100 years ago: Conscription passes into law

100 years ago today, the Military Service Act received the Royal Assent, introducing mass military conscription in the UK for the first time.

The Act stipulated that, from 2nd March, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales would be deemed to have enlisted in the armed forces. In May, the Act was extended to married men.

As a result, thousands of people were sent to needless deaths, while thousands who resisted found themselves in prison.

Those who claimed exemption were required to go before a tribunal to put their case. Most exemptions were on grounds of occupation, health or responsibility for dependents. The Act allowed for the possibility that some could be exempted on grounds of conscientious objection. In reality, this provision was largely ignored, with almost nobody being given total exemption on these grounds.

The “conscience clause” in practice

Many conscientious objectors were turned down altogether, while others were told they could join the “Non-Combatant Corps” (NCC). This was a unit of the army that did not carry weapons and was supposed to satisfy the consciences of objectors. It was absurd. Its members were required to swear the military oath, obey orders and observe military discipline. It played a direct role in facilitating the war. Despite this, there were several instances of NCC members refusing orders when they came too close to participating directly in warfare.

Others were allowed to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), a body set up by Quakers (by mostly upper middle class Quaker men, on the less radical wing of the Movement). However, many objected, saying that everyone who joined the FAU freed up someone else to go and fight. Later in the war, some were sent on the “Home Office Scheme”, a form of “alternative service” that seemed not dissimilar to being sent to a prison camp.

It used to be estimated that there were just over 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs) in World War One. Most scholars of the issue now accept that this is an underestimate, with the figure likely to be above 20,000.

Many of these were forced into the army against their will, where some refused to put on uniform, drill or obey orders. They found themselves in military detention and later in civilian prisons. Over 6,000 COs spent some time in prison during the war. Forty-two were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted. However, more than eighty COs died in prison or military detention, or shortly after being released on health grounds. Others never recovered their physical or mental health.

These numbers sound low compared to the millions who died fighting. The pacifists were the first to insist that they had not suffered as much as the soldiers had. They were suffering precisely because they were trying to stop the war in which these soldiers – and many civilians – were dying.

The COs were only part of the peace movement. They were by definition male and relatively young. But women and men of varied ages campaigned alongside them, liaising with opponents of war in Germany, France and elsewhere to resist the unspeakable mass slaughter.

Marking the centenary

This evening, I’ll be going to a reception at Parliament to mark 100 years of conscientious objection to conscription in the UK. It’s run by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who played a major role in resisting conscription a century ago, although the Society in 1916 was more divided than is sometimes thought (between firm pacifists and government sympathisers).

In 1916, some right-wing (or relatively right-wing) Quakers insisted that pacifists should “thank” the government for recognising the right to conscientious objection. Others replied, rightly, that no thanks were due when the right was not being observed in practice. Furthermore, the right not to kill is so basic that we are in a grotesquely twisted world when we have to thank our rulers for acknowledging it. While this evening’s event will, I’m sure, celebrate the resistance to conscription, I hope there will be no praise for the government of the time for inserting the largely meaningless “conscience clause” into the Act. As much as anything else, its inclusion was a sop to Liberal backbenchers who supported the war but were reluctant to vote for conscription.

The resistance to World War One was as global as the war. Only a small part of it was in Britain. It was resisted in France, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil and beyond. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that overthrew the royal rulers of Germany and Russia. A century later, we are still resisting conscription. This is literal in the cases of countries such as Israel, Eritrea, South Korea and Turkey, which still force people to kill. In Britain, our bodies are no longer conscripted. Instead our taxes are conscripted to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our minds are conscripted, with militarist ideology so engrained in us that we believe that violence is the ultimate solution to conflict. Our very language is conscripted, so that we talk of “defence” when we mean “war” and “doing nothing” when we mean “doing something other than fighting”.

We need to learn from those who resisted war a century ago. Their struggle is as relevant and vital as ever.




Exeter students reject arguments in favour of World War One

I had the privilege last week of speaking at Exeter University Debating Society, opposing the motion that “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I am pleased to say that those present voted against the motion by seventy votes to forty.

The motion was proposed by Andrew Murrison, a minister for Northern Ireland and the government’s Special Representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. He was supported by Daniel Steinbach, a historian from King’s College London. I was pleased to be joined in opposing the motion by Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition. The debate was chaired by Exeter student Lewis Saffin.

Prior to the debate, I had pointed out on my blog that Andrew Murrison’s support for the motion undermined his stated desire not to glorify the first world war. When it came to the debate, Andrew said he did “not like” the wording of the motion but would instead argue that World War One was a just war. This is hardly the same thing, so I’m not clear why Andrew agreed to propose the motion. However, in voting against the motion, the students seemed to be ejecting his claim about just war as well as the wording of the motion itself.

The text below equates roughly to the words I used in the five minutes I was given at the beginning of the debate. Having drafted it beforehand, it inevitably varied slightly in practice, but the substance remained the same.

What is a victory? How can anything that leads to the deaths of tens of millions of people be described as a victory? How can something that leaves a world in ruins, that leaves millions of people starving to death and susceptible to disease be a victory? The notion of victory in war, any war, is an absurdity. As Jeanette Rankin, who in 1917 became the first female member of the US Congress, put it, “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake”.

The ending of the war was not great for the British people. The war led to a massive national debt, next to which the current British debt – about which we hear so much – pales into insignificance. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, promised that after the war Britain would be “a land fit for heroes”. Instead, there was mass poverty and unemployment. My own great-grandfather, who fought at the Somme, was awarded five medals during the war. After the war, unemployed and struggling to feed his children, he was forced to sell all five medals in an attempt to survive. What “great victory” did he have – or the thousands and thousands like him, thrown into poverty by a government for whom they had fought?

The poverty in Germany by the end of the war was much more severe. The British government, backed by the pro-war media, had justified the war on the grounds that Belgium must be defended from German aggression. It is true that Germany invaded Belgium and that atrocities were committed against Belgian civilians by German troops. I don’t deny it for a moment. I condemn those atrocities. Yet as the war went on, the British navy blockaded Germany with a clear intention of starving Germans into surrender. Thousands of German and Austrian civilians were starved to death as a result, killed by the British government as surely as if British troops had been sent to stab their bayonets into them directly. There is nothing great about mass murder.

Justifying war with reference to Belgium was a piece of staggering hypocrisy. In 1914, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times, which only days before had been condemning proposals for home rule for Ireland, transformed themselves overnight into champions of “the rights of small nations”. British troops had been committing atrocities in colonial wars for decades. Horatio Kitchener, who was made Secretary for War in 1914, had himself commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in 1898.

This year, with the centenary of the outbreak of war, we’ve been focussing a lot on how the war started. I wonder if we’ll be any more honest in four years’ time, when we consider how the war ended. From 1916 until 1918, there was increasing discontent among working class Germans, both civilians and troops. There were strikes in German arms factories and occasional mutinies, encouraged by the spread of socialist ideas and the realisation of the injustice of the war. By October 1918, with Germany starving and losing the war, there were mass mutinies in the German navy and working class protests around Germany. The Kaiser abdicated. It was not the Kaiser but his successors who signed the armistice. Yes, allied troops were winning the war by October 1918, but it was the German working class who ensured that the war ended at this point. If only British troops had also mutinied in large numbers at the same time, things might have turned out a let better for people in both Britain and Germany.

Even now, there are those who tell us that World War One was necessary to defeat German militarism and stop Germany dominating Europe. I don’t know how that sounded to people in India or Malawi or Ireland, whose countries were controlled by a British Empire whose rulers spoke about resisting German imperialism. The reality is that most people in Britain and Germany had more in common with each other than they did with their rulers. That’s why, on the eve of war, over 100,000 people demonstrated against war in Berlin. Thousands more demonstrated throughout Britain – including 15,000 in London and 5,000 in Glasgow, according to media reports at the time.

Contrary to the impression given by the majority of books and documentaries on World War One, there was an active pacifist movement in Britain throughout the war. In July 1915, a territorial army officer in Lancashire, a Captain Townroe, wrote to Kitchener reporting that “over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading peace group at the time, produced a semi-illegal newspaper that had 100,000 readers in 1916. These figures hardly fit with the oft-repeated claim that almost everyone supported the war. Over 6,000 people in Britain went to prison for opposing the war. The majority were conscientious objectors who were denied exemption from the army, while others were locked up for illegal activism, such as handing out pacifist leaflets in the street.

The end of the first world war was not a victory, for millions of people were killed or impoverished. It was not a success for the British people, who had far more in common with their German counterparts than with their rulers. And it certainly was not great. It is not being British that makes us great, but being human. We can only be truly great, and we can only end war, when we give our loyalty not to a nation-state, but to humanity as a whole.

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.

Mainstream parties have been defeated by the monster they created

Nigel Farage’s smug grin is all over the media this morning. But the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have been defeated by a monster of their own creation.

They have failed to speak up for the benefits of migration, they have not provided decent housing, they have bailed out banks and punished the poor, they have pandered to the super-rich. It’s no surprise that people look for an alternative.

Unfortunately, the alternative is provided by Nigel Farage’s ragtag army of racists, sexists, homophobes and climate change deniers. Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker, presents himself as anti-establishment. UKIP’s policies include a tax system that would harm the poor and those in the middle while slashing taxes for the rich. UKIP politicians also advocate a big increase in military spending at the same time as greater cuts to the welfare state.

Most of these policies are barely mentioned in the media, which concentrates on UKIP’s views on migration and the European Union. The BBC must bear some responsibility for UKIP’s success. Fascinated with Farage, keen on sensational change, they have given the party vastly disproportionate attention.

Not that this is any excuse for voting for UKIP. I won’t patronise UKIP voters by suggesting they don’t know what they’re doing. Let’s not forget, however, that around two-thirds of UK voters did not even vote in this election. UKIP have received the support of about one in ten of the adult population. Even the majority of those who did vote supported parties that favour EU membership.

The Tories have already shown their willingness to cave into UKIP’s agenda, attacking migrants and the EU at the same time as they demonise the poor to justify their austerity agenda. Labour have a chance to speak up for migration and point out the real problems of spiralling poverty and inequality. Sadly, Labour politicians are already mentioning the need to talk more about immigration – a euphemism for being more anti-immigration and blaming migrants for problems they have not caused.

Thankfully, there is more to politics than choosing between four parties that marginalise the working and middle classes in the interests of the rich. There are alternative ways of voting – such as Green, Plaid Cymru and others.

More importantly, we can aim for a better world in our own lives and communities – by refusing to scapegoat migrants, Muslims or benefit claimants; by staging grassroots campaigns against austerity, prejudice and war; by supporting each other in resisting poor working conditions and dodgy landlords; by choosing kindness over consumerism. We can defy this rotten system not just on polling day, but every day.

Arrested for quoting Churchill?

If you believe the Daily Mail, then a European election candidate has been arrested “for quoting Winston Churchill”.

It seems that Paul Weston, leader of the tiny far-right Liberty Great Britain party, was arrested on suspicion of inciting racial and religious hatred.

Whatever view we take on the rightness or wrongness of Weston’s arrest, it should have nothing to do with Churchill. If it’s right (or wrong) to stop him expressing bigoted views, then it’s right (or wrong) regardless of the identity of the person he was quoting.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether someone should be arrested for expressing opinions, however hateful and prejudiced they may be. Inciting violence should certainly be illegal. When it comes to bigotry that can inspire hatred, I find it hard to know where the line should be. Of course, I don’t even know whether Weston’s account of the event is accurate. I wasn’t there.

But if anything good comes out of this squalid incident, it’s that the publicity around it will make more people aware of Churchill’s real views. Churchill was a racist and strongly prejudiced against Muslims. No amount of lauding him as a national hero (based on some questionable national myths about the second world war) can make this less true.

Take the words of Churchill that Weston quoted. Churchill, in many ways an intelligent man, nonetheless descended to the level of ill-informed nonsense when it came to Muslims. He said they were cursed by “fanatical frenzy” and “fearful fatalistic apathy”.

He wrote, “The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.”

Churchill insisted that “No stronger retrograde force [than Islam] exists in the world.”

We cannot excuse all this by saying that Churchill was a man of his time. Plenty of British people at the time had a better knowledge of Islam, while many who did not were still able to understand the unfairness of sweeping generalisations not backed up by evidence.

Unfortunately, the arrest and associated coverage has probably increased the number of people who have heard of Liberty Great Britain several times over. I decided to find out a bit about it.

Paul Weston, a former UKIP candidate in central London, was briefly chairman of the British Freedom Party, formed largely by ex-BNP members with links to the English Defence League. He then went on to set up Liberty Great Britain, which is to field three candidates in the south-east region for the European election. The third candidate on the list, Jack Buckby, recently stated that no real Muslim is peaceful and that “not all nations are necessarily equal”.

No-one should be giving much publicity to these people without pointing out the far-right, racist nature of their party. The article in the Mail barely mentioned it.

According to Liberty Great Britain’s website, their main concerns are “mass immigration from the third world, the steady rise of fundamentalist Islam and the hijacking of traditional British culture and institutions by well-organised left-wing progressives”.

Speaking as a left-wing progressive, I only wish we were as organised as that statement implies.

Farage still scaremongering about same-sex marriage

During his recent debates with Nick Clegg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage found time to make a baseless prediction about same-sex marriage and religion.

In his first debate with Clegg, Farage said that UKIP opposed same-sex marriage “while we are signed up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and where we have the risk that our established church, and possibly other faith communities, could ultimately under discrimination laws be forced to conduct services that they find anathema”. 

He went further in a statement released by his office, to correct any perception that UKIP now supports same-sex marriage. He said, “We note that some gay rights activists are already talking about taking legal action in Strasbourg to force this issue.”

Are they, Nigel? Can you name them please?

I’m not sure they exist outside Nigel Farage’s fantasies, but I am ready to apologise if he or anyone else can point them out to me.

The fear that faith groups may be forced to carry out same-sex weddings against their will has been whipped up over the last two years by groups such as the “Coalition for Marriage”, certain conservative Catholics and UKIP.

These claims are less believable than ever. They had largely died down since the legislation on same-sex marriage was passed by Parliament last year, as it became clear that legal challenges were not happening.

By reviving these claims, Farage raises the spectre of the European Court of Human Rights. He does not, of course, explain why the Court has not forced faith groups to carry out same-sex marriages in all the other European countries that already recognise same-sex marriage.

Despite working on these issues for several years, I know of no LGBT rights group that wants to force faith communities to carry out marriages they don’t believe in. I have never met any individual who wants to do so either. Anyone attempting such a legal challenge would almost certainly have to begin it in the UK courts; not in Strasbourg. Furthermore, they would receive no support from any of the major LGBT rights groups in the UK, and very little from anyone else.

In November 2011, Christian Concern (one of the lobby groups behind the “Coalition for Marriage”) commented on new legislation allowing churches to host civil partnerships. Christian Concern’s director, Andrea Williams, said “It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

No such litigation was commenced. No organisation came out supporting such litigation. I wrote to Andrea Williams on 4th November 2011, asking her to name any groups or individuals of whom she was aware who were planning such litigation. Two and a half years’ later, I am still waiting for a reply.

It’s no surprise that the Christian Concern website currently has a picture of Nigel Farage on the front page, with an article saying he is “right to the fear the consequences” of same-sex marriage. Both UKIP and Christian Concern are fuelled by fear. Their baseless claims must be challenged.

If you think UKIP’s members are extreme, read its official policies

Nigel Farage has thrown out the latest UKIP member to provoke controversy through bigoted opinions. Farage says he wants to get rid of candidates with “extremist, barmy or nasty” views. But it is not individual candidates who are the problem. UKIP’s official policies are extremely nasty, based as they are on an ultra-Thatcherite free-market extremism.

Earlier this week, I blogged about David Silvester, a UKIP councillor in Oxfordshire who attributed the recent floods to God’s judgment on the legalisation of same-sex marriage (rather than the real sin of human-fuelled climate change). I have now lost count of the number of UKIP members that have been expelled due to racist, sexist or homophobic comments. Farage’s insistence that there are bigoted individuals in every party is true but now wearing thin as an excuse for the number of them who appear to have joined UKIP.

You only have to look at the policies of UKIP to see why. They want to make even greater cuts than the Tories. They are committed to workfare (forcing people to work for benefits, instead of paying them a wage). They want to withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees, meaning the UK could turn back people fleeing persecution. They would also remove the UK from the European Court of Human Rights, meaning it would join Belarus as the only other European country that is not signed up to it.

Despite slashing the welfare state, a UKIP government would increase military spending by forty percent and push ahead with the renewal of Trident. The party’s education policy includes the promotion of a biased, pro-imperial teaching of history in British schools. They would not, however, teach about climate change, as they deny its reality. Their policies include investment in several new gas-fired power stations.

Shortly after his comments about expelling “extremists”, Farage gave us a reminder of his own perception of reality by claiming that women can succeed just as well as men at the top levels of big business – if, he added, they are prepared to sacrifice their families. Why anyone should be expected to sacrifice their family to “succeed” was not made clear.

Of course, the debate on the number of women on boards of corporate directors conveniently obscures the reality of sexism for people on low and middle incomes. But given the power of corporations, it is telling that Farage is happy with those who are wielding that power.

It is not individual UKIPers who are the problem but the party itself and its own policies. Expelling right-wing extremists from UKIP is like expelling sand from the desert. 

Gates is wrong: We need more cuts to military spending

My radio alarm clock woke me this morning with the news that the USA’s former defence secretary, Robert Gates, has criticised the cuts that are being made to military spending in the UK.

If a minister, let alone a former minister, from within the European Union had criticised cuts to social security, the right-wing media would be shaking with simulated outrage about “Europe” interfering in British politics.

However, those on the right who object to “Europe” are often happy for the UK to slavishly follow the US, particularly on foreign policy and military issues. Gates said the cuts could weaken US-UK ties. Such ties are based on the UK government following where the US government leads. They are a wilful abrogation of the British people’s freedom to determine their own policies.

There are people who back welfare cuts on the grounds of cutting the deficit but who take a different view when it comes to military spending (or “defence spending” as it’s euphemistically called). Many right-wing commentators cheer as the government snatches the livelihoods from thousands of disabled people, massively increases homelessness and prices working class people out of higher education, but they insist that it is essential that the UK maintains one of the highest military budgets in the world, despite containing less than one percent of the world’s population.

The rarely-mentioned reality is that the UK’s “defence” cuts are much smaller than most other cuts that the coalition government is making. If ministers were serious about cutting the deficit, they might start with the £100bn that will be spent renewing the Trident nuclear weapons systems, which can work only by killing millions of innocent people.

After planned cuts to military spending, the UK government will still have a massive military out of all proportion to the country’s size or to its other expenditure. A country’s influence no longer rests on the size of its army but Robert Gates, Liam Fox and even David Cameron seem to be living in the nineteenth century.

Very little of the “defence” budget is spent on anything that meaningfully defends the people living within the UK. People being thrown on the streets as a a result of the bedroom tax are unlikely to feel well defended. The reality is that the British people are under attack by British ministers and by the rich and powerful whose interests they promote. We need to defend ourselves from our own government.

Royal Mint responds to Kitchener coin petition

This morning, I received an email from a polite and friendly public relations manager at the Royal Mint. This follows my petition calling on the Mint to withdraw a £2 commemorative coin featuring Horatio Kitchener and his recruitment slogan “Your country needs you”. Last night, the petition – asking for the coin to be replaced with one that commemorates the millions who died in the first world war – passed 20,000 signatures.

The email consisted largely of a copy of the statement that the Royal Mint is giving to journalists who contact them about the coin and the petition. The Mint also pointed out to me that, “There seems to be some confusion about the new design being the only one to commemorate the anniversary of the first world war but this is not the case. It is part of a series of designs which will be released, encompassing a number of different high profile individuals and events from the wartime period.”

In reply, I said that I was aware of this but I acknowledged that I had not mentioned it much. The implication of the Mint’s response is that future coins will focus explicitly on commemoration of the dead. Whatever the choice of coins to mark other aspects of the first world war in the next few years, it will not make the Kitchener coin acceptable. To me, there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, because the first of a series sets the tone of a series. The very first coin to commemorate the first world war, as much as the very last, should focus on remembrance of the dead.

Secondly, and more importantly, because there is no context in which it is appropriate to produce a coin featuring a warmonger with the blood of millions on his hands. Kitchener’s atrocities prior to world war one are important. He commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in Sudan in 1898. He later expanded the network of concentration camps for Boer civilians in South Africa, in which many died due to the appallingly unhealthy conditions.

In the light of all this, the coin would be bad enough if it simply featured a picture of Kitchener. But it goes beyond this, picturing his image as it appeared on recruitment posters, along with the slogan that accompanied it. This poster pressurised millions of young men to fight and kill other young men with whom they had far more in common than they did with Kitchener. Although the official age for going to the front was 19, many were allowed to join up much younger than this. The youngest person known to have died fighting for the British army in the first world war was 14.

It is not enough simply to argue that the coin depicts an important image from world war one. There are some events and images that we choose not to depict because we know that they give the wrong idea about what we are remembering. No commemoration of those who died in the appalling terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre would be likely to feature a picture of Osama Bin Laden.

Whenever we create a symbol, we make a choice. In choosing how to symbolise an event, issue or idea, we give an impression of how we understand it. How we understand the past affects how we act in the present and the future. British people’s minds are fresh from Tony Blair’s deceptions over Iraq, which may help to explain why thousands of people are angry about this coin. It is especially relevant at a time when generals and certain politicians are resisting even minor cuts to military spending while public services are slashed.

There are many suggestions about what images might be more appropriate for coins that mark the anniversary of world war one. A petition calling for a coin with Edith Cavell has also been very successful, passing 20,000 signatures. Other suggestions that I like include Harry Patch, Wilfred Owen and images of graves or of people marching to the front.

I hope that some of these images will appear on coins and that our campaigning will influence the Royal Mint’s choices of the rest of their series of coins commemorating the war. I hope l that some at least will emphasise remembrance of all who died and suffered. None of these choices can make the Kitchener coin acceptable or remove the reasons for calling for its withdrawal.

I am not asking for coins that simply reflect my own view of the war. I am a Christian pacifist, but many of the petition’s signatories have very different views. Judging from their comments, they include people who believe world war one was justified but that it should not be glorified; others are pacifists while some oppose world war one but not all wars. Many comments say something along the lines of “This coin is an insult to my granddad.” It seems there are many relatives of first world war soldiers who find this coin deeply offensive.

What all these people agree on is that commemorating the dead should be the main purpose of a coin marking the outbreak of the first world war. Without this purpose, the coin does more to serve Kitchener’s successors – people such as Tony Blair, David Cameron and Michael Gove – than to honour the history of the British people and the world around them.

To sign the petition, please visit bit.ly/KitchenerCoin

Anti-Roma prejudice and an unlikely prediction

Come January, the right-wing media in the UK might have some explaining to do. The Daily Mail (and their friends in UKIP and the Tory Right) have been telling us that Britain will be flooded by immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, as the last restrictions on their immigration to the UK are lifted.

Some of the rhetoric gives the impression that you will barely be able to move in London, Dover or Skegness for the number of Romanians and Buglarians pouring off the boats.

I dare say that Nigel Farage and his friends will soon be brushing away the figures showing that Romanian and Bulgarian immigration is lower than predicted. Neither UKIP nor the Daily Mail let the truth get in the way of scaremongering.

Much of the coverage easily confuses “Roma” with “Romanian”. Last month, the Daily Star ran a front page attack on “Roma” immigration. It quoted the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who has suggested that such immigration could lead to riots.

I find it hard to believe that such immigration could really reach the levels of Polish immigration a few years ago; the UK was not in the middle of an economic crisis in those days.

The Sun said recently that that Romanians and Bulgarians would come to Britain for its welfare state and “generous benefits”. This is even more unbelievable, given that to get here they will have to pass through countries with considerably more generous welfare states (notably Germany).

One of the reasons that might help to draw migrants to Britain is the fact that they are more likely to speak English than the languages of certain other European countries. Ironically, the global dominance of the English language is an indirect result both of US global power and of the general British unwillingness to learn languages. These are both things that tend to be defended by the same people who condemn immigration to the UK.

In the 1930s, the Daily Mail ran attacks on Jewish migrants “pouring” into Britain. They were fleeing the Nazis.

Today, racism and xenophobia are still alive and powerful in the UK. The BNP may be disorganised and the EDL disintegrating, but the Mail and the Sun always had far more power than both of them. UKIP are considered a respectable mainstream force, as their racism comes with suits and smiles.

Decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and other forms or racism continue to be powerful forces. The recent cases of children being snatched from Roma parents who don’t look like them shows crude racial bigotry hovering just below the surface of supposedly democratic state authorities.

I began this blog post on a train from London to Brussels. The journey took two hours, slightly shorter than the train trip from London to Manchester. To get on the train, I was required to walk through a metal detector and then display my passport. Why is this required for Brussels but not for Manchester or even the much longer journey to Scotland? Because of a series of historical accidents that divide people up into nations and nationalities.

Corporations can largely ignore these borders, moving money and employment wherever the mood – or the profit – takes them. The rest of us are confined by them, encouraged to define ourselves by them and to rate those of our nationality as being more worthy of life and work than those who live across an arbitrary border.

Lack of housing is blamed on migrants rather than on the failure of successive governments to build decent social housing and to stop people leaving houses empty. Low pay is attributed to migrants willing to work for less, rather than a lamentably low minimum wage.

It is common to blame our problems on those who seem different to us. I know that I can do this too. My prejudices are not acceptable either. The first step to overcoming prejudice, at a personal or social level, is acknowledging its existence.

Being British is part of my identity. So is the fact that I have a beard. These two aspects of my identity are of roughly equivalent importance to me. But I am constantly told that I must rate one of them as more important than anything else about me. Indeed, we are so accustomed to thinking in this way that we barely notice we are doing it.

When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbour?”, he responded with a story about a man who showed love to a stranger despite racial, religious and cultural differences (commonly referred to as the “good Samaritan”). It’s time we recognised nationality and ethnicity for the arbitrary and trivial distinctions that they are.