On 24 September the journalist Sasha Swire, wife of the former Tory MP Sir Hugo Swire, published Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power, a racy, gossipy, at times titillating but also entertaining account covering the two decades (2001-19) during which her husband served as MP for East Devon and held a variety of ministerial offices.
Sir Hugo has never been regarded as a particularly close friend of the Jewish state. In 2016 he became chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, founded in 1980 as a counterweight to the Conservative Friends of Israel. The focus of the CMEC, and of Sir Hugo, was on Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, and on Gaza. And in her Diary Lady Swire makes no secret of her own Palestinian sympathies, telling us, with disarming frankness, of her admiration for Jeremy Corbyn, who “shakes hands with Palestinian freedom fighters.”
But it is not those sympathies that have caught the attention of my Jewish friends. What they have focussed on, and what has attracted their ire, is Lady Swire’s employment on numerous occasions of the phrase “Jewish lobby.”
At one point in her narrative Lady Swire predicts that “the Jewish lobby will be throwing the kitchen sink” at Jeremy Corbyn. When, in 2017, the then chair of the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Sir Crispin Blunt, announced an inquiry reportedly triggered by media allegations that an Israeli diplomat and a British parliamentary aide had threatened to “take down” British Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan, Lady Swire confides to her Diary that this inquiry was tantamount to an “investigation into the Jewish lobby infiltrating parliament.”
In fact, Sir Crispin’s inquiry was technically into parliamentary lobbying on behalf of “foreign states and interested parties.” There was no mention of “Jewish lobby” in its terms of reference. No matter. Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, condemned what she referred to as “the casual, blasé use” of the phrase, that had apparently become “acceptable in certain circles.”
Meanwhile, the Campaign Against Antisemitism fulminated that “the language of a “Jewish lobby” is a staple of antisemitic discourse and has absolutely no place in contemporary political debate.”
And in his leader of 1 October 2020 Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard joined in the hue and cry, explaining to his readers that Lady Swire’s “use of a blatantly antisemitic term [‘Jewish lobby’] is, of course, typical of a certain type of English attitude, for whom Jews will and should always be outsiders — not really us — however much they may be tolerated.”
Before we British Jews get our communal knickers in a real twist over this, we need to understand the meaning, in a broad political context, of the word “lobby.”
My online dictionary tells me that a “lobby” is simply “a group of people seeking to influence legislators on a particular issue.” The word derives from the “lobbies” that surround the parliamentary debating chambers, and in which interested parties would in bygone centuries meet MPs and peers to press their case. In the 19th century the term “interest” was more favoured. I wrote my Oxford University doctoral thesis on “The Railway Interest” – the collectivity of Victorian private railway company shareholders and directors (many of whom were also MPs) who fought tooth and nail to defend their investments from creeping state regulation. In the 20th century the word “interest” was superseded by the term “pressure group,” on which I recommend the interested reader to consult my monograph, Pressure Groups and Government in Great Britain.
It may be argued that the term “Jewish lobby” has unsavoury – even clandestine – connotations, perhaps also signifying something that is foreign to the British body politic. That is not how I read it at all. Pressure groups, lobbies, interest groups – call them what you will – are an essential lubricant of the British political system.
Are there “Jewish lobbies” in the UK? Of course there are! Is there “a Jewish lobby” in the UK? I certainly hope so. And there is nothing antisemitic [let alone “blatantly antisemitic”] about the term.
British Jews, as citizens, taxpayers and voters, have every right to form lobbies and to try to influence policy-makers thereby. If Lady Swire does not like this state of affairs, we all know where she can go and what she can do when she gets there.