UK politicians adopt Israeli-style tactic to scare voters over Scotland

Similar tactics are being used to delegitimize the political aspirations of Scottish and Palestinian people. (Maria Navarro Sorolla/Flickr)

All indications are that neither the Labour Party nor the governing Conservatives will win an overall majority in the UK parliament in next month’s general election.

This means that the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is set to win dozens of seats, mostly from Labour, is likely to play a key role. The SNP has said it would be ready to support a minority Labour government, while Labour has ruled out any formal coalition. The Conservatives and SNP reject any sort of mutual cooperation.

The SNP spearheaded the unsuccessful “Yes” campaign in last September’s Scottish independence referendum, but gained momentum that has made it the most popular party in Scotland. The party promises to use its anticipated strength in the House of Commons to advance Scotland’s interests.

“Destruction” of the UK

So now, Labour and the Conservatives are trying to scare the electorate that a vote for their main rival would only empower the SNP, whose ultimate goal is an independent Scotland.

This morning, senior Conservative and former UK foreign minister William Hague appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today program from the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

“We have to sound the warning, we have to point out the dangers … that unless there is a Conservative majority … the people who want to break up the United Kingdom will be running the United Kingdom,” Hague said.

In a high-profile speech today, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has called the SNP a “real and present danger” to the UK.

Alistair Darling, a senior Labour politician who led the referendum “No” campaign, was even more strident.

“The idea that we would enter into any agreement with a nationalist party that has as its sole aim the destruction of the United Kingdom – they’ve no interest in supporting a stable British government – is for the birds,” he told Today. “It just won’t happen.”

Driving the point home, Darling concluded: “We cannot be held to ransom by a party whose sole aim is not just the destruction of our party, but actually, more seriously, the destruction of the United Kingdom.”

Scare tactic

Darling’s repeated talk of political change as “destruction” is an eerie echo of a familiar Israeli theme.

It is often claimed that granting full rights to Palestinians and transforming the dispensation in historic Palestine from a Jewish colonial ethnocracy into an inclusive democracy amounts to the “destruction” of Israel.

In 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees “is a recipe for the destruction of Israel.”

The Israeli rightwing academic Efraim Karsh has similarly alleged that “in their internal political discourse … Arabs have made no secret of their perception of the ‘right of return’ as a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic subversion.”

I have personally been accused of such an agenda for supporting democratic transformation, decolonization and equal rights for everyone in historic Palestine. In a 2012 debate on Democracy Now, for instance, Commentary magazine’s Jonathan Tobin said that I was advancing “the Palestinian fantasy that some day Israel is going to be destroyed … they are talking about the destruction of Israel.”

And unfortunately, this language has been used to undermine the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement by longtime Israel critic Norman Finkelstein.

In an angry 2012 interview, Finkelstein claimed that the fulfillment of the demands in the BDS call – for an end to occupation, an end to discrimination against Palestinians in Israel and respect for the right of return – would “destroy” and “eliminate” Israel.

Protecting the status quo

The effect of such language, intentional or not, is to present the current state of affairs in which one group is advantaged as the natural order and any effort to change it, even by entirely political and democratic means, as nihilistic, illegitimate or even terroristic.

The word “destruction” conjures up not consensual democratic processes and orderly transitions but nightmare scenarios of burning cities and violent dislocation – indeed, precisely what Israel has been doing to Palestinians for decades.

This is precisely why, as I noted in my book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, white supporters of apartheid in South Africa frequently warned that transformation to a one person, one vote system would lead to the “destruction” of the country.

It is also why in 1990, James Molyneaux, leader of the then dominant Ulster Unionist Party, described the Republic of Ireland’s constitutional claim to the British-ruled north as “a demand for the destruction of Northern Ireland” that was “equivalent to Hitler’s claim over Czechoslovakia.”

The use of such language by politicians who oppose Scottish independence exposes their panicked professions of love for Scotland in the days before the September referendum as empty. And it shows that their praise for the spirited but orderly referendum debate was just as cynical.

Morover, by delegitimizing the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future, Labour and the Conservatives will likely only harm the unity of the kingdom that they claim so desperately to want to preserve.

If they continue to borrow Israeli-style rhetoric, perhaps the next trick will be to demand that the people of Scotland recognize that the United Kingdom has a “right to exist.”

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I don't often disagree with Ali but I think his comparisons are somewhat far-fetched. I disagree profoundly with the demonisation of the SNP but I don't accept Ali's analysis.

Scots have full individual rights in the UK and no one has claimed otherwise. The Scottish people are not an oppressed nationality but clearly more and more of them wish to become independent.

When it is claimed that they would destroy the UK by independence i.e. they would destroy the present constitutional arrangement that is a fact. They would. The comparison with Arabs in Israel is comparing apples with bananas as it were!

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Hi Tony! I found your objection a bit perplexing. It's as if you're responding to a different article that I haven't read.

"Scots have full individual rights in the UK and no one has claimed otherwise."

Indeed. Ali certainly didn't mention this in the article, and made no claim whatsoever that the situation facing Scots and Palestinians was identical. The purpose of Ali's article was to highlight parallels in the tactics used to prevent democratic change in the two countries.

"The comparison with Arabs in Israel is comparing apples with bananas as it were!"

Yes, and it's a comparison that Ali hasn't actually made. You merely imagined it.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Tony, many thanks for your comment, but I am a bit puzzled. Nowhere in my article did I compare the actual situation of people in Scotland to the actual situation of Palestinians under Israeli rule. Nothing I wrote contradicts what you have said. My comparison is between the rhetoric used by UK politicians to delegitimize democratic reorganization of current political arrangements, by the use of rhetoric that calls such change “destruction.” As I point out, this is the same rhetorical tactic often used by Israel. I’d ask you to read my article again to see that I absolutely did not liken the situation in Scotland to that in Palestine.

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I fully support the Palestinians right to statehood and a homeland. But there is NO comparison between Scotland's situation and the Palestinians situation. We Scots are free citizens. We were offered a referendum to become an independent country. The democratic will of Scotland was that we CHOSE to stay in the UK!

This article was dreadful journalism. Indeed, at its core is the very scare tactics it accuses others of! Scotland IS free! Sad that the losers in the YES campaign can't accept the democratic outcome of the referendum. Get over it!

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I also agree that there is no comparison between Scotland's situation and the Palestinians' situation. However, Ali made no such comparison. Rather he illustrated the similarity in the language used by Israel and 'politicians who oppose Scottish independence'. I would go further and say this is the language being used, not just by politicians but by the majority of the UK mass media.

Your points are lacking in logic and do not address the issue, which is of the language used to describe the democratic wishes of the Scottish People to elect their preferred representatives to the UK Parliament, in a democratic process of which they have confirmed they wish to be a part.

This current campaign is not about the last Referendum, it is about democracy.

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Your point concerns *only* an instance of rhetoric...structurally it is so so different to the Palestinian situation that I think you endanger your cause by likening it to Scotland. These are parlour games among equal citizens - in many ways the SNP have a political advantage right now in the UK. A better historical comparison would be Ireland and British policies of ethnic cleansing...but ultimately, I don't see how the UK can offer any parallel to the Palestinian situation...I'm worried you'll reduce the scale of it by likening it to something like the SNP/Tory bullshit...

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I often agree with Ali but this article is poor. The scaremongering led by Conservative politicians is deeply damaging and decisive but it doesn't warrant comparison to Israel-Palestine.

Scotland voted against independence just last year. The argument is that the SNP will use its position in Parliament to agitate for independence - the primary aim of their party - despite independence being rejected in the referendum and there being no democratic mandate for them doing so. The fear is that the SNP will use their influence in Parliament to try and force independence in the next few years and this will be the detriment of those in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Whether this fear is grounded or not is another question. I don't believe it is and although independence is still the SNP's ultimate goal I believe they could work positively with Labour. The rhetoric surrounding destruction is a ploy by the Conservatives to dissuade people from voting Labour by arguing Labour or Labour-led Government will be unstable, which is the core message of their campaign.

To try to force what's happening the UK General Election to be seen through the Israel-Palestine prism is misleading, confusing and displays a lack of understanding of what's happening in the UK.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Kris, please see my response to Tony as I believe you too have grossly misinterpreted my argument. The suggestion that I’ve compared the actual material conditions in the UK to those in Palestine is without foundation. I am comparing rhetoric used to delegitimize political change, and there a comparison is entirely warranted and I believe informative. 

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Thanks for the response, Ali. Firstly, I have to say I am a big fan of yours and of EI.

I don't suggest you said that the UK General Election is materially comparable to Israel-Palestine. I only suggested that a degree of nuance is missing from the comparison of rhetoric.

I sort of agree with your analysis and as a Labour supporter I am appalled by Darling's comments, although it is worth mentioning that he isn't even a candidate in this election. Interestingly, the argument that because the SNP want an independent Scotland (and as a consequence, the break-up of the UK) they aren't a legitimate presence in Parliament or in any potential Government isn't applied to UKIP having Members of the European Parliament.

Although I don't agree with it, there is a legitimate argument as to why the SNP shouldn't be in Government or even prop up a Labour Government, or that they might be a 'destructive' force in Parliament: it is that they will use their power to agitate for a second referendum. Scotland has just had an independence referendum and it would be absurd to think there should be a second one any-time soon just because the nationalists didn't get the result they wanted. The fear is that rather than playing a constructive role in Parliament, the SNP will use their role to agitate for independence, and this will cause instability for the rest of the UK. I don't believe they will, but this is the fear that is played on.

Of course, there are those who believe the SNP are inherently a illegitimate political force, as you've highlighted. My point is only that the situation in the UK General Election regarding the SNP is more nuanced that the comparisons you evoke portray.

Thanks for the reply and I always look forward to your contributions.

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I think it's clear the article was not intended to draw comparisons between the standing and rights of Palestinians (or "Israeli-Arabs") and Scots in their respective societies, but rather to highlight the way in which fear-mongering and demagogue-like-tactics have been employed in both cases to sway opinions.

The SNP has been demonised by the main Westminster parties in the run up to both this election and last years referendum. We have seen appeals by the Tories to the English electorate that a vote for Labour means the SNP in government and that only a vote for them can stop this. To me it sounds remarkedly like Netanyahu's calls to vote Likud in response to Arab voters travelling to polling stations in droves. The potential for the SNP to form part of the next Westminster government has been described, in the words of Boris Johnson as like getting "King Herod to run a baby farm".

Some may argue it is all part of political manoeuvring but I think it's an extremely dangerous tactic that will only succeed in deepening the ever growing divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The continued vilification of the SNP, and subsequent perceived ignoral of the will of the Scottish people (the SNP is expected even by conservative estimates, to win at least 80% of the seats they contest) risks only further disenfranchising Scottish voters and ultimately pushing Scotland further away from the UK and towards independence.

I hope I've captured the point of Ali's article but regardless, I do think there are huge parallels in the kind of rhetoric employed by mainstream UK parties (particularly the Tories) and Israel that may only be intended to achieve relatively short term political goals and objectives, but that actually cause greater social and political divides between peoples.

Apologies for any spelling & grammar errors, and FYI I voted on NO on September 18th 2014.

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I have, as Ali suggested, read and indeed re-read his article. I am not persuaded that this is simply a comparison between similar forms of rhetoric. The reason is simple.

Rhetoric is an exaggerated form of language or mode of expression designed to make a particular point. It cannot be divorced from the context in which it arises, in other words it is socially and politically constructed. To therefore superficially compare the campaign against the Scots and the Palestinians is unhelpful.

For example when the then left-wing firebrand Aneurin Bevan MP compared Tories to vermin, would one say that this was equivalent to the Nazis description of Jews as vermin? Clearly not. As a political philosophy Toryism is verminous. Jews (& any other group of people) are clearly not. Although there is a superficial similarity the context is entirely different.
There were important arguments in Ali’s article crying to get out, but they were smothered by the overall comparison which Ali made between the Palestinians and the Scots. This was certainly therefore a case of apples and bananas.

The Tories incidentally are not so much attacking the SNP as using the well-tried McCarthyist tactic of guilt by association against the Labour Party. Unfortunately Miliband is politically incapable of responding and saying that it is the Tories, with their short-sighted attacks who are destroying that which they purport to support, i.e. the UK. Indeed such a point has already been made by Thatcherite peer Lord Forsyth. Labour’s response to political attacks is to concede in advance!

The point I would have made in Ali’s article is that when the Karsh, Sharon, Molyneaux and even Finkelstein talk about the destruction of ‘Israel’ they are equating the destruction of a particular type of state with the destruction of the people in that state.

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This is, of course, the fascist idea that a people are equivalent to the State in which they live. It is the principle of Volk and Race. Destroy one and you destroy the other.

I think if Ali goes back and looks at his article he will see that it is thoroughly confused and does indeed make, even if only implicitly, a comparison between the Scots and the Palestinians. He writes that

‘The effect of such language, intentional or not, is to present the current state of affairs in which one group is advantaged as the natural order and any effort to change it, even by entirely political and democratic means, as nihilistic, illegitimate or even terroristic.’

But Scottish people are not economically or even politically disadvantaged whereas the Palestinians suffer on both counts. The Scots are seeking to break away whereas the Palestinians are seeking equality within the borders of Mandate Palestine (I ignore the 2 States nonsense).
Ali goes on to say that the term ‘destruction’ conjures up ‘nightmare scenarios of burning cities and violent dislocation’ and in Israel’s case a new Holocaust. But that simply isn’t the case with Scotland.

As someone who very much admires what Ali writes, this is the first article that I’ve seriously disagreed with.

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I find this absolutely hilarious. The point that the threat-of-destruction-rhetoric is over the top is even more clear in the case of Scots who merely want party representation and are being resisted by dominating parties. It does not require a comparison of suffering between Scots and Palestinians - exactly the opposite.
But, back to the Palestinians, the rhetoric IS OVER THE TOP there too, which a lot of folks don't seem to understand. Israeli Jews can't fathom the idea of living next door to non-Jews or sending their kids to the same school, and THAT is what they mean by "destruction".
(even some people I admire on Mondoweiss have gotten carried away at times hand-wringing over whether BDS has a proper plan for what to do about the poor settlers...!) (oh, and if you're still confused, the answer is "nothing". if the sight of a Palestinian makes you turn into brown sugar, then problem solved.)

anyway, thanks for the article, Ali, I loved it.

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"israel" has no legal moral or ethical right to exist on any inch of Palestine. Period.

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Without wishing to start another debate, Tess asks whether, when I say Arabs in israel I mean Palestinians. Yes and no. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is portrayed as a national conflict, between two peoples, which fits quite well into the Zionist narrative.

This therefore raises the problem, as Tsipi Livni showed in the 'peace' negotiations with Saeb Ererkat, that if one simply classifies Israeli Arabs as Palestinians and no more, that this encourages people like Livni to propose that blocks of Israeli Arabs/Palestinians be moved out to the proposed Palestinian state/bantustan.

Since most people agree that 2 states is no longer possible, even were it desirable (which it isn't) then what of those who remain. Are there two nationalities or just one Palestinian/Israeli nationality?

The purpose of using the term 'Israeli Arab' is to emphasise that Arabs are a minority in Israel, not another nationality.