Tory minister to argue that World War One was “a great British victory”

Andrew Murrison MP is the government’s special representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. At Exeter University tomorrow (14 November), he will propose the motion “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I have been asked to oppose the motion.

The government has denied accusations that it wants to use the centenary to glorify the first world war, or to glorify war in general. This is hardly consistent with sending the minister responsible to propose a motion that implies the war was successful and something to be celebrated.

I’m very pleased to have been asked to speak against the motion that Andrew Murrison is proposing. I am looking forward to the debate. Andrew Murrison’s fellow proposer will be Daniel Steinbach of King’s College London. Opposing the motion alongside me will be Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition.

In addition to his responsibilities around World War One, Andrew Murrison is a junior minister for Northern Ireland and MP for South-West Wiltshire.

If you study or work at Exeter University, you can attend the debate at 7.00pm on Friday 14 November. There are more details here.

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.

Social mobility: Cameron is ignoring Major, not listening to him

David Cameron has today declared that lack of social mobility is a problem. He was responding to comments by his predecessor John Major, but he ignored the main point that Major seemed to be making – the power of private schools.

Only seven percent of the UK population attend fee-paying schools. But the majority of judges, finance directors and top journalists attended them.

This grotesque reality shows how far we are from true democracy, let alone equality. Your birth and therefore your schooling play a bigger part than anything else in determining your chances in life and how much power you have as an adult.

As a child, I felt resentful of private schools. I was angry at the idea that those with the money to do so could buy a better education. I knew that my family and other working class families could never afford this.When I went to university, I came to a partially different conclusion.

I realised that some middle class parents are indeed motivated by a desire for a better education for their children. Some make sacrifices so that their children can go to private schools. But studying in Oxford, I met a good many people who had been to the top private schools – the so-called “public” schools such as Eton and Harrow. It became very clear very quickly that the super-rich who send their children to such places know that they will mix with other people like them and that the values and habits of the ruling class will be passed down (they may not put it like that themselves of course). It is not about getting a better education. It is about being in the right place. 

Private schools, particularly the most expensive ones, ensure that it is the children of the rich and powerful who become rich and powerful.

Cameron’s rhetoric about “social mobility” is not going to address that. Cameron’s policies have played a major role in ensuring that half a million people in the UK are dependent on food banks while even people on middle incomes are struggling to pay the heating bills. By talking about social mobility, he is only rubbing salt into the wound.

Those who talk of social mobility usually suggest schemes for helping some of those who are born in poverty to rise above it. It is usually the “gifted” young people who these plans are aimed at. It is rarely explained why rich people get to be rich despite not being “gifted” or why poor people who are not “gifted” should be expected to stay in poverty.

We don’t need social mobility. We need meaningful equality and democracy. We will never have it until we ban private schools.

I love Britain. The Daily Mail hates it.

What is Britain? This question doesn’t seem to have been asked much in the many arguments around the Daily Mail’s vicious attack on Ed Miliband’s father. Ralph Miliband, the Mail maintains, “hated Britain”.

Is “Britain” simply a geographical area? Or does the Mail really mean the United Kingdom, which is a political entity? Or the British people? We talk so much about countries that we can easily forget that nationality is an abstract and ill-defined concept.

The Daily Mail‘s deputy editor Jon Steafel now seems to have come up with a definition of Britain that few British people would recognise.

Defending his paper’s claims, he attacked Ralph Miliband’s “views on British institutions, from our schools to our royal family to our military, to our universities to the church [of England]”.

Steafel’s implication is that to oppose powerful institutions in Britain is to hate Britain. This is nonsense. There is more to Britain than its rulers. It is possible to love a country’s people, to love it as a place and to oppose its political and economic systems. Indeed, love for a country’s people should surely lead to a desire to be rid of unjust institutions that harm them.

I’m not too keen on the United Kingdom as a political entity, but I love the places and people within it. You may be surprised to hear that I also love many aspects of its politics.

I love British traditions of free speech, religious liberty and fair trials (although they’re abused). We have these things because people went out and campaigned for them, not because our rulers kindly handed them down.

I love the radical traditions of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Radical egalitarian forms of Christianity became popular in these islands in the seventeenth century, just after England had abolished its monarchy (over a hundred years before France did so; sadly, it didn’t last).

I love the stunning scenery in Snowdonia and the Antrim coast. I love the mix of cultures, languages and religions on the streets of London. I love the friendliness of Cardiff and the feeling of homecoming as the bus goes over Magdalen Bridge in Oxford. I love the rural Midlands roads that I walked down as a child, greasy spoon cafes in Birmingham, the sight of the castle in Edinburgh and the passion of people whose poverty is no barrier to resisting injustice. I love the British people.

The Daily Mail stirs up hatred of the British working class, British Muslims, British LGBT people, British people who were born outside the UK and British people who claim benefits. It is the Daily Mail that hates Britain.


The above article appeared as my latest column for the website of the Ekklesia thinktank. Please see

Occupying Royal Holloway

This evening I have had the privilege of speaking with students at Royal Holloway College in the University of London. They today began an occupation of their college, camping outside the Principal’s office and calling on him to oppose the government’s agenda for higher education.

I gave two talks at the college. The first, which was planned weeks ago, was a talk about my walk of repentance for homophobia. I’d been invited by the Students’ Union, Chaplaincy and Catholic Society. It was great to have an engaged and diverse audience, with interesting and challenging questions from (among others) a Muslim and at least two Catholics and members of the college’s LGBT Society.

The second talk was much more spontaneous. Some of the students involved in the occupation, which began this afternoon, asked me to go and speak to them. I was honoured. I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say, but as they gathered round in the corridor, I spoke about my delight at the outbreak of active nonviolence over the last year. I encouraged them to resist the lies and misconceptions that would be spread about them and shared some thoughts and experience. As with the people at the first talk, I also had much to learn from the questions and comments with which they responded.

I was inspired by the enthusiasm, sense and detailed commitment of these people.

Students listened to each other, including on occasions when they did not agree. They seemed to be working well together to organise things effectively. They have allocated one room (the Principal’s Meeting Room) as a quiet study area, where students who have essays to write or research to do can go and work in silence. There was a steady stream of people with books and laptops going in and out. There seems to be a careful allocation of space. There was a quieter area dedicated for sleeping. Bins are divided for paper recycling, plastic recycling and general rubbish.

The diversity of students present was a challenge to the assumption that student activists are a small minority of eccentrics who get no real interest from the main student body. There appeared to be a gender and racial balance and the diversity of clothing did not live up to stereotypes of activist hippies.

The two talks I gave this evening were about different subjects, but the links between them are becoming ever clearer to me. Sexual ethics and economic ethics are closely linked. Tackling homophobia and resisting economic injustice are both part of a wider struggle to challenge a world in which people are encouraged to relate to each other on the basis of power, prejudice, money or convention. As a Christian, I believe we are called to relationships – whether personal or political – based on love, justice and mutuality. This is a challenge to both legalism and selfishness.

I am often accused of being too optimistic, particularly about politics. But I find it hard to imagine my reaction if someone had told me after last year’s general election that there would be an outbreak of active nonviolence in the coming year and a half. If they had told me that people would peacefully occupy the shops of tax-dodging corporations, that student activists would occupy universities across the UK in protest at tuition fees and that there would be a global movement of nonviolent occupations targeting financial centres, I would probably have laughed in their face.

In some ways, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future. Economies are in crisis across Europe. The UK government is responding with a vicious assault on public services and the welfare state.

But as I sat in that corridor at Royal Holloway tonight, I was reminded that there is another way. That the government’s assault on the working class and lower middle class is being met with resistance. That people from Cairo to Wall Street have inspired the world to stand up to injustice. That the power of money and markets will never understand or suppress the power of love manifested in active nonviolence.

No longer can radical campaigns be dismissed as the preserve of eccentric minorities. The breadth of support for Occupy Royal Holloway was very clear. While I was there, the Roman Catholic Chaplain spoke and offered his solidarity. For me, one of the most encouraging comments came from a security guard, as he wandered over to listen to the discussions. He told us he was glad to be working the evening shift because “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world”.

Privatising higher education

Last week, the universities minister David Willets rushed to deny suggestions that the government would allow elite universities to sell off super-expensive extra places to wealthy students. But the furore led to another proposal receiving very little attention – the suggestion that private companies and charities should be allowed to fund their own university places.

Both proposals appeared as suggested ways of providing an extra number of places in higher education, by adding places that would not be funded by the state. The shortage of places has arisen because of the government’s cuts and the hike in fees.

The National Union of Students, the University and College Union, the Student Christian Movement and students’ unions across the UK rightly condemned the plans. In the face of this outrage, Willets quickly backed down and said that he had no plans to allow the rich to buy extra space.

I’m delighted that the backlash against the proposal was so great. But to me, the other plan is even more alarming. Funding university places by charity seems to be taking us back to an age when working class people could receive formal education only because of philanthropy and not as a right. Allowing private companies to fund places would be likely to give them undue influence over the curriculum and other matters.

If you doubt this, have a look at the influence that corporations have already gained when they have become involved in higher education funding.

The multinational arms company BAE Systems provides funding for a number of courses, particularly in engineering. As a result, BAE representatives sit on a number of course committees. Undergraduate engineers at Loughborough University are offered bursaries by BAE – as long as they work for BAE during their industry year. Tom Taylor, who graduated from Loughborough in 2007, says that “elements of the course were tailored to BAE’s requirements”.

Allowing corporations to fund extra university places would dramatically increase this tendency. I can imagine oil companies offering places on courses in environmental science. This would help them to greenwash over the realities of their business as well as to have considerably more influence over those studying the issues.

This government is undermining the fabric of higher education in the UK. We must not allow them to privatise university courses under cover of solving the problems that they have themselves created.