Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Pickles Lord Pickles Conservative 7:55 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. I hold a number of voluntary posts in Holocaust remembrance. It is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Gadhia. We recently visited a number of projects in Israel to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. In reference to what the most reverend Primate said about bringing communities together, contributing and making up an identity, I certainly feel that Hindus are an immensely important part of the British identity, not least because of my favourite religious festival of all, Diwali, which I am looking forward to with great enthusiasm.

The rise in the hate crime figures that my noble friend just mentioned is truly frightening: more than 94,000 incidents, the bulk being of either race crime or religious hatred. They are both shocking and shaming, not just to the Government but to the two Houses of Parliament and British society as a whole. I am proud to be a friend of the Home Secretary, who recently spoke movingly about the racial prejudice that his family had suffered, which they faced very bravely. I hope my friend Saj will forgive me but I am even prouder of my noble friend Lady Warsi. I congratulate her on not just a fine speech but the even greater achievement of being recently elected Yorkshire Woman of the Year. She chided me a little bit—which rankles even now—about Tell MAMA. It has to be said that the original application was all over the place and a complete mess. What my noble friend did not say is that she got it into some kind of proper order. She put together something that has lasted a number of years. I was pleased to support her in that and in ensuring that this country remembers Srebrenica and we have a proper ceremony each year.

I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I tell a story about her. I persuaded her—against her better judgment, I think, and at relatively short notice—to be an after-dinner speaker at a conference of Conservative councillors, which is not the easiest of audiences. They tend to be middle-aged men, a bit bored and wanting some kind of entertainment. Anyone who knows my noble friend knows that she is a very entertaining person. She started to talk about her early experience of politics, of canvassing in Dewsbury and of people shouting the P-word at her. I looked round the room at this hard-bitten bunch of councillors and I could see tears forming because they had made a connection with Sayeeda. They liked her and they felt the pain, perhaps for the first time, of what it is like to be persecuted. They admired her bravery enormously.

Thinking of those statistics, imagine the pain of a friend, all their friends and family, and the 94,000 people who feel the hurt that persecution causes, and consider the corrosive effect it has on society. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is no longer in his place, talked about it being an intolerant time. I have been involved in politics for 50 years, and in fighting racists and anti-Semites for just as long. I have never before experienced more intolerance in politics and society. There is a coarseness in politics.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, outlined the growth in the far right—I do not seek to diminish it—but I cannot help but feel that is only half the picture. We had an hour-long debate, when people spoke for two and a half minutes, including my noble friend Lord Popat. I thought it a fine occasion, with some fine speeches, but nothing came close to the speech by the former Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. I will read a short piece from a speech that sums up everything.

Anti-Semitism, or any hate, becomes dangerous when three things happen. First, when it moves from the fringes of politics to a mainstream party and its leadership. Secondly, when the party sees that its popularity with the general public is not harmed thereby. Thirdly, when those who stand up and protest are vilified and abused for doing so. All three factors exist in Britain now”.—[Official Report, 13/9/18; col 2413.]

I think we are beholden, as politicians—as leaders of society—to speak clearly and robustly against anti-Semitism and any form of prejudice, but to do so in moderate and liberal language. Whether we are politicians or distinguished columnists, we have a duty to ensure that in defending liberal values, we do not speak in illiberal terms.

Britain has a number of vibrant communities that are a fundamental part of the British identity. Sometimes we have a romantic view of John Bull, or of a Dickensian existence, but it was never so. Even in Tudor times this country had people from different backgrounds, races and countries. They are all a fundamental part of the British identity: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindu, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and others—people of faith and no faith—are a vital part of what makes this nation tick. Without them we would be a lesser place. If we want to understand what the effect would be, we need only look at central and eastern Europe. Even 70-odd years after the war, the removal of their Jewish communities has ripped the heart out of those countries, and even now they have not recovered from that devastation. We all, therefore, have a vested interest in fighting intolerance.

I join the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, in thanking the most reverend Primate for adopting the IHRA definition. I am a lead delegate on the IHRA delegation. It will make a change gradually over the years, not because it is legally binding—it is not—but because it has been adopted by police forces and education authorities, it is well established in training and used in questions of proof. Over time it will make a difference, and that is why the number of countries adopting it is growing.

There is, right now, a growing number of countries across the world which are starting to build new monuments and institutions relating to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Why is this happening? The historian Simon Schama said that the true assessment of the French revolution did not occur until the 1850s, when anyone who had experienced it had passed away. We have some experience of that here, in the centenary of the First World War, of which a great reassessment has been taking place.

In my maiden speech in this House I talked about the influence of my grandfather Smith, who served in the Royal Navy, and my grandfather Pickles, who served on the Somme. Nobody doubts that those two gentlemen served their time in the War: there is no industry saying that the First World War did not happen, or the Somme did not happen, but there is a whole industry of Holocaust denial, and we remember that the final stage of a genocide is denial.

About a year ago I visited Treblinka, one of the terrible death camps, which was only in existence for about a year and killed almost a million people. Nobody was separated for work; everyone was killed. I took a photograph of the monument, which is quite a moving one, and posted it on Twitter, as we politicians tend to do. Within minutes I received a reply that said, “No-one died at Treblinka, it was a transit camp. There was no death there, and any deaths related to influenza”. You wonder whether someone like that really believes it. This morning I met representatives of the United States Holocaust Museum. It has the distinction of being the second most popular site on the web relating to the Holocaust. The most popular is the Holocaust denial site, which leads by a considerable margin.

A number of organisations, including the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Anne Frank Trust, are doing so much to educate and explain. There has, however, been a growth in casual anti-Semitism. The CST recently found that while hard anti-Semitism was down in single figures, casual anti-Semitism was around 30%.

I will now mention the new monument. I raise it here because it relates to anti-Semitism. Most people object to it because they do not want it in that particular place: they are worried about the trees, the grass, the mess—all kinds of things. That is perfectly legitimate. As part of the modern planning process for something like that you have exhibitions and people in to explain what has happened. I will give a sample of what people said: “Just put it near the War Museum, they have space for it. Or better still, somewhere south of the river, where it is more suitable for the people who live around there. Or in north London, where the Jews live”. One said: “Why do I need to be reminded of the bloody Holocaust? I just want to walk my dog in the park; I don’t want to be reminded of the bloody effing Holocaust”. And another said: “You should get all these people who are against Jews and we will see all the bloody Muslims come and protest”. I suppose that is an equal opportunity bigot.

During the exhibition, we heard people say, “Why should we be building a memorial for Jewish people next to the British Parliament”? They then went on to list British subjects, saying that Jewish people were foreigners. One man said that he liked the design and thought we had worked very hard on it, but that it was in the wrong place. He went on to ask, “Why a memorial for them? Why not the Sikhs or the Hindus? Is it because they have so much power and influence in Parliament?”.

These things were said by people at the exhibition to government officials without any worry. I may have read out just a selection, but that was 25% of the people who commented at the exhibition, which is roughly similar to the CST figure of 30%.

We are building this memorial. It was announced by the Prime Minister in January 2016, and endorsed by his predecessor. The site was selected—just outside this building. An international competition was held, which attracted some 92 entries. We got down to the last 10 or so, which were displayed in this building, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and in Manchester. All kinds of people made suggestions, and 11,000 people contributed. Then a distinguished panel looked at the various designs. We have come up with a design that will be a monument and a learning centre, which will deal with the Holocaust through British eyes. It will tackle some very difficult questions with regard to our involvement—things that we should be proud of, and some things that we should perhaps be slightly less proud of.

At a time when parts of Europe are seeking to rewrite history, it is important for us to set a clear example that we will look at our history with an unblinking eye. The real reason it will go there is because it will stand right next to Parliament and remind people, as they leave the monument and look towards Victoria Tower, that this place is a bastion against tyranny. As we look out at the memorial, it will remind both Houses of Parliament that the legislature has a power to protect or to oppress. We will remember that a compliant legislature introduced the Nuremberg laws. It is my sincere hope that we will build a monument of which we will all be proud; we will build a learning centre that will be a beacon to the world.