Op-Ed: Reining in Rogue Public Bodies: The Vital Role of the UK’s Anti-BDS Bill

The following article was written by NJA Managing Director Steve Winston:

In an age where the boundaries of power between local and national governance have become increasingly fluid, the United Kingdom is confronted with an urgent legislative imperative. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill—casually known as the “Anti-BDS Bill”—is not simply a regulatory enhancement of foreign trade policy but a fundamental necessity for the sanctity of national sovereignty and law. It is under this light, laden with the weight of national urgency, that I’m proud to advocate as the Managing Director of the National Jewish Assembly for the immediate passage of this critical piece of legislation by the UK government.

By way of a brief introduction, the Bill was introduced on June 19, 2023, and aims to prevent public bodies in the UK from making procurement and investment decisions that express political or moral disapproval of foreign states. Such actions would be subject to investigation and fines. The bill specifically aims to halt councils and other public entities from pursuing independent foreign policies, citing concerns that such practices fuel community tensions and antisemitism, particularly regarding Israel.

The distribution of responsibilities between various strata of government is a cornerstone of modern political theory and governance. National governments are entrusted with the weighty concerns of statecraft, including matters of foreign policy and international trade, while public bodies such as local governments are better suited to focus on community issues and immediate administrative responsibilities. This clear division is under threat of being compromised, as some public bodies have endeavoured to thrust their parochial viewpoints onto the international stage. Particularly alarming is the increasing trend among certain local councils to adopt boycotts against Israel, a key strategic ally and trading partner of the United Kingdom. Such actions breed not only confusion but chaos, leading to a disjointed, inconsistent, and ultimately self-defeating foreign policy framework that gives succour to antisemites.

This disarray is not only a national embarrassment but also a serious risk to the United Kingdom’s standing in international trade law. The world of international trade operates under a complex lattice of treaties, agreements, and accords, each painstakingly negotiated by sovereign states. Local municipalities, lacking the legal status or expertise to engage in such high-stakes negotiations, could inadvertently put the entire nation at risk of violating international obligations. And the consequences of such violations aren’t merely academic; they can result in sanctions or other economic penalties that would harm every stratum of British society. Such a course of action would be an abrogation of the public trust and a profound failure of governance.

On the topic of fiduciary duty, public bodies must act as prudent stewards of public funds. Their mission, in terms of procurement and investment, should be guided by a singular focus: securing the best value for money and maximising returns on investment. This is not merely a fiscal responsibility, but a moral one. To subordinate these crucial financial decisions to the caprices of political fads or activism is to betray that duty in a most egregious manner. The role of public bodies is to safeguard and enhance the well-being of their constituents, not to gamble with their future on a quixotic quest fuelled by ideological zealotry.

But let us delve deeper into the darker underbelly of these boycott movements. Despite their often sanctimonious presentation, initiatives that seek to boycott Israel are fundamentally rooted in antisemitism. It is nothing short of alarming that public bodies, which are bound to act impartially, might lend their institutional clout to campaigns that are divisive and bigoted. It is of note that the National Jewish Assembly and Christian Friends of Israel, keenly aware of the magnitude of this issue, have prioritised lobbying for the passage of the Anti-BDS Bill during the NJA’s inaugural Lobby Day on October 25 at Westminster.

To put it succinctly, the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill serves as a necessary safeguard against the dilution of state authority in international commerce, assures scrupulous compliance with the rigours of international law, guarantees the fiscal wisdom of decisions involving public funds, and wards off the dangerous politicisation of entities that ought to remain neutral. This is not merely a prospective law; it is a symbolic and concrete affirmation of the principles that must underpin a functioning, sovereign state.

The time for debate and prevarication has passed. It is now incumbent upon the UK government to act decisively and pass this essential legislation. In doing so, it will be making a profound statement about the kind of nation it wishes to be—one governed by law, reason, and a commitment to the well-being of all its citizens. I invite all concerned members of the community to join the National Jewish Assembly in support of this bill at our inaugural Lobby Day event at Westminster On October 25.

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