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg insists his family background makes him sensitive to allegations of racism

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg insists his family background makes him sensitive to allegations of racism

Nick Clegg is angry. No, it’s beyond angry. Incandescent almost gets it, but that still doesn’t capture the full fury of the man as he leans forward from his chair in the Liberal Democrat leader’s office in the House of Commons.

The accusation that Mr Clegg had failed to honour his commitment to act against the pro-Palestinian Lib Dem peer Jenny Tonge if she made antisemitic remarks on his watch has hit something very close to his political soul. “The very suggestion that I might explicitly or tacitly give cover for racism, I find politically abhorrent and personally deeply offensive,” he says.

The charge that he had rowed back on the undertaking to deal with Baroness Tonge, made last month by Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (and repeated in the JC), followed meetings in Syria in March between Baroness Tonge and the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Murray also alleged that in July 2008 she told IslamExpo: “How can we stop antisemitism if they [Israel] keep treating the Palestinians like this?”

The Lib Dem leader says that his own mixed parentage makes him deeply sensitive to issues of racial oppression. He talks with great emotion, at times so quickly that he slips out of his usually careful pattern of speech: “It’s perhaps worth repeating my own background: half-Dutch, quarter-Russian, quarter -British. My mother spent several years in a prisoner of war camp during the war. My family has been disfigured by revolution and war on both sides of my family. I’m married to a Spaniard.”

At this point he breaks off with a sigh of exasperation: “There is simply not a shred of racism in me, as a person whose whole family is formed by flight from persecution, from different people in different generations. It’s what I am. It’s one of the reason I am a liberal.”

There is no racism in me: that’s why I am a liberal

Mr Clegg is clear that he will not silence his most controversial parliamentary colleague for recent comments about Hamas. (She called Hamas leader Khaled Mashal “shrewd, plausible and actually very likeable” during her Syrian visit.)

“Can the comments of Jenny Tonge in the recent past be described as racist? No. You can call them wrong, you can call them daft, you can call them misguided. But that’s not the point. Can you call them racist? They are not.”

But he goes further: “I have to say, and I know this will be enormously unpopular for many readers of the Jewish Chronicle, but the sad thing is that Jenny Tonge says many other things that are worth listening to and are completely obscured by what has become polemicised. It does a disservice to her.”

When I ask whether he thinks the presence of Baroness Tonge as a prominent Lib Dem will lose him significant numbers of Jewish voters at the next election, he side-steps, and instead emphasises that she does not speak on the Middle East for the Lib Dems and that she will never do so.

There is little doubt that Mr Clegg feels he has a job of work to do to convince the Jewish community. Interestingly, he came to his interview with the JC straight from a meeting with the Board of Deputies.

He is keen to clarify his position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “The starting point has got to be the full recognition of Israel, security for Israeli citizens and a viable Palestinian state. Do I think that the objective of peace and two communities living side by side, in their own secure nationhood, can be pursued by the terrorism of Hamas or the deployment of disproportionate force by the Israeli military? No, I don’t.”

The Lib Dem leader describes himself as a supporter of the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and claims not to be squeamish about the use of force by a country to protect its citizens. But he remains convinced that the nature of Israel’s response did not serve its best interests. “It seems to me to run the risk of strengthening the hands of extremists within the Palestinian community,” he says.

On the issue of community relations in the UK, Mr Clegg’s position could be described as classically liberal. He recognises that the political class had been “complacent” in its attitude to established Muslim organisations and its failure to pick up on the growth of home-grown radicalism. But he is not an advocate of excluding any particular organisations depending on their position on the Islamist spectrum. As long as organisations respect the rule of law, principles of equality and respect for human rights, they should be part of the conversation.

“Once you have accepted those parameters,” he says, “it is really important in a liberal society to accept and tolerate a very wide cacophony of views, however abhorrent.”

Mr Clegg’s experience of talking to his own constituents in Sheffield has convinced him that there is a potentially serious problem in the Muslim community, where the older generation is losing control of its young men.

“If you drive those young men underground you are playing with real danger,” he says. “You have to keep them in the field of play arguing. If you don’t, you risk them falling into a parallel universe.”

At the same time he is wise to the failings of the more extreme forms of multiculturalism, which argue that ethnic communities should be allowed to exist in isolation from mainstream society: “My liberal conception of liberalism and tolerance is not to allow generations of woman to stay at home and speak no English and have no contact with the outside world.”

He believes the answer to extremism lies in communities themselves rather than within Whitehall task forces or crackdowns which wipe away freedoms built up over centuries: “Community politics is the antidote to extremism, surely that’s far better than trashing traditional British civil liberties.”

Nick Clegg is not the first leader of his party in recent times who has believed the Liberals’ moment has come. But he is the first to articulate it with any intellectual rigour.

Some of his thinking is rehearsed in a pamphlet for the left-leaning thinktank Demos, published this week, in which he argues that the Labour Party’s state-dominated model has failed to deliver on everything from social justice and extremism to the environment and the economy.

“The Labour Party is on the wrong side of the contemporary challenges of Britain — the basic Labour reflex is that everything can be fixed from Whitehall. And that no longer works. The whole next stage of progressive politics is about letting go rather than holding on,” he says.

By the end of our interview, Mr Clegg’s fury has abated. In its place is something his party is often accused of lacking. It is something close to real political passion.

Last updated: 6:15pm, February 29 2012