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.

The bishops’ election letter is mild, not radical

The Church of England’s bishops have issued a letter giving advice to Christians about issues to take into account when casting their votes in May.

This fairly mild document has triggered condemnations from right-wing Christians and church-bashing Tories, with Conservative MP Conor Burns labelling it as “naive” (this from a man who believes that Tory economic policies can alleviate poverty). Nadine Dorries said the Church should have focused on talking about abortion, as if Christianity had nothing to say about poverty and violence, though she did make a good point about the Church’s own failings in regards to equality.

The right-wing press can be relied upon to react to the bishops’ letter with simulated shock. I can confidently predict that tomorrow’s Daily Mail will say that the bishops’ letter has caused “outrage”. The Mail, of course, will have ensured this by phoning up the likes of Conor Burns and asking them if they are outraged (they are).

There will also be comments from some quarters about keeping politics and religion separate, a concept that would have been bafflingly incomprehensible to anyone living before the eighteenth century, and most people since then. Politics is about the running of society, about wealth and power and how they affect our lives. Politics is about everyday life. Apolitical religion is impossible; if it were possible, it would be largely pointless.

It’s quite right that the Church of England should give advice about voting. As the bishops point out in their letter, “Religious belief, of its nature, addresses the whole of life, private and public”. The letter does not endorse or condemn any one party.

According to the Guardian, the bishops’ letter constitutes “a strongly worded attack on Britain’s political culture”. However, the sort of comments that appear in the letter are now commonplace outside of the Westminster bubble. The letter suggests that politicians are employing “sterile arguments” and that “our democracy is failing”. Such views can nowadays be read in mainstream newspaper columns, as well as in pubs and coffee-shops up and down the country. They are not radical.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to see the bishops joining in the criticisms of what passes for democracy in Britain. There is much in their letter for a progressively minded person to celebrate. It emphasises the importance of tackling poverty and social isolation, mentioning in-work poverty in particular. It condemns attempts to demonise unemployed people and other benefit recipients. I’m pleased that it raises doubts about the Trident nuclear weapons system, although it does not oppose it outright. It condemns attempts to “find scapegoats” in society. It calls for a “fresh moral vision” in politics.

Despite this, it is not the radically left-wing document that parts of the media are reporting it to be. The Mail and Express will hate it for what they perceive it to be, not for what it is.

The CofE letter is far more mild in its comments on Trident than the denounciations of Trident renewal produced by most other Christian churches. The bishops declare that the “traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining”. Their wording implicitly accepts the claim that nuclear weapons are primarily about deterrence. Further, it is a big leap from re-examining something to opposing it.

The arguments for Trident, and other nuclear weapons, have been examined, re-examined and re-re-examined many times over, by Christians and others, over the last few months as well as over several decades. We don’t just need to “re-examine” the arguments for Trident; we need to oppose them.

If the Church of England is inching towards a collective anti-Trident position, this is better than nothing. But if so, the CofE is only very slowly catching up with most other Christian denominations in Britain. Trident renewal is explicitly opposed by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Federation, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Religious Society of Friends, the Union of Welsh Independents and the United Reformed Church (please let me know if I’ve missed any out). The Church of England has a lot of catching up to do.

The bishops’ letter states that “military intervention by states such as Britain is not always wrong”. While I can welcome the implication that it is usually wrong, I’m disappointed by the casual rejection of a firmly anti-war position. Let’s not forget that it was the Lambeth Conference – representing Anglican bishops from around the world – that in 1930 declared, “War, as a method of settling international disputes, is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Similarly, the Church of England’s welcome comments on tackling poverty are not accompanied by any critique of the neo-liberal capitalist system that fuels poverty (and, indeed, relies on it). The letter calls for a revival of the “Big Society” idea, now largely abandoned even by the government. As a phrase, it was always popular with right-of-centre Christians, but in practice it was only a euphemism for the effects of the cuts – leaving charities and faith groups to pick up the pieces as community services were slashed.

The reality of the CofE’s attitude to the general election was made clear by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. Asked whether people reading the letter could take its advice and still be led to vote Conservative or even UKIP, he replied, “I believe they could be.”

This is sad. The Church of England has condemned the British National Party, but they won’t condemn another far-right party, UKIP. Of course, UKIP looks respectable and middle class. It even has Church of England priests among its candidates.

There are also Christians in the Conservative Party. I don’t doubt their faith, but I question their judgement. As the CofE’s letter says, Christians should be concerned about poverty. Over the last three centuries, the Conservative Party has opposed every major measure designed to alleviate poverty, from old-age pensions in 1910 to the NHS in the 1940s and the national minimum wage in 1997. The Conservative Party is for the rich, in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes and a bread knife is for slicing bread. You can try to use them for something else, but it doesn’t really work.

Politics, like religion, is messy, complicated and frightening. It also calls for courage and commitment. Jesus’ teachings will not tell us who (if anyone) to vote for, or lead us to the same conclusions as each other. But they can remind us that Jesus constantly and explicitly sided with the poor and marginalised, practised active nonviolence, challenged us all to change, promoted love and inclusivity over the idols of Mammon and violence and was arrested after taking direct action in a temple.

What would happen if church leaders called on Christians to adopt similar attitudes today? The Daily Mail really would be outraged.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.

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.

Faith is a question of loyalty

I was recently asked to preach at Kensington Unitarian Church in London. The church community there were very welcoming and it was a real privilege to worship with them on 30 November. My sermon and the rest of the service can be heard on a podcast available on the church’s website. 

The text of my sermon is below. Although I know the spoken version deviated from it at times, the gist remained the same.

I would like to introduce you to Harry Stanton. Not personally, because he’s been dead for a while, but as a historical figure. Harry was the son of a blacksmith from Luton. He was a Quaker. In 1916, at the age of 21, he was conscripted into the army. Denied exemption as a conscientious objector, he was forced into the army against his will where, like many others in the same situation, he refused to obey orders.

Harry was imprisoned as a result – as were about 6,000 other British pacifists over the course of the war. But thirty-five of these pacifists were forcibly taken to France, where they could be deemed to be on “active service” and therefore shot if they continued to disobey orders.

Taken before a court-martial, Harry knew that his life was in their hands. But he refused to plead, because he would not recognise the right of any military body to exercise authority over him. He gave a speech in his defence, in which he said that “all warfare is contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ”. He said that when the claims of the state conflicted with the laws of God, “I must obey the higher authority”. Along with the 34 other British pacifists in France, Harry was sentenced to death.

Campaigning back in Britain thankfully had an effect and the sentences were commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.

One of the comments I hear most often about religion is the phrase “religion is dangerous”. It is true that religion is often violent and oppressive. I agree with people who want religion to stop being violent and oppressive. But I do not want religion to stop being dangerous. I suggest that religion is supposed to be dangerous.

Most religions speak in some way about transcendence. They speak of God, the gods, the Truth, the Divine, the Ultimate Reality or the Power of Love. And once you speak of God, or the divine or transcendent, you imply that God, or the divine or transcendent, should have our ultimate loyalty. If I seek to follow God, then my first loyalty must be to God. Therefore no king, no government, no army, no nation-state, no church can claim my ultimate loyalty.

This is why so many kings, governments, armies and churches have sought to equate themselves with God. When Henry VIII claimed that his thoughts were directed by God, he made clear that loyalty to God meant loyalty to the king. The claims about the Japanese emperor’s divinity had a similar effect. It is no surprise that people make these sort of claims. For if we are serious about placing our ultimate loyalty in something other than the governments and structures around us, we become a threat – a threat to convention and, if we persist, like Harry Stanton, a threat to authority.

If anyone can choose to follow God over following human structures, the consequences may depend on their view of God. Take Yigal Amir, a Jewish fundamentalist who assassinated Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Amir said he was acting “on orders from God”. Other murders have been committed on the basis of similar claims.

But a god who orders murders is a god whose values are all too close to those of the world around us, rather than the principles of a higher power. People of many faiths emphasise that faithfulness means acting with compassion. Some religious groups, such as Quakers and Rastafarians, have developed communal practices for exploring an individual’s feeling of being led to a particular course of action by God. Faith is not about certainty.

Let’s take a look at the passage we heard earlier about paying taxes to the emperor – Luke 20, 20-26. It’s a passage that’s often used to encourage Christians to be loyal to the state. Those who want us to obey authority are more likely to quote this passage than the many examples of civil disobedience that run through the Bible. However, many biblical scholars challenge the common interpretation heard in churches.

Luke tells us that the spies sought to trap Jesus by what he said, so that they could hand him over to the governor. In other words, if he had said that taxes should not be paid to Rome, they would have got him arrested.

Jesus was no doubt aware of this, and chose his words carefully. He responds by saying “Show me a denarius!” Why does Jesus have to be shown a coin? Why doesn’t he have one with him? Well, many devout Jews, even those who reluctantly used Roman coins for buying and selling, avoided carrying them, because they regarded them as idolatrous. The coin portrayed the emperor as a god. As Jesus does not have a coin himself, this suggests he was one of those who avoided it as idolatrous.

Jesus asks “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They say, “The emperor’s”. Jesus thus draws attention to the idolatry, already highlighted by the fact that he’s not carrying the coins.

He then gives an ambiguous answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ listeners were “amazed” by his answer. If he was simply telling people to pay taxes to Rome, there would be nothing to be amazed about. What he does instead is dodge the question with a statement that encourages everyone to think about what is really the emperor’s and what is really God’s. As the biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it, Jesus “is inviting them to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as opposites”.

The Greek word “apodote” translated as “give” also means “pay back” or “return” – “Give back to the emperor that which is the emperor’s”. There are many ways to read this and I don’t claim for a moment that my interpretation is the only valid one. However, I suggest that Jesus is advocating something more radical than simply withholding tax: he is saying that the imperial system of which the coinage is part should be sent back to the emperor, back to Rome. By saying it in an ambiguous way, however, he avoids the trap.

Jesus encouraged his listeners to think for themselves about how to make decisions. It seems to me that ethical decisions are about where we place our loyalty, our trust, our faith.

What’s the sin mentioned most often in the Bible? It’s idolatry. We tend to think of idols as statues, but this misses the point. An idol is something that people put in the place of God. An idol is, on some level, not real; at least, we ascribe a power to it that it does not have.

Politicians today talk about “not upsetting the markets” as if markets were supernatural entities that must be appeased. In reality, markets were created by people. People can change them, run them differently, or get rid of them. We make an idol of the market when we talk as if it controls us. Really, we control it.

In the same way, we are encouraged to be loyal to “our country”. Countries are things that we have created, yet we speak of them as if they were natural. We demand loyalty to this abstract concept. It is a short step from idolising nationality to idolising armed forces. For much of the time when British troops were in Afghanistan, there were constant debates about whether they should be there. Much of this seemed to involve the question “Should we be in Afghanistan?”. Should we be in Afghanistan? And I would think, but I’m not in Afghanistan. Why do we describe the armed forces as “we”?

Whether we speak of the power of love, or the Kingdom of God, or of practising active nonviolence, we are talking about choosing to live by faith in a different power to the powers of markets and military might.

It is often said that we no longer have conscription in the UK. It is true that our bodies are not conscripted into the army. However, our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our language is conscripted, when we speak of “defence” and mean warfare. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and to regard as natural a situation in which millions live with hunger in a world that has enough to feed us all.

We need to be conscientious objectors today just as much as Harry Stanton was – although the risks for most of us are unlikely to be so great. We can object by how we talk, how we think, how we regard ourselves and others, how we make our decisions and – first and foremost – by to what we give our loyalty and our faith.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about living with a different loyalty. It’s a lot harder to do it, or even to know how to do it. We are all part of unjust economic and political structures. We participate in them even as we seek to resist them. At times, we benefit from the injustices that we oppose. We too commit the very sins that we speak out against.

It is vital that we are aware of this and equally vital that this does not stop us speaking out and aiming to live differently.

We glimpse the Kingdom of God not through a set of rules but in a way of living. For most of us, this way of living is not consistent and we often fail to follow it. Nonetheless it is there and can be seen. From small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. In people imprisoned for peace protests, in people choosing to buy Fairtrade tea, in those determined to see that of God in their neighbour and both the good and the bad in themselves, in hesitating steps towards prioritising love over legalism, in the courage to speak up for what is truly in our hearts and not what the world tells us should be there – in all these ways people proclaim the way of love, a challenge to the powers of this world. Sometimes, the way forward seems clear. At other times, we’re struggling in the dark.

My own commitment to love, to justice, to active nonviolence is much, much weaker than I would like. But I would rather stumble on the road to liberation than walk firmly down the road to oppression. If we know where our loyalty lies, if we know that we are aiming to live by a different power than the powers of this world, a stronger and subtler power, then we may have confidence that we are at least facing in the right direction. I pray that we will have – in the words of a song by the band Jars of Clay – “days that are filled with small rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from our souls”.

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.

The Royal British Legion insults the victims of war

The Royal British Legion, who run the Poppy Appeal, have in recent years shown a tendency to misuse the message of remembrance to encourage a pro-war, jingoistic agenda. They have now taken things a step further by using an anti-war song in a fundraising film – after taking the anti-war lyrics out.

No Man’s Land (also known as Green Fields of France) is one of my favourite songs. Written by Eric Bogle in 1976, it concentrates on Willie McBride, a soldier whose grave Bogle finds as he walks through a first world war cemetery. The song is addressed to McBride himself:

“I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916.”

There are four verses in the song. The Royal British Legion have produced a fundraising video that includes the first two verses and misses out the last two. Thankfully, some references to the horror of war have been left in:

“Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?”

However, by cutting out the last two verses, the Legion have clearly removed the song’s main point, which is about the futility of war:

“But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land.
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.”

Not long after World War One, the message on Remembrance Day was “Never Again”. This has now been forgotten, at least when mainstream politicians, the Royal British Legion and the right-wing media have anything to do with it. Now we are encouraged to “support our troops” rather to work for a day in which there are no troops, and no war.

Of course, the Royal British Legion (or anyone else) have every right to disagree with the song’s anti-war message. This is very different to using the song  to promote a message contrary to its original meaning.

Some will argue that the Legion does good work supporting wounded soldiers and bereaved relatives. This is true to an extent, and I don’t blame anyone in need of help for turning to it.

However, we might ask why anyone who’s disabled or bereaved needs to rely on charity in the free and democratic country for which British troops have been told they are fighting. The initial cost of war – the weapons, the uniforms, the training – are paid for by taxpayers out of public funds. You never see anyone rattling a tin to fund a Eurofighter. But the longer-term costs of war – support for those who are physically and mentally harmed – is far less of a priority for the public purse, and groups such as the Legion and “Help for Heroes”, rather than objecting to this, go out into the streets with their collecting tins.

I know I am not the only taxpayer who would much rather pay taxes to support disabled people to live equal lives (whether or not their impairments have been caused by war) than to fund the UK’s war budget, which is the sixth highest military budget in the world.

However helpful the Legion’s charitable work may be to those who benefit from it, it is undermined by the Legion’s nationalistic and militaristic messages. The organisation is not neutral on the question of war. The clue’s in the name “Legion”, a term for a military unit (the words “Royal” and “British” also give it away, of course).

I’m sure that many people who wear the Legion’s red poppies wish to remember both civilian and military victims of war. Many might also wish to remember those who were not British. However, the Legion itself is quite clear that the purpose of the poppies is to remember British military dead. That is what the red poppy, according to those who design and sell it, is for. It is not to remember children killed in the bombing of Coventry, let alone in the bombing of Dresden.

The Royal British Legion state clearly on their website that the red poppy “is worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today and their loved ones”.

To suggest that a civilian is less worthy of remembrance than a soldier seems to me to be morally repugnant. To remember only the British dead and not the French, German, American, Austrian, Brazilian, Iraqi or Afghan dead is not only offensive. It is directly contrary to the internationalist attitudes that are necessary if we are to build peace instead of war.

I respect the intentions of many of those who wear red poppies, but I cannot wear one when those who produce it practise such an excluding, nationalistic form of remembrance. Nor can I “support those serving today”. I have nothing against people in the armed forces and I pray for their safety. But I do not support the British armed forces, or any other armed forces. I choose to wear a white poppy, to remember all victims of all wars and to honour the dead by calling for an end to war.

The best way to remember those killed in war is to tackle the causes of war and to refuse to participate in war. War is not inevitable. People created war and people can end it. Only by doing so can we ever hope to achieve the early Remembrance Day aim of “Never Again”. The alternative is an endless repetition of the situation described in the last verse of No Man’s Land, a verse you won’t hear on the Royal British Legion’s fundraising film:

“Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying: it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again.
And again, and again, and again, and again.”

———-

You can sign a petition about the Royal British Legion misuse of the song at https://www.change.org/p/royal-british-legion-please-apologise-for-cutting-the-words-of-the-poppy-appeal-song-the-original-song-condemns-the-folly-of-war.

You can buy white poppies at http://www.ppu.org.uk/whitepoppy/index.html.

The elite want to return to normal. We must stop them

I’ve never been to West Lothian, but I like to imagine that it is full of people constantly discussing the West Lothian question. I see myself walking into a pub there and ordering a drink, only for the barman to reply, “Yes, but what about Scottish MPs voting on English laws?”

Of course, it’s not like that. The Scottish referendum, which energised so many people that it broke turnout records, covered issues far removed from the narrow questions that parts of the mainstream media focus on. Friends who have been campaigning in Scotland tell me that people on the doorsteps were talking about food banks, Trident, taxation, welfare, jobs and how to make democracy real.

Politicians have jumped up today to talk about “listening” and to tell us that they know things cannot go back to normal. But even many of those who are making new policy suggestions seem to be carrying on very much as normal in terms of their behaviour.

Tory MPs are already seizing on the West Lothian question to demand “English votes for English laws”, an idea for which there are some genuine democratic arguments but which will conveniently help the Tories. Nigel Farage has popped up with a photo stunt to remind us that far from defeating nationalism, the referendum result has energised the nasty sort of British nationalism that he represents (a racist rant by UKIP MEP David Coburn on BBC1 was one of the most bizarre and unpleasant moments of the night). Boris Johnson has already implied that party leaders will backtrack on their promises of extra powers for Scotland, on the basis of which they won the referendum. White House insiders have said that Barrack Obama is breathing a “sigh of relief” because of Trident and the United Kingdom’s “global role” (as a support act for the US armed forces, as they might have added).

We’re also told that “the markets are happy”, as if markets were personalities capable of experiencing emotion. Markets are not some sort of supernatural entities that require appeasement. They are human creations, run by people, which people can change. The “mood of the markets” means the mood of traders and gamblers, or at least the most powerful ones. To say the markets are happy is often a euphemism for saying the rich and powerful (or at least the majority of them) are happy.

Yes, there were good arguments on both sides of the Scottish independence debate. I made no secret of hoping for a victory for Yes, despite some doubts. But whatever our view on the referendum, anyone who cares about democracy must stop those who wield power in government and finance from taking the result as a mandate to carry on neglecting people’s real concerns as they pursue their own interests.

I’m inclined to think that the best answer to the West Lothian question is not to allow only English MPs to vote on English laws (which, without an English executive, would be unworkable) but to have clear federal structures, with power dissolved to regional assemblies in different parts of England. But whether it’s this system or another one, the answers must come from the ground up, not be imposed by politicians. People in Scotland, so enthused by the referendum, must not give up now, but keep pushing politicians to respond to the people. People in the rest of the UK (and elsewhere) can learn from Scotland, getting stuck into discussions and campaigns on real issues that link the local and the international, the personal and the political. Our future is in our own hands if we act together.

Trident was a big issue in many of the referendum discussions in Scotland, although it’s hard to know this from some of the media reporting. Trident, which makes no-one in Britain the slightest bit safer, is a cold war relic that will cost up to £100bn to renew at a time of swingeing cuts to public services. The vast majority of people in Scotland do not want nuclear submarines on their soil. Polls consistently show a majority of the UK public to be against Trident renewal. A decision by Parliament is due in 2016. Cameron and his colleagues seem to regard the outcome as a foregone conclusion, having given millions of pounds to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston and Burghfield to begin preparations for new Trident warheads.

We must show them that, post-referendum, people will not put up with being treated like this. Through campaigning, through lobbying, through nonviolent direct action, through the media, through protest and prayer, in Scotland and England, in Wales and Northern Ireland, in solidarity with our comrades living under both nuclear and non-nuclear governments, we can increase the pressure and defeat the warmongers.

The power is in our hands. We must use it.

Will a Yes vote in Scotland mean the end of Trident?

I wrote yesterday about attitudes in England towards the Scottish referendum. England, Wales and Northern Ireland – as well as places further afield – will be affected by the result. Like many English people hoping for a Yes vote, I’m motivated mainly by a desire to get rid of Trident.

The future of the Trident nuclear weapons system is one of the biggest issues at stake in this referendum. It is currently located at Faslane in Scotland, as no other UK port is considered deep enough for docking nuclear submarines. The SNP have promised to get rid of it Scotland votes Yes, leaving the UK government with a major problem about where to move it to.

While I’m hoping that a Yes vote will be a major step forward for campaigns against nuclear weapons, I am concerned that some of my fellow peace activists are sounding a bit naïve about it.

It’s sometimes implied that Trident’s removal is a foregone conclusion if Scotland votes Yes. But, to be frank, I don’t trust the SNP to keep to their commitment to getting rid of it. They may use it as a bargaining chip with the UK government. If not, then British ministers will desperately look for somewhere else to site it.

Nonetheless, these events will force Trident into the headlines in a way that it hasn’t been for years. Polls consistently show a majority of the British public opposed to Trident and more publicity for the issue will see that opposition becoming more vocal, active and effective.

A decision on Trident renewal is due in 2016, although the Tories have already started spending public money as if the decision has been made. Renewal is likely to cost nearly £100bn at a time of massive cuts to public services and social security. Trident can only work by killing millions of people. It does not deter terrorists, nor will it address the biggest security threat of our age – the threat of climate chaos. Trident is described as “independent” and “British”, but the missiles are loaned from the US and it relies on US technical support. No wonder Obama and his cronies are hoping for a No vote.

There are other reasons why I want a Yes vote, including my belief that democracy works better on smaller scales. That does not mean I am persuaded by all the Yes campaign’s arguments. In particular, I think the currency issue has not been well addressed and there is potential for several things to go badly wrong. Nor do I believe that a Yes vote in itself will deliver greater social justice; the SNP are not nearly as progressive as they would like us to believe. People at the grassroots must continue to push for radical change after a Yes vote as much as after a No vote.

Whatever the result, let’s build on the momentum the referendum has generated and be quick and vocal in pushing for the end of Trident.

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.