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The Pensions Amendment Is an Attack on International Solidarity

The Pensions Bill amendment passed yesterday would have outlawed councils from boycotting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s – and is an attack on our democratic rights to express international solidarity.

Demonstrators gather outside Downing Street demanding justice for Palestine on 12 June 2021 in London, England. (Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images)

The year was 1985. After a campaign lasting decades, 123 councils had answered the call for solidarity from the South African anti-apartheid movement, and had adopted policies opposing that injustice, including thirty-nine councils who had divested from companies operating in South Africa and Namibia.

So while the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was calling the ANC and Nelson Mandela ‘terrorists’ and Young Conservatives were proudly wearing badges calling for him to be ‘hanged’, local authorities were on the right side of history, standing up to the horror of apartheid.

Of course, the Conservative government couldn’t tolerate this. So to weaken the anti-apartheid movement, a few years later, it brought in new laws making it illegal for local councils to boycott South African and Namibian goods.

Looking back, it’s crystal clear who was on the right side of history and who was on the wrong side.

A new amendment to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill would ban local councils from taking such a stand. Were it in place back in 1985, because the Conservative government supported apartheid South Africa, local councils, no matter the strength of local feeling, and no matter the righteousness of the cause, would have been prevented from divesting pension funds from South Africa.

They would’ve been compelled to be complicit in injustice. Robert Jenrick, the member for Newark who tabled the amendment, might argue that that is history, and today things are very different. The facts, I contest, say otherwise.

What the Amendment Does

Parliament knows that British-made weapons and diplomatic support are integral to the Saudi-led war on Yemen.

Even as that war has claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people, pushed more than twenty million into absolute destitution, and has resulted in grave violations of international law, British complicity continues.

But this amendment could deny councils the right to divest
from arms companies whose bombs rain down on the people of Yemen.

Similarly, if a local authority wanted to align their pension
fund with international law, and divest from companies
operating in illegally occupied Palestinian lands, this amendment could deny them that right too.

Also with the rapidly accelerating threat of climate catastrophe, and the need to consign fossil fuels to history, at the worst possible moment this amendment risks outlawing councils from standing up for climate justice, banning divestment of pension funds from companies that are setting our planet alight. These are just some of the more blatant affronts to local democracy and ethical investments.

This amendment is so vague and badly worded that it will have a chilling effect on public sector pension investments. It could be weaponised against any human rights campaign that raises concerns about pension investments in any company not formally on the UK sanction list, and as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warn, it’s so badly worded that in fear of committing an offence, pension scheme managers could feel forced to break
their fiduciary duties.

Fighting Injustice, Then and Now

In 1959, the anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli put out a call for global solidarity.

In Britain, hundreds of thousands of campaigners responded, launching a boycott of South African goods, with people across the country doing what they could to end this injustice.

In my city, Coventry, the local Labour Party led the fight,
distributing leaflets, holding public rallies, and even displaying a large poster in the centre of the city for a whole month, publicising the boycott, and raising awareness about apartheid.

And as so often in history, it was actions of ordinary people,
anti-racist campaigners, trade unionists, and local councils who led the way, counteracting Westminster’s complicity.

These actions, while small in themselves, were part of a global anti-apartheid movement that was instrumental in bringing an end to this grave injustice.

We should learn this lesson, the lesson of history, and understand that we should empower local councils to make democratic, ethical investment decisions—not outlaw it, as this amendment does.