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Saturday, January 24, 2004

Jenny Tonge

I haven't had much time for long posts recently so my comments on the sacking of Jenny Tonge are much delayed. This issue has been the hot topic amongst Liberal Democrat bloggers of recent days along with penguin cricket. In a way the chance to reflect before commenting has been quite useful. All of us full time politicians live in a sort of goldfish bowl. We are constantly scrutinised, challenged and questioned on our views, on what we say, how we say it and on what we do. We learn to live with that. In this atmosphere we work as a team, supporting each other and trying not to step too far over the mark in a way that will compromise the work of other members of that team. In a way we assume a self-denying limitation on our freedom of speech. That is not to say that we do not step out of line on occasion. I have done so and I am sure I will do so again. The issue is that as with all freedoms, when you exercise them then you accept that there are consequences.

In Jenny's case the consequences came because despite her claim to be choosing her words "advisedly" she actually used very loose language, open to wide interpretation and failed to express herself in a clear and logical way. Francesca on her blog makes some good points about this use of language. She says "on one hand, understanding refers to comprehending the dynamics behind a problem; on the other hand, it implies sympathising with what you are talking about and therefore feel pity or find some justification for it. While at University, I've researched sexual violence and later on terrorism. I therefore have some knowledge of the dynamics behind these problems, but I would never dream to say that I understand why somebody who has been using pornography for years can go on and rape somebody else. The point of research is to find out what the problem is about, how it happens, why and what you can do about it. In Tonge's sentence, understanding means sympathising, because, she says, terrorism comes from desperation."

Like Francesca I cannot agree with the words and sentiments that Jenny Tonge used. What Jenny demonstrated is that she does not in fact understand terrorism or the motives for it. As Francesca says "terrorism does not stem from "bitterness, desperation and poverty". Terrorism throughout the world has always been very well organised and funded. It is a rather complex phenomenon". James Graham puts it more starkly: "Suicide bombing is not borne out of desperation - that is a gross oversimplification. It is as much borne out of ideology. Desperate people throw stones and have riots. Desperate people set themselves on fire and go on hunger strike. Zealots by contrast strap explosives to themselves and walk into Bar Mitzvas. They do it with malice aforethought. They do it out of hatred of another people. And they do it with the help of an organisation. This isn't some mindless lashing out - it is calm and collected murder. I don't understand the psychology that can lead to people making the mental leap from anger and desperation to an ideological commitment to terror, and I genuinely doubt Jenny Tonge does either."

In another forum another Liberal Democrat asks, "How the hell can anybody justify the mass bulldozing of houses, an illegal military invasion lasting over 35 years, an army which gleefully shoots children and murders foreign citizens present to try and ensure that basic human rights law is followed?" You cannot, but the role of a democratically elected politician is to find non-violent solutions to that not to assert that "I might just consider becoming one (a terrorist/suicide bomber) myself."

In the end Charles Kennedy had no choice but to sack Jenny Tonge, not just because of the views she expressed but also because she broke the rules and compromised the team she was a member of with loose language that was open to misinterpretation and which can and will be used to attack the party. That is not to say that Jenny should not have raised these issues, nor to say that she should not have expressed some understanding of the conditions that Palestinians are living in. She has the right to do that and in doing so take the consequences in full knowledge of the rules she accepted when she entered the "goldfish bowl".

There have been lots of messages to the party condemning the actions of Charles Kennedy in sacking her, stating in some cases that it is a pro-Israeli act, in others that it is intolerant and illiberal and in one case that he lacks the courage that Jenny Tonge showed in speaking out. A situation like Palestine does need courage but that courage needs to be tempered with wisdom. Jenny did not demonstrate that wisdom and so her point was lost in the reaction to it. She has not been gagged as she is free to continue to express her views. Charles Kennedy did not make a pro-Israeli act, rather his actions preserved the previously well-balanced and long-thought out policy of the party on Palestine.

Just to say that I think that between yourself and Francesca , you have summed things up very well and with some sanity. Charles Kennedy acted quite rightly. Keep up the good work

Chris Black 24 January 2004
This makes me so angry. At least you bothered to discuss this instead of just condemning Jenny Tonge out of hand, which is why I've bothered to comment.

Kennedy's reaction was narrow minded to say the least, this, and his failure to support her makes me utterly ashamed to be working for this party. This party, which makes such a big deal out of free speech, and supporting the underdog. Out of proposing radical theories and new ways of looking at existing problems. Apparently only when it doesn't get too contentious, as we might have to get off the fence, and we've got a bit used to sitting on it after all this time.

Jenny Tonge make a valid point, which should, were the Lib Dems the party they claim to be, have been the spur to a valuable debate that could have led to a real understanding of the issues. To understand is not the same as to sympathise, that is why they are 2 different words: they have two different meanings. Jenny Tonge was trying to emphathise with the situation Palenstinians find themselves in, after over half a century of lies and oppression by the Israelis.

Desperate people may indeed set fire to themselves, but where does that get you? The buddhist monks in Vietnam in the 1960s, and in Africa in the 1990s only got coverage because they were monks, (no ordinary person would have portrayed such an image and therefore been so attractive to the media) and because the media were there. Desperate people, invisible in themselves to the outside world, who have all their lives been under the subjection of Israeli whims, and who see their children, and their children's children being denied basic human rights for years on end, will probably be wont to hurt those people who have hurt their children. If they can see no other way out after all these years of broken promises by a US-sponsored Israeli army, suicide bombing may well be an option. I don't know, luckily I've never been in that situation and will probably never be inflicted with that kind of despair in my life.

We can only open a meaningful dialogue by trying to get to the root causes of a problem. We cannot just dismiss an avenue of thought just because it does not agree with our preconceptions of reasonable behaviour. In situations of war, occupation and terrorism, reason goes out of the window, thousands of years of history have taught us that.

Jenny Tonge has been made a scapecoat for reactionary fear among politicians across the political divide. Charles Kennedy has shown he does not have the courage required of him, to deflect unfair criticism and inspire loyalty amongst members and voters.

Claire Bradford 26 January 2004
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