Clegg sets out his stall

The two lead­er­ship can­di­dates talk to the JC about Is­rael, faith schools and their op­po­si­tion to the Saudi state visit

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY BERNARD JOSEPHS

YOUTH­FUL, BRIGHT, mul­tilin­gual and the book­ies’ favourite to win the Lib­eral Demo­crat lead­er­ship bat­tle, Nick Clegg de­nies any sug­ges­tion that the race is in the bag.

“One thing you never do in pol­i­tics is to as­sume a re­sult,” he told the JC this week. “There is still a long way to go.” In any case, he had other things on his mind, par­tic­u­larly the red-car­pet treat­ment ac­corded to King Ab­dul­lah of Saudi Ara­bia on his state visit to Lon­don.

Prais­ing the de­ci­sion by act­ing leader Vince Cable to boy­cott the visit, Mr Clegg ex­plained: “Given the lead that the Lib­eral Democrats have had in scru­ti­n­is­ing arms deals be­tween the United King­dom and Saudi Ara­bia, and the crit­i­cism we have ex­pressed over the Saudis’ hu­man-rights record, it would have been in­con­sis­tent of us to have pre­tended that we could sim­ply brush th­ese con­cerns aside.”

Con­sis­tency to­wards what he de­scribed as Lib­eral Demo­crat val­ues is clearly im­por­tant to the 40-year-old, whose phys­i­cal re­sem­blance to DavidCameron­has­been widely noted.

It was not easy “in the world of West­min­ster and White­hall” to re­ject the pro­to­col of a state visit by one of Bri­tain’s most valu­able trad­ing part­ners. “I imag­ine Vince must have been un­der some pres­sure to re­lent and I am re­ally pleased he had the courage to take that de­ci­sion. In fact, I would go fur­ther. I think it is pre­cisely the kind of thing Lib­eral Democrats should do. If we are in pol­i­tics for any­thing, it is to say things and do things that other par­ties dare not or will not do.

“There­are­hugecom­mer­cia­land­strate­gic in­ter­ests in­vested be­tween the United King­dom and Saudi Ara­bia and th­ese in­ter­ests have al­ways out­weighed the con­cerns that Bri­tish gov­ern­ments have had about hu­man rights. I can only re­peat that if the Lib­eral Democrats are in pol­i­tics to do any­thing, it is to pro­mote the cause of hu­man rights with­out wor­ry­ing what the diplo­matic con­se­quences might be.” It was thus con­sis­tent, ar­gued Mr Clegg, the LibDem spokesman on home af­fairs, that his party had a pro­found in­ter­est in the Mid­dle East con­flict.

He in­sisted that the LibDems had al­ways tried to be even-handed, de­spite the com­ments of “in­di­vid­ual mem­bers” such as Baroness Tonge and MEP Chris Davies, which raised se­ri­ous con­cerns within the Jewish com­mu­nity.

“I don’t think any­one in the Lib­eral Democrats wants to do any­thing but to pro­vide an in­put into the de­bate that is rad­i­cal, ra­tio­nal and based on fact. I am acutely aware that there have been par­tic­u­lar state­ments by par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als, but I must say if one looks at what the party lead­er­ship has said, th­ese state­ments have been bal­anced, some­times force­ful but al­ways re­spon­si­ble. That is a tra­di­tion I wish to main­tain.” How­ever, he of­fered thinly veiled crit­i­cism of party mem­bers who had in­dulged in “con­tro­ver­sial” re­marks about the Mid­dle East. “I don’t think in any pol­icy area any one per­son has a mo­nop­oly on all wis­dom. What has hap­pened, and I think it is a great pity, is that be­cause the re­ac­tion of Bri­tish Jewry is quite un­der­stand­ably de­fen­sive at times of height­ened con­tro­versy, the false im­pres­sion is given that the com­mu­nity and Is­raeli pub­lic opin­ion is ho­moge­nous.

“Some­thing I al­ways wish we could make more of is the vi­brancy and plu­ral­ity of Is­rael. As much as I ask peo­ple not to car­i­ca­ture Lib­eral Demo­crat opin­ion, I would equally ask Lib­eral Democrats not to car­i­ca­ture Is­raeli pub­lic opin­ion. Ex­ces­sive par­tial­ity on an is­sue when im­par­tial­ity is at a pre­mium is some­thing I re­gret. I will be quite tough on say­ing that as a leader. A sense of bal­ance needs to be main­tained.”

The MP for Sh­effield Hal­lam has vis­ited Is­rael and the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries sev­eral times, most re­cently in 2005. His over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion was the “sheer, com­pressed ge­o­graph­i­cal scale” of a land with “so much com­plex­ity”. Al­though ad­mir­ing the “vi­brancy and vigour” of Is­raeli dis­course, he was dis­tressed by the road­blocks and di­vi­sions be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, which he be­lieved were un­sus­tain­able.

Mr Clegg also be­lieved that the split be­tween the Ha­mas rulers in Gaza and the Pales­tinian Author­ity in the West Bank had to be re­solved. “There are in­di­ca­tions that there is some move­ment in Ha­mas to­wards recog­ni­tion of Is­rael. Both the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment and other pow­ers, par­tic­u­larly the Quar­tet, need to strike the very del­i­cate bal­ance that while the stated po­si­tion of Ha­mas is in­com­pat­i­ble with a role in the peace process, we might be able to bring out those re­formist el­e­ments in Ha­mas who be­lieve that they them­selves need to change.”

An en­dur­ing les­son, he said, was that while be­ing tough on vi­o­lence and ex­trem­ism, “one must at the same time do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to fos­ter change within those move­ments”.

On do­mes­tic is­sues, Mr Clegg con­demned the rise of an­tisemitism in the UK. In dis­cus­sions with the Com­mu­nity Se­cu­rity Trust, he had been shocked by the amount the com­mu­nity had to spend on pro­tect­ing schools and syn­a­gogues. It was “deeply de­press­ing that the in­crease in an­tisemitic vi­o­lence has been al­most ex­actly par­al­lel to that suf­fered by the Mus­lim com­mu­nity. There is a need for politi­cians to be more out­spo­ken and more force­ful in coun­ter­act­ing what is clearly a rise in an­tisemitism and Is­lam­o­pho­bia.”

Faith schools, Mr Clegg, as­serted, had “very im­pres­sive” aca­demic records, but he cau­tioned that they should not be al­lowed to be­come “si­los” of seg­re­ga­tion. “I be­lieve that faith schools should act as a cat­a­lyst be­tween com­mu­ni­ties for un­der­stand­ing. The most en­light­ened ed­u­ca­tion­ists in faith schools un­der­stand that they need to reach out to vis­i­bly break down bar­ri­ers. I would like to see faith schools mak­ing greater ef­forts so you get a net­work of dif­fer­ent schools and faiths rather than exclusive schools where chil­dren grow up in an en­vi­ron­ment where they are, frankly, not aware of the plu­ral­ity of faiths and views around them.”

Private schools, he said, were un­der pres­sure to play an ac­tive role in the com­mu­nity and the same prin­ci­ple should ap­ply to faith schools.

PHOTO: MICHAEL DON­ALD

Nick Clegg: faith schools should be “a cat­a­lyst for un­der­stand­ing”

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