Minister for the Jews? He’s the nearest thing

The former Communities Secretary speaks frankly about faith, Israel and Jeremy Corbyn


From his desk overlooking Westminster Abbey, Sir Eric Pickles is in prime position to consider an issue particularly close to his heart.

It is from here that the former Conservative minister, a committed Christian, assesses the role faith plays in modern Britain.

In a political landscape where spin-doctor Alastair Campbell's advice to Tony Blair that "we don't do God" still largely holds firm, Sir Eric is one of a small number of MPs trying to raise the prominence of religion.

"I think it does matter," he said. "If you stripped away my Christianity, or your Jewishness, we'd be lesser people."

After five years as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he could perhaps have counted himself unlucky when he was, effectively, sacked after the election in May.

But the 63-year-old did not leave without some reward - he was knighted and now enjoys a raft of high-profile post-ministerial positions, including as the Prime Minister's special envoy on post-Holocaust issues.

Within minutes of being dumped from the cabinet Sir Eric received a phone call from Conservative Friends of Israel director Stuart Polak asking him to become the group's new parliamentary chairman.

A supporter of the country since his teenage years, the Brentwood and Ongar MP immediately accepted, despite the "very bad impression" of his West Yorkshire accent performed by the CFI chief.

Life now provides Sir Eric with opportunities he could not enjoy during his years around the cabinet table. Ministerial convention meant he was not allowed to stand up publicly for Israel during times of crisis, or explain his views on faith. "I was a silent, brooding presence. Now I don't feel so silent, or brooding," he said, pushing his new, fashionable spectacles into place.

As Communities Secretary he encouraged Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities to work more closely together. Many in the interfaith community were unaccustomed to the bullish Yorkshireman's approach.

He said: "I just felt interfaith stuff was meaningless unless you did something. Sitting on beanbags, holding hands and singing Kumbaya was just pointless.

"What I was interested in was if there were initiatives by groups - Jewish, Muslim, Christian - that went beyond their immediate community. I was always very keen to see different groups coming together to do things."

By denying the groups what he called a "spiritual outlet" and forcing them to work in practical ways on collaborative projects, Sir Eric believes progress was made. One of his favourite initiatives was Mitzvah Day.

"I just loved that. It was typical of the Jewish community. The real Jewish community is one that doesn't just look within, it wants to do something with the wider community."

Relations between British Jewish and Muslim leaders were "better than the headlines would suggest", but Sir Eric acknowledged that "the street can be nasty, can be judgmental, and sometimes good people are not putting their heads above the parapet because of retribution - not interracially, but from people more extreme within their own community".

In his work with local authorities, Sir Eric repeatedly challenged councils that he felt were doing too little to remove racist graffiti or oppose racism. He was also one of the first officials to argue against the flying of Palestinian flags over British town halls during last summer's Gaza conflict.

But in the past 12 months he has sensed an awakening. Southampton University's decision to cancel a conference in April that would have challenged Israel's right to exist was, Sir Eric said, "a watershed - it was determinedly something going in the other direction. Too much had been held within a thin veneer of freedom of speech."

Sir Eric's departure from the cabinet has in no way weakened his party loyalty. Sitting in his Tory-blue braces ahead of the annual conference next week he thinks for a moment about the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

It was "absolutely extraordinary", he said, to think of Labour's top job being held by someone "who openly embraced extremists and regards Hamas and Hizbollah as friends. This is not just about community cohesion, it's about whether our country is safe. You can say you are not antisemitic, but if you're not, don't mix with antisemites."

Mr Corbyn's approach to Israel - he has suggested he is in favour of economic sanctions - would be damaging to Britain, Sir Eric added.

"You have to understand, and I don't think people do, quite how integrated our two economies are: our relationship in biotech, in tech generally, our great work and co-operation in defence."

As CFI chair he is "determined to do my small bit to ensure this wonderful bastion of democracy succeeds".

Sir Eric's love of Israel goes back more than 30 years. He was attracted to its "free speech, independent judiciary, functioning democracy. It's a fundamental part of being a Tory."

Removed from the cabinet, he finds himself occasionally publicly criticising his ex-colleagues. When Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond went to Tehran in August, Sir Eric held him to account over Iran's support for terror groups.

Such comments are "within the confines of a deeply loving relationship between myself and Philip, CFI and the Conservative Party", Sir Eric said. "We want to see progress. I want to be robust. I'm a friend of Israel. That's not to say I approve of everything the Israeli government does - heck, I was a cabinet minister, we did things I didn't entirely approve of, but that's the nature of politics."

He has never doubted David Cameron's commitment to Israel, he said.

A long-standing supporter of Holocaust education groups, Sir Eric's special responsibility as the Prime Minister's envoy on Shoah issues is a source of particular pride. He is determined to tackle what he sees as a lack of knowledge about the genocide.

"The deniers we'll never touch. It's the people in the middle, those who have never really thought about it, they are the ones you want to get."

Sir Eric's conversations with survivors have convinced him that recording their testimony, and encouraging their children and grandchildren to take on the responsibility of telling their stories in years to come, is the best way forward. He recalled a trip to Windermere in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kindertransport. He overheard two survivors engaging in light competition over how many grandchildren each had at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

"I thought, 'this is the whole ruddy point' - what is, and what could have been. Here we have these bright pennies going on to great universities and jobs. All those folks who were murdered, they could have done the same thing."

Sir Eric accepts that he faces a tough task ensuring the voice of faith communities is heard in politics.

He told the story of preparing to speak at a Holocaust Memorial Day event alongside Guardian journalist and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland.

"I just decided to close my eyes and say a little prayer before I went on because I wanted to get it right.

"He tapped me and said, 'Are you having a little sleep?' I thought, 'For God's sake.' You can't express any suggestion of faith without being clobbered."

Much was made last month of Mr Corbyn's failed plan to appoint a "Minister for Jews". Given the three key strands of his post-cabinet life - religion, the Holocaust, and Israel - is Sir Eric not the Tories' de facto Minister for Jews?

He grinned: "Well I'm not Jewish, and I'm not a minister. I think I'm everybody's guy. I'm there to be a voice and to give a view. But you can bat for yourself, I'm pretty damn sure."

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