We shouldn’t rely on charity to support veterans

The need for charity on a mass scale in one of the richest countries in the world is a sign of major failure.

I wrote about this issue for the i newspaper in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday this year. You can read the article on the i newpspaper’s website here.

I’m sorry I forgot to post the article here at the time. In the run-up to Remembrance Sunday I was working with other members and allies of the Peace Pledge Union to promote white poppies and the message that they represent: remembrance for all victims of war of all nationalities, a commitment to peace and a rejection of militarism.

Britain, the arms industry and the ‘war on terror’

I have recently written a couple of articles for Tribune about the arms trade and the influence of the arms industry on British politics and British foreign policy.

Last week, as I joined protests against the DPRTE arms fair in Farnborough in Hampshire, as I wrote an article for Tribune about the need to resist the arms industry at a time when the UK government has implemented a sharp rise in military spending. You can read it on the Tribune website here.

A few weeks earlier, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, I wrote for Tribune about the failure of the so-called “war on terror” – in which arms dealers were the only real winners. This is also available on the Tribune website.

I will try to get better at remembering to post my articles on here at the same time as they are published elsewhere!

Why calls for more military intervention in Afghanistan are spectacularly missing the point

I wrote the following article for Left Foot Forward, who published it on Monday 16th August, as the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Twenty years ago, Tony Blair promised to bring democracy to Afghanistan with all the zeal of a Victorian colonialist offering to bring civilisation to the heathen. After two decades and uncountable thousands of deaths, Afghanistan has returned to the control of the Taliban. 

Bizarrely, some are trying to use this situation to argue in favour of military intervention. If only the US and UK troops had stayed a bit longer, they suggest, things would be better. The reality is that if those troops had continued to behave as they have done, then we could expect the situation to be similar whenever they had withdrawn. 

The Taliban and the NATO forces have always been two sides of the same coin. They have used each other’s existence to justify themselves. Al Qaeda’s horrific murders on ‘9/11’ were used by George Bush and his allies to justify the killing of an even greater number of civilians in Afghanistan. The Taliban, despite their own record of death and destruction, have used the NATO atrocities in Afghanistan to recruit members and to bolster support for their own vile agenda. Militarism anywhere encourages militarism everywhere. 

The people who have suffered most have not, of course, been fundamentalist warlords or western politicians, but the people of Afghanistan, sacrificed to the ideals and military interests of the competing forces. 

All the lies ring hollow now. Every justification for war used by Bush and Blair and their successors has been exposed as at best naive optimism and at worst outright deception. Terrorism was to be defeated, the Taliban removed from power, democracy and freedom built on the back of the bombs. Tony Blair said he wanted to improve the position of women in Afghanistan, an ambition that I suspect he did not mention to his friends in the government of Saudi Arabia on the many occasions on which he was selling them weapons. The real liberators of Afghan women have of course been Afghan women themselves. Many people in Afghanistan have shown a staggering and humbling ability to stand up for their own rights in the face of both the Taliban and the US forces. 

It has all been exposed as a waste: the 457 British forces personnel killed, the other NATO troops who died with them, the much greater number of Afghans killed, shamefully uncounted by the western authorities. As for the billions of pounds that were wasted on weaponry and armed forces, I invite you to imagine what might be different if these billions had instead been spent on improving healthcare and education in Afghanistan, or building up local communities and their economies, or resourcing civil society, or training people around Afghanistan in mediation, conflict resolution and strategies of mass non-co-operation with injustice. 

There is much talk of whether “we” should be in Afghanistan. For too long, “we” has meant the British armed forces. In effect this means the US armed forces.  Although British troops like to emphasise that they are very different to “the Americans”, the reality is that they are sent to fight only as a tribute band to the Pentagon. However many sign up out of a genuine belief that they are protecting the British people, they find themselves deployed in the service of the US establishment. 

“We” – the British people – need to support the Afghan people. That does not mean calling on our government to send men with guns to sort things out. It means supporting international organisations working with whatever remains of civil society and human rights groups in Afghanistan after the mess created jointly by the Taliban, the NATO forces and the opportunistic warring groups who find their allies on different sides at different times. 

It also means resisting calls for military attacks on other countries, which are so often justified on the grounds of promoting democracy even as the UK armed forces provide military training to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. It means resisting the arms trade. It means recognising that people around the world – British, Afghan, Russian, American and everyone else – share the same human needs, and have more in common with each other than with those who would wage war in our name. 

And it means accepting the most obvious truth that the situation has brought to the surface: that you cannot build democracy with guns and bombs. 

Misogyny, madness and terror: the language around the Plymouth murders

Reading about the horrendous murders in Plymouth yesterday, I instinctively wanted to close my eyes, or shut my laptop or think about something else. Nothing can ever make sense of these murders, including the killing of a three-year-old child. No amount of discussion can begin to fill the void in the lives of the victims’ loved ones.

If this incident is nauseating for those of us reading about it, it must be a million times more so for the friends and relatives of Maxine Davison, Lee Martyn, Sophie Martyn, Stephen Washington and Kate Shepherd; and for the two unnamed people who were injured and remain in hospital.

I tend to avoid commenting on these sort of incidents. I don’t feel that I have much to say that cannot be said better and more helpfully by others. I am commenting briefly now because I am alarmed by several things that are already being said by people who seem to think that it is possible to make sense of such a tragedy – or who by their language seem ready to damn groups of people who are not responsible.

Madness?

Words such as “mad”, “psycho” and “insane” have appeared around social media in connection with the murders. This all adds to the impression that people with mental health problems are likely to shoot you. They are not. Nearly all people with mental health problems are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. The many mentally unwell people who harm and kill themselves receive far less attention than the tiny number who tragically kill others, having been failed by a state that routinely underfunds mental health services and a society and economy that seem set up to make people ill.

But as yet we have no evidence that the Plymouth murderer, Jake Davison, was mentally unwell. He was wrong – more wrong than it is possible to say – and engaged in vile and unimaginable acts. If that leads you to assume that he was mentally ill, you might want to ask why you associate such things with mental ill-health. We will find out more in time about the state of Davison’s mind, although we will never know enough to understand it.

Terror?

“Defence” Secretary Ben Wallace said, “We can rule out terrorism”. Tory MP Johnny Mercer, whose own attitudes to murder are extremely inconsistent, said that the murders were not “terror-related”. Such phrases are often used as if they were supposed to be reassuring. If they are meant to mean that Davison was not part of a group who are about to launch another attack, then I suppose that it is reassuring to an extent. It does not make the killings any less horrific or evil.

“Terror” used to refer to an emotion. Then we had the “war on terrror” – war against an emotion – that began with an invasion of Afghanistan to remove a group who, 20 years later, look set to take it over again (showing what a failure the whole “war on terror” has been). If “terror” is just short for “terrorism”, then we might say that it involves political killings carried out by organised groups designed to frighten populations into worrying about further attacks. But this definition does not apply to many of the incidents routinely described as terrorism. Take the murders on tubes and buses in London on 7th July 2005. People were murdered for political reasons and their killers were understandably described as terrorists. But they were scarcely an organised group and were not part of any organisation planning further attacks.

Does “terrorism” then simply refer to politically motivated violence? If so, I don’t see how Ben Wallace or anyone else can rush to say, so early in the day, that the Plymouth murders were not terrorism. Unless that is that our language has been so debased that “not terror-related” simply operates in a racist way as shorthand for “not committed by a Muslim”.

The chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, Shaun Sawyer, seemed to confuse the issue when he said that the police are “not considering terrorism or a relationship with a far-right group or any such other group”.

At least Sawyer and his officers seem not to be equating terrorism with Islamic terrorism. They recognise the existence of far-right terrorism. What is not clear is why they are so keen to rule out Davison’s possible connection with it. It may be that they have concluded that he was not acting as part of a group (even though it seems early for such conclusions) but it seems pretty clear that he did have some far-right views. I have no idea whether he held racist or fascist views, but he certainly expressed extremely sexist and misogynistic views associated far-right attitudes to gender and sex.

Davison was linked to the misogynistic “incel” movement. “Incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate”, combining a misunderstanding of the nature of celibacy with an assumption that men are entitled to expect sex from women. It is often linked with extreme “men’s rights activists” who argue that feminism is about women gaining superiority and that men face discrimination because of their gender. I don’t think I need to take up space here by explaining why this is obvious nonsense. Davison is also reported to have followed the “blackpill” movement, which involves a degree of self-loathing that would be pitiful if it were not so linked to hatred and bitterness towards women.

Blaming women for your problems – rather like blaming migrants, or Muslims, or Jews or the man next door – is a simplistic and inaccurate alternative to looking at how the structures of society serve to promote cruelty, selfishness and isolation and undermine the chances of love and meaningful community. Misogyny is a political position, and if “terrorism” means political murder than it is far too soon to say that yesterday’s horrendous events in Plymouth were not terrorism.

The situation has been well described by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, who put it better than I can:

While it is too soon to say what motivated this man to commit murder, we do know that the incel ideology can be dangerous and radicalising. It is built on misogyny, and a twisted, desperate world view.

“We do not know what motivated this horrendous incident, however those who consume incel content have engaged in violent attacks. Whatever happened in Plymouth, the hatred of women – and the communities of men who engage in a celebration of that hatred online – must be taken seriously, in schools, by social media firms and by government.”

In this blog post, I have focused on the dangers of the language used to discuss the Plymouth shootings. That’s why I haven’t even discussed how Davison was able legally to obtain a pump-action shotgun.

Please can we all stop pretending to be independent?

I’ve been campaigning about mental health or over 20 years. In that time, some of my views have remained firm and others have changed or developed. One of the things that bothers me more than it used to is all the talk we face about being “independent”.

Of course, independence in some contexts can at times be a worthy goal. If you’re wanting to do something on your own that you previously could not, and that personally matters to you, then fair enough, go for it.

If you don’t want to be dependent on someone who has too much influence over your life, your home, your work or your money, then you may well talk about “independence” to mean no longer being so dependent on that person, which may be very important. I certainly don’t mean to discourage you.

However, it can be hard to resist the lie that we all can and should be “independent”. People who turn to social security for help (which is what it is there for) are told they should not “rely” on state benefits. They are accused of “welfare dependency”. Everybody is encouraged to be “financially independent”.

This attitude is not only wrong and immoral; it is absurd. It has no connection with reality. Nobody is independent.

I have just drunk a cup of tea. To do so, I depended on hundreds of people on the other side of the world, who picked the tea. I depended on hundreds more who packed and transported the tea. I depended on the people who put the tea into tea-bags, who designed the boxes in which the tea-bags were sold, who worked in the supermarket at which I bought the tea-bags. That’s even before I consider the sugar and milk, and the supply of water to the taps in my kitchen.

I cannot drink a cup of tea without depending on literally thousands of people.

In a less tangible but equally important way, good mental health can rarely if ever be achieved in isolation. It depends amongst other things on our connections with others and the nature of the communities and the society of which are part. When the economy and culture of society encourage greed and prejudice, mental health is one of several things that suffers.

The attack on “welfare dependency” implies that it is the poorest people who are the most dependent. This is the opposite of the truth.

Rich people recieve their wealth from others. The wealthy owner of a business is dependent on all the people who work in that business, and often on those who buy its products as well. People who profit from buying and selling shares are dependent on the workers in a vast range of businesses that they seek to profit from. Billionaires are dependent on the rest of the population not overthrowing them and redistruting their wealth. So-called “wealth creators” create wealth only through the labour of the thousands they employ, who are the real wealth-creators (billionaires don’t create wealth on their own, do they?).

I suggest that we need instead to embrace interdependence, in which we rely on each other as equals to meet our own and each other’s needs. This requires fundamental changes to our very unequal society. We cannot even begin this process unless we challenge the attitude that praises rich people for supposedly being independent, and condemns poor people because they are not.

The personal is political and the political is spiritual

One of the good things about using a lectionary is that it causes us to look at parts of the Bible to which we might not otherwise pay much attention. At times it has the opposite effect: it leads us to overlook certain passages.

If you’re not familiar with the concept: a lectionary is essentially a list of designated readings, setting out which passages of the Bible will be considered each week. Many churches use one to determine the Bible passages for the weekly Sunday service, on which the sermon is often based.

If you’re part of a church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, then a few weeks ago you will have read (or heard) Mark 4,35-41, in which Jesus is asleep in a boat before calming a storm. The next week, you would have been on to to Mark 5,21-43, which starts with Jesus’ return journey on the boat. The lectionary missed out Mark 5,1-20, which tells us what Jesus did while he was on the other side of the lake. What he did there was to cast a legion of demons out of a deeply disturbed man into a herd of pigs.

The man’s suffering sounds unbearable. He was living alone in caves and harming himself. I cannot imagine what he went through. Everyone avoided him – except Jesus.

This man’s suffering was not just an individual matter. “My name is Legion,” say the demons possessing him. “For we are many”.

“Legion” had a clear meaning to Mark’s original readers. It was a unit of the Roman army. It did not simply mean a large number. The Roman army possessed the land of the Jews and a Legion possessed this man. It is widely recognised that rates of mental ill-health increase at times of political and economic turmoil. Here we have a man who is suffering terribly. The form his suffering takes, and how it is seen, is greatly affected by the context in which he lives.

Jesus’ response is personal and political. He casts the Legion into a herd of pigs (who were possibly there to feed the Roman occupiers). The pigs rush over a cliff into the sea –triggering an association with the Egyptian army cast into the sea as the Israelite slaves fled Egypt. This political act has very personal consequences. Soon the man is no longer self-harming. He is “clothed and in his right mind”.

The personal and political cannot be separated. Nowhere is the link more obvious than when it comes to mental health. For those of us with mental health problems, the chances of help and recovery are closely tied up with funding levels and economic priorities. Only today, shocking new evidence has revealed the appalling lack of available mental health support for children in the UK.

When the UK government announced the first lockdown, they appeared to have no plan for mental health. Some people found their anxiety or other mental health problems exacerbated by Covid. Others found their support networks cut off, or became extremely lonely during lockdown.

The personal is political and the political is spiritual. Jesus meets this distressed man not only with a personal cure or a piece of political theatre but with healing that comes from God. Today, Jesus continues to confront us with the mindbendingly transformative power of the Gospel. As we continue to inflict pain on ourselves and each other, may God help us to trust that there is no area of life – whether we label it personal or political – that the Gospel cannot reach.

The above article is adapted slightly from an article that I wrote for the newsletter of the church to which I belong, New Road Baptist Church in Oxford, on 2 July 2021.

Is Keir Starmer terrified of challenging militarism?

I wrote thie article for Left Foot Forward, where it was published yesterday (30 June 2021).

It’s a long time since British peace activists received pro bono legal advice from a young lawyer called Keir Starmer. The last week has been full of stories related to issues of peace and war, but the Labour Party seems to be missing in action.

When the Armed Forces Bill came before the Commons on Wednesday last week (23 June), several MPs welcomed the degree of unity in Parliament. Unity is not always a good thing, especially when it leaves powerful institutions unscrutinised and their practices unquestioned.

Encouragingly, Labour and the SNP backed an amendment to ensure that forces personnel accused of certain serious crimes, including murder and rape, would be dealt with by civilian courts rather than military courts. Even this was framed in the mildest terms with virtually no criticism of the fact that the armed forces are the only institution allowed to run their own criminal trials. The Tories voted down the amendment, which was defeated by 355 votes to 272. Labour made little if any attempt to publicise the issue.

In a busy week for ‘defence’ issues, this was the last sign of hope that the Labour front bench might differ at all from the government.

On the same day, HMS Defender clashed with Russian forces in disputed waters. Labour rightly criticised the military aggression of the Putin regime, but failed to explain why Johnson’s behaviour was any better. Russian and British governments use each other’s militarism to justify their own. Starmer offered no alternative perspective.

This government’s passion for everyday militarism reached new depths on Friday with the promotion of ‘One Britain, One Nation’ Day, with schools encouraged to fly flags and organise children into singing supposedly patriotic songs. Thankfully, some Labour MPs joined in the general derision that greeted this alarming idea, but the Labour leadership seemed unwilling to challenge it outright.

Starmer offered no words of congratulation or support when, later that day, the Supreme Court quashed the convictions of four Christian peace activists who had been arrested at the DSEI arms fair in London, with judges ruling that blocking a road can at times be a lawful form of protest.

On Saturday morning, party leaders rushed onto social media to celebrate Armed Forces Day. Boris Johnson’s message was militaristic; Keir Starmer’s was even more so. Starmer declared: “Around the world, British forces personnel are at the heart of delivering peace”. He did not explain how he thinks they do this.

While the Labour front bench is thankfully still opposing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, they are distinctly quiet about the role played by UK troops in training Saudi forces. A major part of the work of the British military involves delivering training and support to various regimes – but Starmer ignores this in favour of a bland and romanticised notion of troops promoting “peace”.

Starmer did offer a criticism of the government in his message – but he effectively criticised them for not being militaristic enough. He attacked, as he has done previously, Boris Johnson’s very slight cut to army personnel numbers. Johnson announced that cut at the same time as he confirmed plans for the biggest percentage increase in UK military spending since the Korean War, along with an increase in the limit on UK nuclear warheads. This was in a year in which Covid has served as a deadly reminder that weapons cannot protect us from the gravest threats that we face, including pandemics, poverty and climate chaos.

The next day came the revelation about the soggy Ministry of Defence documents found at a bus stop. They exposed MoD preparations for a Russian response to HMS Defender, including discussions about how to promote the MoD’s own narrative around it. It was not the innocent operation that ministers had claimed. Rather than calling for the documents to be published as a matter of public interest, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey criticised the MoD for allowing them to come to light.

Within the Labour Party, and other opposition parties, there are many people willing to challenge dominant militarist narratives and to hold the MoD and armed forces to account. Yet Starmer and his colleagues seem terrified of doing so. I have frequently heard Labour MPs and their allies justify this on the grounds that questioning military policy would lead to a loss of public support. Have they forgotten the Iraq war so quickly?

Many middle class liberals readily accept patronising and snobbish assumptions about working class voters being gung-ho for war and militarism. They are not; they are capable of thinking independently. The last week suggests that this is not an ability shared by Keir Starmer and John Healey.

Palm Sunday is about an unlawful protest

It is Palm Sunday today, when Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as his supporters waved palm leaves. In a clear parody of a royal procession, Jesus challenged the Roman imperial rulers and the religious leaders who colluded with them.

The message of Jesus continues to pose a challenge to the power structures of the world. Jesus called for loyalty to the kingdom of God, an upside-down community in which the first are last and the last are first, unlike any kingdom in the normal sense of the word.

Jesus thus challenges us all to consider our priorities. That is why I find Palm Sunday both inspiring and disturbing.

Since the fourth century in particular, the powers of this world have found ingenious and innumerable ways to domesticate the radical message of Jesus. Palm Sunday serves as an example of this.

Many churches – outside of lockdown times – literally bring a donkey into church to mark the occasion. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this in itself: riding on a donkey was a way in which Jesus fulfilled a messianic prophecy and also satirised a military procession. But reducing Palm Sunday to a day on which you have the excitement of a donkey in church risks turning this revolutionary and disturbing event into a fluffy and comfortable story.

Any Tory MPs marking Palm Sunday today have, I dare say, found a way to reconcile their celebrations with their support for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – nicknamed the Police Crackdown Bill – which will impose severe long-term restrictions on peaceful protests. Amongst other undemocratic measures it will allow the police to impose limits on the start times, end times and noise levels of static protests as well as marches. In recent days, some of those same Tory MPs (and some others too) have been falling over each other in their rush to express their support for the police violently attacking peaceful protesters in Bristol and Manchester.

Had the Tories and and their allies been there on the original Palm Sunday, I dare say that the Daily Mail would have reported that Jesus’ supporters were violent thugs who had attacked law-abiding Roman soldiers with the sharpened branches of palm trees.

However, Palm Sunday is a challenge to all of us, not just to those with power. I, like most Christians, like to believe that had I been around then I would have supported Jesus to the end. But some of his most famous followers failed to do this. How many of us would have waved palm leaves as Jesus rode into Jerusalem but joined the crowds shouting “crucify him!” a few days later?

So let’s allow ourselves to be challenged on Palm Sunday. But also, let us recognise the challenge that the original Palm Sunday posed in particular to political and religious leaders, and to the unjust structures that sustained them. If a Palm Sunday celebration does not involve a political challenge, then I have to say that I’m really not sure that it’s worth participating in.

What Jarel Robinson-Brown did not say

Right-wing social media users have driven themselves into a frenzy of outrage over a tweet written by a Church of England priest named Jarel Robinson-Brown. The front page of today’s Daily Star features calls for him to be sacked.

I strongly suspect that some of those attacking Jarel are motivated in part by the fact that he is black, gay and left-wing. Mostly, however, they are attacking him for things that he has not said.

Jarel has been accused of insulting Tom Moore, the 100-year old fundraiser who sadly died recently after raising millions for NHS-linked charities. Jarel has also been accused of insulting white British people.

He has done neither of these things.

The tweet in question read:

The cult of Captain Tom Moore is a cult of white British nationalism. I will offer prayers for the repose of his kind and generous soul, but will not be joining the ‘national clap.’”

Whatever you make of this viewpoint, it is clear that Jarel was not criticising Tom Moore but the use of his memory. Indeed, he described Tom Moore as “kind and generous”. Nor did Jarel attack white British people; he attacked white British nationalism.

It is one thing to disagree with Jarel (which is fair enough). It is quite another to accuse him of saying things he has not said.

Jarel Robinson-Brown removed his tweet on the day it was posted, acknowledging that the timing and wording were insensitive. However, other people, including other clergy, have made similar comments. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the person who was most attacked for taking this sort of view is black, gay and the sort of person who right-wingers in the Church love to hate.

Now right-wing Twitter warriors who claim to be “free speech advocates” and who regularly attack “cancel culture” have driven Jarel off Twitter and set up a petition calling for him to be sacked. Speaking as someone who has often recieved abuse and even death threats from far-right types, I know that there are few people so easily offended as gung-ho nationalists.

Journalists on papers such as the Daily Star and Daily Mail know very well that accusing people of misusing Tom Moore’s memory is different to criticising Tom Moore. A lot of hate-mongering relies on intelligent people pretending to be stupid, well-trained journalists acting as if they cannot understand nuance.

Like most people, I admire Tom Moore, who became a celebrity at the age of 99. His fundraising actions suggest he is compassionate, dedicated and courageous. Jarel Robinson-Brown described him as “kind and generous”.

Admiring Tom Moore does not mean supporting people who have misused him to promote nationalism and militarism. The Covid pandemic is a reminder that our compassion cannot stop at borders and that we need to work together to find global solutions. Despite this, Tom Moore is frequently portrayed as somehow representing Britain, as if Covid were a particularly British problem that only British people could solve.

Shortly after Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts began, he was being described as “Captain Tom”, as if his former membership of the army somehow made him more worthy. He later became “Captain Sir Tom” – referred to by three words, only one of which is actually a name. He was made an honourary colonel at the Army Foundation College, where 16-year-old recruits are taught to kill, two years before they are old enough to buy a violent video game. Today, the Ministry of “Defence” tweeted about recent activities undertaken by the UK armed forces and claimed that they were building on Tom Moore’s legacy (they conveniently failed to mention their key role in training the Saudi forces bombing civilians in Yemen).

It is possible to criticise all these developments without attacking Tom Moore himself. We can also celebrate Tom Moore while also praising the other people of a similar age who have also undertaken heroic fundraising efforts during the Covid crisis. Nor is it insulting to Tom Moore to suggest that if Boris Johnson really wants to honour him, he could perhaps commit to funding the NHS properly rather than rely on the charitable efforts of heroic centenarians.

Amongst those who have behaved most deplorably in this situation is the Diocese of London in the Church of England. They rushed to hide behind the pillars of establishment respectability. Their statement began by referring to “Jarel Robinson-Brown’s comments regarding Captain Sir Tom Moore”, ignoring the fact that his comments were not primarily about Tom Moore but about the reaction to his death. The Diocese’s statement contained several sentences criticising Jarel Robinson-Brown and one short sentence criticising the racist abuse he is now receiving. “A review is now underway,” it said ominously. “Led by the Archdeacon of London”.

Faced with a choice between backing a prophetic voice under attack or siding with the forces of establishment and nationalistic outrage, it is rarely difficult to know which position the leadership of the Church of England is likely to take.

Contrast the treatment of Jarel Robinson-Brown with Richard Poole, a Church of England vicar in Surrey. Last year, Richard Poole criticised the Black Lives Matter movement in his sermon and spoke about race in such a way that a black churchwarden resigned. Poole’s bishop defended him after a rather vague apology. The story barely made the media beyond the Christian press and the likes of Piers Morgan and Laurence Fox did not take to Twitter to criticise him.

Thankfully, while church leaders are rushing to grovel to the right-wing lynch mob and side with the idols of nationalism, the London wing of the Student Christian Movement, the LGBT+ Society at King’s College London and the Anglo-Catholic Socialist Collective have all bravely issued statements of solidarity with Jarel Robinson-Brown.

It is a reminder that the future of Christianity lies with grassroots movements, not with institutional denominational leaderships. It is at the grassroots that Jesus’ gospel of love and liberation is most faithfully proclaimed and lived out.

Lisa Nandy and the power of the militarist lobby

I wrote this article for Left Foot Forward. It appeared on their website on Tuesday 26th January 2021.

British militarists scored another victory on Sunday. From their armchairs, they deployed their usual weapons of outrage and misrepresentation, via social media and the Mail on Sunday.

As usual, their enemy was chosen for having apparently failed to show unquestioning devotion to the military establishment. Before the morning was over, their target had backed down and voiced support for major militarist assumptions. Everyday militarism had won again.

It began with the Mail on Sunday attacking Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy. The headline declared: “Labour’s Nandy praises report calling for woke ‘peace force’ to replace army”.

Press v Reality

In reality, the report in question called for reforms to the army and its role, suggesting that British troops should operate in ways that sound similar to UN peacekeepers, and work alongside aid workers and other civilians. It did not suggest abolishing or “replacing” the army.

Speaking as someone who does want to abolish armed forces, I found the report’s proposals fairly mild, but there is some good stuff in it. Published by Open Labour, it is called A Progressive Foreign Policy for Our Times and takes a reflective and thought-provoking tone.

Far from being an extreme left-wing document, it calls for resistance to “strongmen” of both right and left and rightly challenges the left to be consistent in challenging injustice whoever is responsible for it.

The Mail‘s journalists are not stupid. They know that the report did not call for the army to be replaced. Even the sub-editor who wrote the headline knew that, if they had read the article. People can tell the difference between reforming something and abolishing it. Most people also know that welcoming a report does not mean endorsing every word of it.

It says something about the arrogance of some middle-class journalists and politicians that they seem to think that most members of the public are not capable of understanding this.

Marred record

To be fair to Lisa Nandy, she had little time to make nuanced points when she was questioned by Andrew Marr on Sunday morning. Nonetheless, she could have trusted viewers to understand that she could agree with parts of the report but not all of it. Instead, she said, “I didn’t applaud the report and that is complete and utter rubbish”.

Nandy added: “We’ve always stood up for the armed forces, we’ve always stood up for this country. When I first got appointed as Shadow Foreign Secretary, I said that national security would be our top priority.”

It would be difficult to write two sentences that contain more militarist assumptions than these. Nandy conflated support for the armed forces with support for Britain; she implied that supporting the armed forces meant that she would not want to change them; and she equated security with armed force, ignoring the things that really make us secure, such as healthcare, housing and freedom from poverty.

For members of the Peace Pledge Union such as me, the report goes nowhere near far enough. But what alarms me is that even mild deviations from the militarist line are now beaten down so quickly.

How it works

The Nandy story followed a familiar pattern. It goes like this.

Firstly, a public figure says something that is deemed to be unsupportive of the military.

Secondly, the militarist lobby, usually via the Mail or the Sun,attack the person in question.

Thirdly, the politician or their party quickly backs down, declaring their uncritical devotion to the armed forces and implicitly accepting the militarist line that it unpatriotic to want to change anything about them. Everyday militarism marches on.

This is not only a problem with Labour under Keir Starmer. When Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, he was pressurised almost straight away into saying that he would not wear a white poppy on Remembrance Sunday, leaving the Sun to attack him instead with the claim that he had not bowed deeply enough at the Cenotaph.

The Liberal Democrats went from a nuanced if confused position on nuclear weapons to Jo Swinson simply saying “yes” when asked if she would press the nuclear button. The Scottish National Party, despite their welcome and consistent opposition to Trident, are very keen to declare their love of traditional Scottish army regiments.

In the last 10 to 20 years, everyday militarism has become firmly entrenched in Britain – from the introduction of Armed Forces Day, to an increase in school cadet forces, to arms companies sponsoring Pride marches, and producing ‘educational’ videos for small children.

One of the most alarming aspects of everyday militarism is how free debate and truth-telling are stifled by the militarist lobby. It’s about time that opposition politicians showed the public more respect than the Mail ever does and had the guts to take a stand against militarism.