On January 26, Baron Ahmed of Rotherham exercised the privilege of his position as a member of the House of Lords to ask the government “whether any British citizens are serving in the Israeli Defence Force or the Israeli Defence Reserves”.
How the government could possibly know this is a moot point, because British citizens are under no obligation to inform the government where they are going when they leave the UK; in any case, their first port of call might not be their final destination.
I suspect that Lord Ahmed knew very well that this was the case. His ulterior motive for asking the question only became apparent when he put a supplementary.
He put it to the foreign minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, that there was “a lot of evidence… that international law has been broken and war crimes committed in Gaza” and he asked for an assurance “that if British citizens have been involved in breaking the fourth protocol of the Geneva Convention or committing war crimes, they will be prosecuted on their return”.
What Baron Ahmed of Rotherham was really asking was whether we might expect the prosecution, either in the UK or before the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague, of British Jews on charges of war crimes, perhaps even of genocide. As Lord Malloch-Brown pointed out, although in theory this could happen, the likelihood of its happening is not very great, more especially since, although those with dual UK-Israeli citizenship might have been obliged to undertake military service in Gaza, he doubted that those who are solely UK nationals would have done so.
After the inevitable intervention from Baroness Tonge, a reminder from Lord Janner that “we should be proud of our citizens who fought against the terrorist organisation bent on the destruction of a sovereign and democratic state”, and a pithy intervention from Lord Wallace of Saltaire (who pointed out that citizens of other countries currently serve in the British Armed forces), the debate instigated by Baron Ahmed came to an inglorious conclusion. So why had he asked his questions in the first place?
To answer this we need to remind ourselves that Nazir Ahmed, the child immigrant from Pakistan who made good as a grocer, has built his political career (he was made a Labour life peer in 1998) on the image he and his admirers feverishly project of him as a leading spokesman for the Muslim communities of the UK.
As such he has, from time to time, adopted some decidedly illiberal stances. For example, in February 2005 he hosted at the House of Lords a book launch in honour of the notorious Swedish antisemite Jöran Jermas, then operating under the alias Israel Shamir. But this apparent support for artistic freedom did not prevent Lord Ahmed from raising one hell of a stink when, also last month, he managed to scupper a private viewing, at the Lords, of a film critical of Islam made by the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders.
On that occasion Lord Ahmed led a campaign to prevent Mr Wilders entering the Upper House. The event was cancelled — “a victory for the Muslim community”, was how Lord Ahmed put it. It eventually took place last week, minus Mr Wilders, whose controversial deportation from the UK Lord Ahmed warmly welcomed.
This incident alone indicates why Nazir Ahmed is precisely the type of reactionary bigot whose presence in the House of Lords stands as a disgrace to British democracy.
But salvation might be at hand. Following recent revelations that certain peers have been asking for large sums in return for putting down amendments to bills as they pass through the Upper Chamber, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has indicated that he is minded to pass legislation that would, amongst other things, permit the expulsion from the Lords of anyone who has committed “a criminal offence or something else which is wholly improper”.
Well, on December 1 last year Baron Ahmed of Rotherham pleaded guilty at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court to a charge of dangerous driving: he sent and received text messages whilst driving on a motorway, just before a crash in which a man was killed.
Lord Ahmed will be sentenced later this month. The offence carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment. But even if he escapes jail, the grounds for expelling him from the Lords, once Mr Straw’s bill is passed, must surely be overwhelming.