World War One: The overlooked opposition

Last year saw a flood of new books on World War One. When I saw a new one in a bookshop or library, I would pick it up and look up how much space it gave to the issue of opposition to the war. This was particularly so if it was presented as a general history of the war, or of Britian’s part in it.

The new  books are still coming, but I have largely given up on this practice. I became rather demoralised with books that failed to mention the anti-war movement, or confined themselves to a single paragraph on conscientious objectors or – worse still – claimed that almost everyone in Britain supported the war.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about the peace activists of World War One. Everywhere, I am met with surprise about the level of opposition. Here are some much-overlooked facts.

  1. There were peace demonstrations throughout the war. Around 15-20,000 people demonstrated against the war in Trafalgar Square on 2 August 1914. About 5,000 protested in Glasgow at the same time, with thousands of others around the UK. The Women’s Peace Crusade organised protests around Britain from 1916-18.
  2. The Tribunal, newsletter of the leading anti-war group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), had 100,000 readers in 1916, despite being a semi-underground publication.
  3. On 9th July 1915, a Captain Townroe wrote from the West Lancashire Territorial Force to Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He reported that: “Over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”.
  4. Women from around Europe and North America gathered in the Hague in April 1915 for an international peace congress. The UK government prevented most British delegates from sailing, but three of them managed to make it.
  5. In early 1917, around 200,000 people in the UK signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace (Germany had offered peace talks and the UK government had declined).
  6. In January 1917, a pacifist called Albert Taylor won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Rossendale by-election, standing on an anti-war ticket.
  7. At least 16,100 people (the lowest estimate) refused to join the British army and became conscientious objectors (the highest estimate is around 23,000).
  8. Over 6,000 British conscientious objectors were sent to prison after refusing exemption or rejecting the conditions for partial exemption.
  9. 35 British conscientious objectors were sentenced to death in 1916, although the sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment following political campaigning on the issue. Over 80 conscientious objectors died in prison, military detention or work camps, mostly due to ill treatment and poor conditions.
  10. Dozens of peace activists, both women and men, spent time in prison under the Defence of the Realm Act for offences such as handing out anti-war leaflets, producing illegal publications and encouraging people not to join the army.
  11. There was industrial unrest throughout the war, particularly in 1918. The summer of 1918 saw strikes in arms factories and on the railways, including a strike by female cleaners on the railways calling for equal pay with men. On 30 August 1918, the majority of the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
  12. There were a string of mutinies among British soldiers between November 1918 and February 1919, as the government failed to demobilise them despite the end of the war. Some of the mutineers elected Soldiers’ Councils and set up soldiers’ trades unions.

Conscription – in 1916 and today

Ninety-nine years ago today (2 March 1916), every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces. It was only a few months before another act was passed, extending conscription to married men.

A few months later, on 1 July, over 19,000 British troops were killed in a single day at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. They were not conscripts, for the first conscripts were still being trained. Nonetheless, conscription made the Somme possible. Commanders were able to send thousands of men to their deaths knowing that were now many more to replace them. Thousands of German and French soldiers joined them in death, fighting for competing sides in an imperial war that had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with money and power.

In World War One, between 16,000 and 23,000 British men refused to accept conscription and became conscientious objectors (COs). The vast majority of COs were denied exemption by the tribunals set up to deal with them. Many were offered partial exemption, which some accepted but many did not. Over 6,000 COs went to prison, while others were held in work camps run by the Home Office in which conditions were only slightly better than prison. Others – both men and women – were imprisoned for anti-war activism under the terms of the draconian Defence of the Realm Act.

The COs’ witness against militarism is an inspiration today. We no longer have physical conscription in the UK, but it is a reality in much of the world, from Israel to South Korea to Colombia to Eritrea. In the UK, volunteer troops theoretically have the right to leave the forces if they develop a conscientious objection during their term of service. In practice this is not upheld, as shown by the case of Michael Lyons, a member of the navy imprisoned in 2011 after having a change of heart and refusing to use a gun.

In the UK, our bodies are not conscripted. But our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the highest military budget in the European Union. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and that soldiers are heroes. Our very language is conscripted, as we say “defence” when we mean warfare, “security” when we mean fear and “conflict” when we mean violence.

The struggle against militarism and warfare is as vital in 2015 as it was 99 years ago. Earlier today, the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Burghfield, Berkshire, was peacefully blockaded by people determined to stop the development of nuclear arms. Yesterday, thousands of people marched in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Russian and British people have more in common with each other than they do with their warmongering governments. Every war opposed, every weapon disarmed, every aspect of militarism denied, every refusal to put our nationality ahead of our humanity is an act of resistance to the idols of violence that were rejected by the pacifists during World War One.

Harry Stanton was a blacksmith’s son from Luton. As a Quaker, he refused to accept conscription in 1916. He was forced into the army, where he refused to obey orders. Within four months, he had experienced imprisonment, torture, hunger and a death sentence that was commuted to ten years in prison. He was 21.

As Harry listened to his death sentence being commuted, he felt that “the feeling of joy and triumph surged up within me, and I felt proud to have the privilege of being one of that small company of COs testifying to a truth which the world as yet had not grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance”.

Nearly a century later, we are still struggling to grasp that truth. Let’s honour the COs’ legacy by continuing their struggle. We need to object, conscientiously, to warfare and militarism today.

Sex, violence and Margaret Thatcher

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is generally considered a “slow news” period by the media, as not much is happening (in reality of course, lots of things are happening; just not the sort of things that most editors tend to consider newsworthy). The week, however, is always livened up by the release of government papers under the 30-year rule. Government documents from 1985 have just entered the public domain.

These reveal all sorts of alarming, amusing and sometimes predictable facts: Thatcher considered removing schools from local authority control; it was Oliver Letwin who recommened using Scotland as a guinea pig for the poll tax; there were discussions among ministers about forcing advertising on the BBC.

I am struck by the contradiction between two of the revelations. Between them, these two stories say a great deal about the ethical hypocrisy of British politics and society.

On the one hand, it appears that Thatcher considered a ban on sex toys, or at least certain types of sex toys, by extending the Obscene Publications Act to include physical objects. The then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, wrote a memo to Thatcher saying there was a “strong case” for such a ban, adding, “Some of the items in circulation are most objectionable, including some which can cause physical injury”.

At the same time, Thatcher thought about spending £200 million of public money on chemical weapons, despite the UK’s declared position of opposition to chemical weapons. Such weapons were intended for use if the cold war turned hot: in other words, they would have been deployed against the civilian populations of the USSR and its allies.

Here we have Thathcherite ethics in microcosm. Minor physical harm between consenting adults having sex: unacceptable. Mass killing of innocent civilians: acceptable.

Dominant atttidues to sex and violence in the UK continue to stink with hypocrisy. The establishment are dragging their feet on investigating alleged Westminster-centred child abuse while approving of “anti-pornography” laws that demonise sexual acts between consenting adults that tend to be enjoyed most by women and LGBT people.

A Christian protesting against anti-porn laws

In recent years, Britain has slowly begun to wake up to the reality of sexual abuse. The Jimmy Saville scandal triggered shocking revelations about abuse carried out by respected entertainers in the 1970s and 80s. Child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have been followed by increased reports of similar outrages in the Church of England. Only this week, it was revealed that the Scout Association had paid out thousands to settle legal cases brought by survivors of sexual abuse.

There is a very long way to go. Research by children’s rights charities suggests that child abuse is still rife. The conviction rate for rape is dreadfully low. A string of opinion polls suggests that significant percentages of people believe rape is less serious if the victim is drunk or has previously consented to sex and changed her mind.

Challenging and reducing sexual abuse should be an aim that unites people of many different political, religious and non-religious persuasions. Unfortunately, some seem to be more keen on restricting unusual sexual behaviour between consenting adults – including consenting adults in loving, faithful relationships.

The latest “anti-pornography” laws will do nothing to reduce sexual abuse. On the contrary, they will perpetuate inaccurate ideas about abuse while restricting civil liberties and demonising sexual minorities.

That is why I will join the protest against them outside Parliament at noon today (#pornprotest). I am sure I will not be the only Christian there.

I am not naïve about pornography. I have no doubt that the majoirty of pornography is exploitative, abusive and misogynistic. It contributes to the commercialisation of sexuality, which is also seen in the pressure to spend vast sums of money on weddings and the way the advertising industry promotes narrow types of romantic relationships for the sake of profit (though many who criticise pornography overlook these more respectable forms of commercialised sexuality).

Whether you regard pornography as inherently unethical depends to some extent on how you define “pornography”. Some years ago, like many other Christians, I simply dismissed anything described as “pornography” as immoral. I do so no longer. This is not because I’ve adopted some ultra-liberal approach to sexual ethics (something which I’m occasionally accused of), but because I see the hypocrisy behind mainstream attitudes to sexuality.

Conservative Christians sometimes accuse me of simply accepting the dominant values of British society. On the contrary, I oppose the hypocrisy of conventional sexual morality – which idolises narrow ideas of romance and condemns those that don’t fit into them, which tells people that love is what matters but pressurises them to spend thousands of pounds on weddings, which screams outrage at child abusers on street corners but ignores the abuse that takes place within apparently respectable homes. And which condemns sexual activities and relationship structures that look a bit odd – such as kink and polyamory – even when they involve love, honesty and meaningful consent.

The new anti-porn laws will restrict “kinky” porn in particular. Producing spanking, caning and face-sitting images, for example, is likely to be illegal – even if the producers of the image are the people participating in the sexual act it depicts. By targeting kink, the law is unlikely to damage big corporate pornographers. It will instead restrict “home-made” and specialist small-business porn, which is, of course, less likely to be exploitative in the first place (although I accept that some of it is). Any meaningful government attempt to prevent physical harm caused by such activities would surely involve consultation with people who practise kink, who tend to know most about the health and safety issues involved. This certainly does not seem to have happened in this case.

There are at least four good reasons for opposing the anti-pornography legislation.

Firstly, there is the importance of free expression. I am not absolutist about free speech. For example, I do not think people should be allowed to stand in the street and promote violence. But free speech should be restricted only when there is a very strong case that doing so will reduce or prevent violence or other forms of abuse. No such case can be made in regard to this legislation. Any unjustified restriction of free expression is an attack on the civil liberties of us all, regardless of our sexuality or beliefs.

Secondly, the proposed laws tend towards sexism and homophobia. Most of the activities they will restrict are more common amongst women and within same-sex relationships. Many of them are related to female domination (which can be practised in a playful way between people who nonetheless regard each other as equals).

Thirdly, the laws demonise sexual minorities by singling out certain sexual practices, even though taking place between consenting adults. Of course, some forms of kink can be abusive. Kink, at times, can be used as an excuse for abuse. Marriage can also be used as an excuse for abuse. It is dangerous and wrong to encourage the idea that conventional sexual relationships are all fine and unusual ones are immoral. Sexual abuse can be found within the most outwardly respectable marriages – as can love, mutuality and compassion. It is the values present in relationships that make them moral or immoral, not how they look on the outside. I am, of course, talking about relationships between consenting and honest adults. There is nothing healthy or ethical about sexual activity that is without consent, that involves children or is deceitful.

Fourthly, these laws may make it harder, not easier, to challenge sexual abuse. They confuse abuse with oddness, criminalising sexual activity because it is unconventional rather than because it causes harm. I am against these laws precisely because I want to tackle sexual abuse. To do so, society must place a much higher value on meaningful consent. Let’s celebrate healthy sexual expression between compassionate, consenting adults while striving to eliminate the vicious, outrageous abuse that still pervades the sexually hypocritical society in which we live.

Terror threat: Let’s not fall for it again

Do they expect us to believe it all again? With weary familiarity, I have been reading the government’s claims that we face a heightened “terror threat”. UK governments have been making this claim every so often since 2001. It is usually followed by a fresh restriction of civil liberties or the departure of British troops to yet another war zone.

Despite Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destructions, despite the killing of the entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes, despite the absurdity of tanks sent to Heathrow in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, despite the widespread distrust of politicians, we are for some reason expected to fall for it this time.

When the “terror threat level” was raised a few days ago, I predicated a new assault on civil liberties. I’d barely typed the prediction on Twitter before Cameron and Clegg began to fulfil it. We can apparently expect some sort of announcement from them on Monday about new measures to tackle the “threat”. Cameron has spoken of filling the “gaps in our armoury”.

Ed Miliband has loyally weighed in with his own suggestions for reducing our freedom. In his article in today’s Independent, he makes some good points about tackling the root causes of support for IS and working multilaterally. He then ruins it with a call for the return of control orders and a “mandatory programme of deradicalisation for anyone who is drawn into the fringes of extremism”. I’m not sure what this phrase is supposed to mean, but it seems to imply that people should be punished for their beliefs rather than their actions.

The odd thing is that the “terror threat” claim might be true. It could be the case that we face a greater than usual threat of terror attacks on British soil. But we’ve got no idea, because the claim has been used so often to mislead and manipulate us that a true claim would not stand out.

Certainly, the announcement is convenient ahead of the NATO summit in south Wales next week. The front page of today’s Independent shows residents of Cardiff passing through metal detection barriers in order to be allowed to walk around their own city. Restrictions on peaceful anti-NATO protests, and the arrest of protesters, will no doubt be justified on the grounds of the threat of terrorism.

The concept of protecting NATO from terrorism would be funny if it were not so sickening. Unlike Iraq, several NATO members actually do own weapons of mass destruction (the US, UK and French governments own nuclear arms). NATO’s explicit policy is to encourage high military spending among its members, inevitably reducing spending in socially useful areas such as healthcare and education. NATO’s attitude to Ukraine is every bit as aggressive and imperialist as the Russian government’s.

In short, the leaders of NATO have at least as much blood on their hands as anyone that they want “protecting” from.

I’m not denying that there is a chance, perhaps a strong chance, of terror attacks in Britain. The British government’s killing of innocent people around the world makes it likely that some will wish to respond by killing innocent people here. I am not for a moment suggesting that this makes such killing justified. To identify someone’s motivation is not to condone it. Nor will I pretend that the UK government is in a better moral position than those it condemns.

Cameron’s government sells weapons to the vicious regimes of Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia. British drone pilots have been killing civilians in Afghanistan for years. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith have snatched away the livelihoods of some of Britain’s poorest people, who may well feel more under threat from their own government than from terrorists in Iraq.

Whatever the “terror threat”, I cannot support efforts by Cameron and Clegg to defeat it. I detest “Islamic State” as it now calls itself. It is a gang of mass murderers and no decent-minded person of any religion will offer them the slightest measure of support. Nor do I support the terrorism carried out by the US and UK governments. I oppose NATO as much as I oppose Putin, and the IDF as much as Hamas.

In short, I will not unite with one group of killers against another. The people of Britain, of Iraq, of Ukraine, of Palestine, of Israel, of Russia and of the US share a common identity and future as human beings. We have too much in common with each other to give in to those who kill in our name.

We need a right to live, not a right to die

A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair was recently approached by a stranger who crossed over the road to talk to her. Without knowing anything about her, he told her that he supported her right to die with dignity through assisted suicide. She told him that she was more concerned with her right to live than her right to die.

This man’s clear implication was that any disabled person would want to die. The assumption that a disabled person’s life is not worth living lies only slightly below the surface of the debate on the Assisted Dying Bill, presented in the House of Lords today.

In the midst of depression some years ago, I contemplated suicide several times. I am more grateful than I can say that I never acted on those thoughts and that I have them no longer. I am grateful to the friends who helped to dissuade me. Today I am wondering whether, if I had also had a physical illness, some of them would have encouraged me to kill myself.

I am not suggesting that all supporters of the Assisted Dying Bill take this attitude. However, the debate in the media is going ahead with very little reference to the realities of life for the thousands of disabled people thrown into poverty and isolation by the abolition of Disability Living Allowance, the end of the Independent Living Fund, the bedroom tax, the biased Atos assessments, the cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance and the removal of hundreds of local disability services following cuts to local authority budgets.

It is well documented that some of these cuts have already led to deaths. They will lead to more. There is something horrifically ironic about Parliament debating the right of disabled people to die (if they choose to do so) when they have recently approved measures that have led to disabled people dying when they have not chosen to do so.

Middle class columnists in both right-wing and left-wing newspapers are demanding their right to die in articles that attribute the opposition to narrow-minded religious leaders. You would never guess from these columns that most disability rights campaigners are against this bill.

The campaign group Not Dead Yet – formed by disabled people opposed to euthanasia – points out that “Opposition to assisted dying is not confined to the medical profession and religious groups. Most importantly, it includes the very people whom would be most affected by any change in legislation.”

Significantly, not one disabled people’s organisation is backing assisted dying.

Today’s Times lists supporters and opponents of the bill. Thankfully, they do list “disabled campaigners” amongst the bill’s opponents, but they are last on the list, after “doctors”, “religious figures” and “party leaders”. Are the views of disabled people not more important than that?

The media have focused on the cases of terminally ill individuals who have wanted the right to assisted suicide. I have no wish to judge these people. I cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through. If they are certain that they wish to kill themselves, it would of course be wrong to treat their relatives as out-and-out murderers for helping them to do so. This is very different from arguing that this should be legal, let alone that mechanisms should be set up to kill such people in hospitals or similar settings with state approval.

We are not debating an abstract ethical question in a university seminar. We are discussing real ethics in a real context. I will not support assisted dying when there is a good chance that people might choose it because they cannot cope with physical or mental pain that could be alleviated by treatment or services that are denied to them by a state that slashes services for the most vulnerable while ploughing billions into weapons.

There are some on the left who oppose the government’s cuts but make no mention of them when they declare their support for assisted dying. Then again, there is a hideous consistency in the views of former archbishop George Carey, who strongly backs welfare cuts and now wants those who suffer from them to be allowed to die.

The few ministers who back assisted dying include care minister Norman Lamb, who has colluded with cuts and presided over growing poverty amongst disabled people. It is also supported by Anna Soubry, a “defence” minister whose job involves maintaining a military system that had killed thousands of innocent people in recent years and has the potential to kill millions more.

There are those who will dismiss my argument against the Assisted Dying Bill on the ground that I am religious. Thankfully, most non-religious people are not this prejudiced. My position is shared by many people who do not share my religion. For me, it is my Christian faith that leads me to support equality and human rights, but these principles are supported equally strongly by others. My faith also leads me to believe that society should share its resources and give to each according to their need.

I will never support any proposal based on the idea that one person’s life is worth less than another’s, or that offers death as an alternative to a decent welfare state.

Church welcomes arms dealers – but tries to ban pacifists from singing hymns

Church House vigil 140709The most bizarre moment of today’s vigil outside an arms conference at Church House was when Westminster Abbey’s staff told us that we were not allowed to sing hymns on their land.

A group of around twenty people, mostly Christians, were holding a vigil of prayer and protest outside Church House, whose conference centre is hosting an “Air Power” conference sponsored by arms companies such as BAE and Lockheed Martin. The area outside one entrance to Church House is on Westminster Abbey land.

Our vigil had largely been silent until we started to sing “We are marching in the light of God”. A member of Westminster Abbey staff came over to us and said we should not sing. She insisted that the Abbey had been “very generous” in allowing us on to its “private property” and that we would not be allowed to continue there if we sang.

I said it was odd that an arms dealers’ conference is welcome but that Christians singing hymns were not. The Abbey representative told me that the Abbey had nothing to do with the arms conference, which is hosted at Church House.

This is a fair point as far as it goes, even though the Abbey own the steps up which the arms dealers walked to get to Church House. But I asked why we could Church House vigil 140709 - 2not sing hymns in the grounds of a church built on Jesus Christ.

The Abbey staff member (I’m sorry; I don’t know her name) said she worked for the Dean and Chapter. I said that they were part of a church built on the teachings of Jesus. She said, “I don’t know what the church is built on” and insisted that she was accountable to the Dean and Chapter.

I asked if this was an admittance that Westminster Abbey is basically a secular institution rather than a church of Christ. She said, “It’s a royal peculiar”. This is a legal term regarding the Abbey’s official status and its relationship to the monarchy.

I replied that I had no interest in “royal peculiars” as the only royalty I recognise is Jesus Christ. I explained that Jesus is my king and queen and that Elizabeth Windsor is not.

She seemed offended at this point and said, “Queen Elizabeth the Second is my queen.” I replied, “She’s not mine” but she soon returned to talking about the Abbey being a “royal peculiar.”

Even if you accept monarchy, private property and so on, this does not explain why the Abbey should object to people singing hymns on its grounds. She never explained this, only saying the Abbey were “very generous” by allowing us there. Perhaps I should have put this point more, rather than got into an confused exchange about the monarchy.

I suggested that her words were an admission that the Abbey was more concerned with its loyalty to an earthly monarch than to Jesus. She didn’t answer, but walked off angrily to consult with uniformed staff as we continued to sing.

We sang hymns, prayed and read the Bible aloud for more than half an hour after that without being disturbed. The arms dealers enjoying drinks on the balcony above us could clearly hear us.

Of course, this comes less than a fortnight after Westminster Abbey’s staff called in the police for a violent eviction of a group of disabled protesters. Their behaviour on that occasion made St Paul’s Cathedral’s treatment of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp seem mild by comparison.

What’s this got to do with the arms trade? It’s about loyalty and authority. In what culture do Christian organisations operate? I frequently fail to live in loyalty to Christ. I do not love my neighbour as myself, I behave selfishly and am complicit in the sins of our society and economic system. The task of a church is to bring together people as they struggle to live in loyalty to the Kingdom of God, and to witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Loyalty to the Kingdom of God means a rejection of the powers of this world. Sadly, Westminster Abbey and Church House seem to be in thrall to the idols of Mammon, monarchy and militarism.

 

To sign an email about arms conferences at Church House to the Archbishop of Canterbury, please visit http://act.caat.org.uk/lobby/churchhouse.

London LGBT Pride – giving publicity to human rights abusers

This week, I’ve seen two movements that I love become sullied by complicity with the arms trade. First, Church House (a leading Christian conference centre) hosted a gathering of arms dealers and generals. Now, London LGBT Pride are about to allow a section of this week’s march to be used to publicise a company that is complicit in homophobia– and other human rights abuses – around the world.

BAE Systems, a multinational arms company that sells weapons to dictatorships, has been allocated its own section at the Pride march in London on Saturday. This is a march to promote and celebrate the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Yet BAE’s biggest customers include Saudi Arabia, one of the most viciously homophobic regimes in the world.

Thus the Pride march will include the symbols and branding of a company that actively works against the very things that the march is calling for.

BAE is not one of the “official sponsors” – though these include some very unethical multinationals, such as the tax dodgers at Starbuck’s and Barclay’s. BAE is one of the companies that have been allocated a section on the march for their workers. BAE have an LGBT employees’ group and it this group that will be on the march, in the same way as there will be other groups of workers from John Lewis and the Direct Line Group. There are also religious and cultural groups (most of them placed near the back, as usual). I will be marching with Christians Together at Pride.

I don’t want to stop BAE’s workers marching at Pride. If BAE employees support LGBT rights, I’m pleased to hear it (especially as their bosses clearly don’t). But they will undoubtedly be wearing, carrying or otherwise displaying logos and publicity from BAE. This will help the company’s bosses in their relentless drive to present themselves as being ethical and pro-human rights.

I tweeted the organisers of the march (@LondonLGBTPride). I’m grateful to them for replying very quickly. However, their reply made a very unclear argument. It said:

“Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves”.

I’m pleased if the LGBT workers at BAE strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves. I’m glad they’re coming on the march. But it’s either naïve or misleading of the organisers to overlook the fact that by listing BAE Systems as one of the groups on the march, and allowing BAE branding to appear, they are actively helping the company to promote itself.

Of course, I accept that this issue is part of  a wider problem with the commercialisation of Pride. There are various other unethical companies involved. I wouldn’t rate Barclay’s or BP as much better than BAE. You could make an argument that this is just as bad. However, I suggest the nature of an arms company is different.

An arms company cannot become ethical, because of the very nature of the arms trade, which involves selling weapons to virtually anyone who will buy them (if they can get away with it, which they usually can). Further, BAE actively promotes homophobia by arming homophobic governments that oppress their own people. I don’t know what “change” the Pride organisers imagine will “come from within”, unless it’s by the active rebellion of the workers against the BAE bosses (which would be great, but seems unlikely).

Despite the commercialisation of Pride, despite the excessive alcohol, the high prices and the vacuuous celebrities, despite all the things I don’t like about it, I must admit that the Pride march in London has played an significant part in my life. Going toPride was an important moment for me as I decided to be public about abandoning my former homophobia. London Pride was one of the first places in which I told a stranger I was bisexual. In 2011, when I walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my formoer homophobia, the Pride march was the last leg of my pilgrimage. The significance of the Pride march for me makes me feel even sadder and angrier about its misuse by arms dealers.

Please tweet @LondonLGBTPride, or otherwise contact them, about this issue. And remember, you can always wear a Campaign Against Arms Trade badge on Saturday.

Where do “British values” come from?

Schools in which pupils are taught to follow the same values as the government are usually associated with totalitarian regimes. This has not stopped Michael Gove and David Cameron from saying that “British values” should be taught in all British schools.

Despite their repeated use of the word “British”, Gove can determine only what’s taught in English schools, as education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is handled by the devolved administrations there. This is a thus a policy that fails before it gets to the end of its first sentence.

There have been a lot of jokes about attempts to define “British values”. Will children have lessons in moaning about the weather? Will there be exams on the rules of cricket? Will pupils have to demonstrate an ability to glare at people who jump queues while never actually challenging them?

Perhaps all these jokes going round social media demonstrate that one “British value” is a belief in the importance of laughing at ourselves.

Gove’s supporters suggest that “British values” include concepts such as democracy, free speech and human rights. The irony of teaching people what view they should take on free speech and democracy seems to be lost on them.

There are many countries that can take pride in their traditions of democracy and human rights. Nonetheless, I see nothing wrong with people in Britain being proud of what has been achieved in these areas in Britain. But before we do so, let’s remember two overlooked realities.

Firstly, Britain’s traditions of democracy and free expression have sat alongside other traditions – of oppression, racism and violence. The British Empire was rooted in economic exploitation and justified by a racial view of conquered people. It diverted attention away from poverty at home by telling people to be proud of what their masters were achieving abroad. Wars were fought not only against subject peoples but against other imperial powers that threatened the British Empire’s dominance – the first world war is the obvious example. During that war, the government exercised heavy censorship, lied to the public about what was going on at the front and imprisoned 6,000 critics of the war.

Secondly, progressive traditions of free expression and human rights have survived despite all this. When democracy has triumphed in Britain it has done so in spite of the powerful and not because of them. The great parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were dragged out of a reluctant elite by mass public campaigns. In some cases, reforms were desperate attempts to avoid revolution or to buy off one section of society so that they would not ally with another. But such changes would not have happened at all without the reality of grassroots campaigns, even if the reforms often did not go as far as the campaigners wanted. Society was changed from below, not from above. Going back to the seventeenth century, the rule of law was established only when King Charles I was convicted of treason after waging war against his own people, establishing the principle that no-one was above the law.

The human rights and relative democracy that we have in Britain are due to millions of ordinary people going out and campaigning for them over centuries. They did so in defiance of the rich and powerful. Michael Gove and David Cameron have far more in common with the politicians and monarchs who resisted such progress than they do with the people who championed it.

What could illustrate this better than Cameron’s deals with the vicious regime of Saudi Arabia, to whom he continues to sell weapons? Or the government’s use of drones in Afghanistan, killing civilians in a way largely indistinguishable from the “extremists” who Gove is so keen to challenge with “British values”?

Let’s celebrate our democratic traditions. Let’s do it by campaigning against the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few, and by insisting that school pupils must be free to hear a wide range of views, ideas and interpretations – not just those of Michael Gove.

Now unemployed people are sent on army training schemes

Poverty and militarism feed off each other. Unemployment has always been good news for army recruiters in need of people desperate for a livelihood. So it’s no surprise that the recruitment of unemployed people has been formalised in a scheme in the English Midlands. Could this be a sign of the way things are heading? The government is already forcing unemployed people to carry out unpaid labour through “workfare” schemes. Will they soon be forcing them into army training?

This might seem an odd suggestion at a time when regular soldiers are being made redundant due to army cuts. But let’s not forget that spending on warfare – or “defence” as it’s euphemistically known – has been cut by far less than many other areas of public expenditure. War is increasingly digitised and reliant on such tools as armed drones rather than large numbers of troops. The government’s policy is to increase the number of army reserves.

The scheme in the Midlands is named “SPEAR”, which stands for “Supporting People into Employment with the Army Reserve”. Perhaps this was the only military-sounding word that they could turn into an appropriate acronym.

Eighteen people in Telford joined the pilot scheme, which involves going through a month-long training programme run by the army. At the end of the scheme, ten of the eighteen applied to join the army reserve. At the other pilot scheme in Stoke-on-Trent, five applied to join the reserves and three to join the regular army.

I don’t know how the participants were selected. It may well be that the people who volunteered for them were more likely to be interested in the army, so more likely to sign up when the scheme was over. This may change as the scheme is extended. It is already set to be run in Coventry, Walsall and Wolverhampton. According to a report by Guardian journalist Ben Quinn, the army now believes the scheme may be implemented across the UK as a result of support from ministers.

SPEAR is run by the army in conjunction with Job Centre Plus. It is not the first time they have worked together. Earlier this year, the army set up recruitment offices in Job Centres, under a project called “More Than Meets the Eye”.

It is just another example of everyday militarism, normalising the role of the army in civilian life and helping the authorities to justify high military spending along with nationalism, hierarchy and other military values.

Labour MP Alex Cunningham has already expressed reservations about the army going into Job Centres. He’s also concerned about unemployed people feeling “pushed into the army” because of a lack of opportunities. He’s now told the Guardian that he would be anxious if benefits were ever to be linked to acceptance of military training.

Cunningham is right to be worried. The government is already forcing people to undertake full-time work for no pay or lose their benefits. Under the most recent scheme, misnamed “Help to Work”, long-term unemployed people will be forced into unpaid labour full-time for six months. Over 300 charities and other voluntary groups have already refused to participate, although the government is still insisting that the scheme will go ahead.

Could compulsory military training for unemployed people be another step in this direction? A few years ago it would have seemed impossible, but then it seemed just as impossible that any British government would introduce forced labour.

The SPEAR scheme is supposed to help people to gain “self-esteem and skills”. No doubt the same words will be used if the scheme becomes widespread, or even compulsory.

In reality, you don’t need an institution based on warfare and hierarchy to gain self-esteem and skills. I do not see how self-esteem can be linked to military ideas such as unquestioning obedience and signing away your right to make ethical decisions. As an institution, the army exists to carry out acts of violence, however decent and selfless some of its individual members may be. Everything else the organisation does is secondary to this.

Furthermore, high unemployment is a result of economic factors; it is not caused by a national lack of self-esteem. It needs economic solutions, not dodgy training schemes and military intervention.