Why does the UK government want to ban local authority boycotts?

These proposals do not happen in a vacuum, but in the context of a changing policy landscape where critical thought and protest are being marginalised through labelling and "securitization". 

Tom Barns
22 January 2016
Boycott Apartheid Bus, London, UK, 1989.

Boycott Apartheid Bus, London, UK, 1989. Flickr/ R Barraez D'Lucca. Some rights reserved.During the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October 2015, the party announced proposals to stop local councils from supporting “politically motivated boycotts and divestment campaigns”. Specifically, the Tories warned of “growing concern” about councils aiming to disinvest local authority pension funds from companies that produce weapons or are complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The press release[i] that followed branded those who support such boycotts “hard-left militants”, claiming that they undermine “international security” and hold back measures necessary to “tackle Islamic extremism”.

In substance, the proposals mirror restrictions imposed by Thatcher in the late-eighties, which aimed to constrain the power of councils to boycott South African apartheid. Prior to this, over 100 local authorities joined the movement to boycott South African goods and several of these extended their policy to pension fund investment. Public boycotts were a central factor in ending South African apartheid, just as they were a key tactic for the US Civil Rights movement, and even for those fighting for abolition of British slave trade in the late 1700s.

Today, many humanitarian groups, including UN agencies, have rightly described Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestian territories as “racial segregation and apartheid”. Alongside this, UK-made weapons are consistently being sold to, and used by, many of the world’s worst human rights abusing regimes. Just as Thatcher’s opposition to economic sanctions on South Africa rendered the UK complicit in apartheid for many years, the criminalisation of modern boycott campaigns could hold back social progress, and deepen the UK’s complicity in war and repression around the world.  

Unfortunately, being labelled a threat to security may deter councils who would seek to challenge the new proposals, as will the context of budget cuts and austerity. Even before the government's plans were announced, a motion passed by Leicester City Council in 2014 – boycotting goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank – has led to ongoing legal pressure from a Pro-Israel campaign group. The same group has already successfully pressured Gwynedd and Swansea, the only two Welsh councils to pass similar motions, to reverse them as of December 2015. Given the government’s scathing rhetoric, and the high cost implications of court proceedings, it is unsurprising that the Welsh councils were unable to prioritise defending their ethical stance. Just days after announcing a reverse to their boycott motion, a spokesperson for Swansea City Council reported that it is facing a 4.5% cut in revenue funding over 2016, putting 640 council jobs at risk. Similarly, Leicester City Council recently reported that court action over its boycott policy could carry a cost of £200,000, alongside separate reports that it is in “in the middle of the most severe government funding cuts we have ever experienced”. 

Assuming they remain unchallenged in the courts, it is likely that these proposals will become law in some form. Part of the original Tory press release is now captured in a consultation for secondary legislation on local government pension regulations, with similar changes to procurement policy likely to follow. The consultation states that new guidance on how investments “should reflect foreign policy and related issues will be published ahead of the new regulations coming into force”. This suggests that details of how the changes will work in practice will not be known until after the legislation has been passed, leaving a mist of questions and duplicities.

To take one example, even as it continues to arm the Israeli military, the UK government’s own guidance on business risk states that the Israeli “settlements are illegal under international law” and as such that there are “clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements...we do not encourage or offer support to such activity”. With this is mind, it is hard to see how the boycott motion undertaken by Leicester council – which applies specifically to goods produced within the illegal West Bank settlements – can be presented as some kind of grave “militancy” incompatible with foreign policy.

Preventing progress

It is stark contradictions such as these that illuminate the cynicism with which the government’s smear-first-ask-questions-later rhetoric is deployed. Campaigners are left asking: will consideration of nuances like this be taken into account when guidelines are published? Or will coherent policy logic continue to be abandoned in favour of vague and erroneous scaremongering? An ongoing lack of clarity will only add to the “chilling effect” felt by those campaigning on almost any issue – from tobacco companies; to child labour; to fossil fuel extraction – as they wonder if their boycott is next to be branded illegitimate by the government.

This lack of clarity, and the heavy references to national security, should lead us to question the government's motivations. Are the Tories really that concerned with the material impacts of local authority boycotts? Or is it just a convenient brick in the wall of broader legislative and rhetorical apparatus? These proposals do not happen in a vacuum, but in the context of a changing policy landscape where critical thought and protest are being marginalised through labelling and “securitization”. This has been particularly illuminated in the delivery of initiatives like Prevent, which legally binds public sector workers into acting as an arm of government surveillance charged with countering “extremism”. Confirming the fears of many commentators and activists, recent evidence shows that the shaky definition of extremism offered in Prevent training is being broadened to the point that it now includes peaceful anti-fracking activists.

The impact of these initiatives seems to have spread to the banking sector, with over 25 international human rights groups – many of them working on Palestine – and one humanitarian charity, Islamic Relief, recently having their accounts closed on a very dubious basis. As a spokesperson for Islamic Relief commented: “(the) vagueness of counter-terrorism regulation has created a fog of uncertainty...that governments need to do more to help us navigate our way through." Indeed, a government that truly cared about the potential impacts of stigmatising and restricting those working for positive social change, would surely intervene.

It is this vagueness in policy making that increasingly blurs the lines between activist and terrorist, rendering critical voices in local councils, NGOs and the grassroots a somewhat convenient collateral damage in the war on “extremism”. As this process plays out, it brings with it perpetual anxiety, suspicion and desensitization to change from above. Coupled with the economic precarity brought by neo-liberal austerity, this dynamic risks pacifying civil society: we demand less evidence that reforms truly represent the public interest and, over time, the range of issues deemed to require a security-based response mutates and increases. Whether the actions of state bodies are genuinely lawful, let alone whether they represent public interest, could remain shrouded under the fog of security discourse if it is left unchallenged. This was exemplified in the recent case of Cage versus the Charity Commission, where internal emails showed the Commission knowingly stepped beyond its legal remit in the name of countering extremism. Most recently, the landmark case of Dave Miranda has ruled that elements of the Terrorism Act 2000 are incompatible with human rights law, some 16 years after it was passed.

To proponents of counter-terror legislation, it may be seen as preferable to cast the net too wide rather than too narrow in these times of perceived insecurity. But as the rhetoric of counter-terror extends into far flung policy areas like local authority investment, it risks holding back social progress and has the potential to impact us all. As the landscape of civil society is reshaped from above, it is crucial that each new thread of legislation is unpicked, scrutinised and, where necessary, challenged.


[i] The original press release was by email rather than published online but has been reproduced on the two blogs linked below:




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