Ready to resist the coronation

I wrote this article for the ‘i’ newpaper, who published it today.

The death of a monarch who had been in the job for 70 years is surely the right time to ask major questions about whether to continue with monarchy. Such discussions are being squashed at the time when they are most needed.

Voices critical of the monarchy are rarely heard on air. Parliament has not debated the future of the monarchy or the acceptance of Charles as head of state. Anti-monarchy protestors have been arrested on spurious grounds. 

The Windsor family’s advisers may hope that public sadness about Elizabeth’s death can simply be turned into enthusiasm for Charles. Perhaps they hope that they can rush ahead to the coronation without us really noticing that a new head of state has been declared with no public debate. This would insult our intelligence.

Now is a crucial moment, in the run-up to Charles’ coronation, to raise and debate vital questions about power, wealth and equality. The cost-of-living crisis is a reminder of how far the very wealthy are removed from the realities that the rest of us face. While seven percent of the population who attend fee-paying schools are vastly over-represented among MPs, judges and newspaper editors, the need to tackle such a clearly unfair situation is not even a major debate in British politics. Protests at Charles’ coronation must be about championing the equal value of all people.

Since my arrest in Oxford for objecting to the proclamation of Charles as king, I have been even more determined to join the protests when he is crowned. There are rumours the coronation will take place in the spring. I suspect the organisers will not want to wait too long, hoping that grief for the previous monarch will lead people to suppress doubts about her successor.

Groups such as Republic are planning to demonstrate at the coronation. We can expect demonstrations in local communities around the UK at the same time.

We are likely to face many attempts to stop us protesting. New laws such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act are restricting our freedom to speak out, but police have always been draconian when it comes to resistance to royalty. During the royal wedding in 2011, peaceful protesters arrested by the police included five people who were ordering coffee in Starbuck’s after leaving a small-scale demonstration.

For royalists, British history is about kings and battles. Supporters of the status quo have accused me of “ignoring British history”. They are missing the point. The inspiring struggles of Levellers, Chartists and Suffragists – ordinary people standing up for justice – are as much part of British history as the monarchs and militaries who tried to suppress them. 

We have our rights not because the rich and powerful handed them down to us, but because our ancestors campaigned and struggled for them. If we are to speak out against monarchy, militarism and inequality, we need to champion not the history of British rulers, but of British resistance.

Preparations for the coronation have got off to a shaky start. The organiser – Edward Fitzalan-Howard, Duke of Norfolk – has just been banned from driving. He cut across a police car to drive through a red light while speaking on his mobile phone. Magistrates rejected his argument that he should be allowed to drive at a “crucial point in the history of this nation”.

But there is no chance of Fitzalan-Howard being sacked from his role as coronation-organiser. He has inherited the job of Earl Marshal, which involves overseeing royal events. Just as Charles Windsor is an hereditary head of state, Edward Fitzalan-Howard is an hereditary events manager.

This won’t be the last time in the run-up to the coronation that the sheer strangeness of hereditary privilege is on embarrassing display.

Monarchy means having the next person in line regardless of who they are or what they have done. In the days after her death, many people praised Elizabeth’s dedication and sense of service. But her possession of such qualities is not an argument for monarchy. It is exactly the opposite. If we have a monarch who is good at the job and has values that we share, this is simply down to luck. If the militant Welsh nationalists who tried to assassinate Charles in 1969 had been successful, we would now likely be preparing for the coronation of King Andrew.

Of course, monarchs have considerably less power than they did 400 years ago. My main problem with monarchy is that it sets the tone for other aspects of life. In a healthy society we would find it demeaning to be expected to bow down to someone and call him “your majesty” because of who his ancestors were. Such behaviour can only appear normal in a society that upholds and celebrates inequality.

Democracy can only be partial when the top role in society is hereditary. Here’s to the day when we have democratically run local communities and democratic control of workplaces. This can never happen if we remain as forelock-tugging subjects of a king, but only if we live as equal citizens, respecting each other as equals and confident of our place in the world.

Arrested for opposing monarchy

I had not planned to protest today. To be honest, I’m tired and lacking in energy after not being well lately. And I am not some sort of heroic campaigner who rushes round resisting without rest. I am a lot less energetic and dedicated than some people seem to imagine!

I knew that Charles Windsor would be declared “King Charles III” in official ceremonies around the UK today. I had assumed they would be fairly small-scale. Yesterday, a good friend discouraged me from protesting because she was concerned about my health. I reluctantly agreed that she had a point.

It was only when I went to church this morning that I learnt that there was not only a proclamation in Oxford but a procession that would start just outside our church. I was feeling sad and angry as I left church and walked past the cordoned off streets and saw the dignitaries and military leaders standing on the steps of Carfax Tower in clothing more suited to the sixteenth century. This, apparently, is how we proclaim a new head of state in twenty-first century Britain.

After making slow progress along the pavement, I asked the police how I could get across to the other side as the road was closed off. When I expressed a mild criticism of the royal procession during my question about the road closures, they became defensive and refused to talk with me further. Someone who had heard me came over and challenged my views, but the police told us not to talk to each other. I have no idea on what basis the police stop people with different views having a discussion.

I paused briefly to look at a couple of things on my phone, before realising they were about to read out the proclamation. I had previously doubted whether I wanted to stay and hear it, but I was there now. I remained quiet in the first part of the proclamation, concerning the death of Elizabeth. Any death is sad and I would not object to people mourning.

It was only when they declared Charles to be “King Charles III” that I called out “Who elected him?” I doubt most of the people in the crowd even heard me. Two or three people near me told me to shut up. I didn’t insult them or attack them personally, but responded by saying that a head of state was being imposed on us without our consent.

A security guard appeared, stood right in front of me and told me to be quiet. Two more security guards came along and they tried to push me backwards. As I asked them to give the legal basis for what they were doing, the police came over, more or less moved the security guards out of the way and took hold of me. I was outraged that they were leading me away, but was taken aback when they told me they were arresting me. I have no illusions about the police’s questionable relationship with the law, but I seemed to have been arrested for nothing more than expressing an opinion in public. They gave me confused answers when I asked on what grounds I had been arrested.

As the police led me away, I heard people asking them why I was being arrested. Eventually I realised that two men were walking along beside them demanding answers about it. I heard one of them say, “I don’t agree with him but surely he’s got a right to his views? Isn’t this a free country?” (or similar words). These two people – not activists, not anti-monarchy – were giving a fine example of excellent citizenship by speaking up when they saw the police abusing their powers. I have no idea who they were, but their actions really cheered me.

Eventually I was handcuffed – I don’t know what sort of threat they thought I posed – and put in the back of a police van. A police officer got in the van and took my details. After lots of conversations on his radio he said I would be de-arrested but that they would want to interview me. I said I would do so only with a lawyer present. After some more radio conversations he told me I would be de-arrested and then contacted to be interviewed at a later date, and possibly charged.

I was then driven home in the police van. At this point, I had still not been given a clear answer as to why I had been arrested.

At first I was told that the sergeant who had arrested me would know the reason. This was an appalling answer. Eventually, on the way home, I was told that I had been arrested under the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act 2022 (the outrageous act passed earlier this year) for actions likely to lead to “harassment or distress”.

I would be surprised if anyone among the few people who had heard me felt harassed or distressed by encountering an opinion that they may have disagreed with.

It took me a while – and a cup of tea, and conversations with people I live with – before I posted on Twitter about what had happened. Most responses were sympathetic and outraged. Some of the more hostile ones accused me of doing all this for the sake of self-promotion. This is impossible: the actions I had taken were unlikely to lead to my arrest and I was very surprised to be arrested.

While I am determined to speak out about this unjust arrest, and about the unfairness of monarchy, I would much rather be doing other things today. I would rather not have spent much of the afternoon trying to calm down and stop shaking as I answered media calls, supportive messages and abusive tweets. I would rather not spend tomorrow morning phoning a lawyer. I would much rather get on with all the things I needed to do anyway. This did not happen because of some cunning plan on my part, but because the police abused their powers to arrest someone who voiced some mild opposition to a head of state being appointed undemocratically.

What other freedoms can be suppressed in the name of monarchy? Who else will be arrested under the vile Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act? I am relatively lucky: I will not be sacked from my job as a result of being arrested, or experience some of the consequences that others may face. If fear of arrest deters people from expressing their views, then these vile laws and draconian atmosphere will have significantly reduced free expression and harmed democracy, whether or not people are charged.

This isn’t about me. It’s about our freedom to choose our own system of government, to elect our own leaders and to express our own views. I’m not asking you to support me. I’m asking you to support democracy.

The above article was originally published by Bright Green, who got in touch with me after my arrest and kindly asked me to write about it.

Now is exactly the right time to speak out against monarchy

Since the sad news of Elizabeth Windsor’s death earlier today, I have received a number of tweets telling me that “now is not the time” to expess opposition to monarchy.

These messages are missing a fundamental point about the difference between mourning an individual and celebrating a system.

Today, Charles Windsor has been declared to be the head of state of millions of people who have had no say in the matter. And I have been told that “now is not the time” to challenge this. Surely the most important time to object that an unelected head of state is being imposed on us is the time when an unelected head of state is being imposed on us.

Undermining democracy

Focusing on the UK (rather than all the other countries of which Charles Windsor now claims to be king), many will argue that most people support the monarchy and will be happy to have Charles as head of state. Thus an undemocratic institution is defended on the grounds of majority support. If these people are so sure that Charles has the support of the majority, why do they object to his name appearing on a ballot paper or him being subjected to democratic scrutiny?

Two days ago, Liz Truss became Prime Minister based on the votes of a tiny percentage of the British population who happen to be members of the Conservative Party. Two days after a largely unelected Prime Minister taking office, we have an unelected head of state imposed as well. The fact that his mother was also unelected does not make his appointment any more acceptable.

This is exactly the time when the media should be full of discussion about the rights and wrongs of Charles Windsor becoming king. Instead, we can expect wall-to-wall repetitive royalist coverage from the BBC and most daily newspapers for at least the next several days. Liz Truss’ government will be almost devoid of meaningful media scrutiny in their first few days and weeks in office, which is seriously alarming and dangerous for democracy.

Mourning or subservience?

The wall-to-wall royal coverage we are already experiencing seems to have less to do with mourning than with subservience. The excessive public devotions and uncritical reporting whip up anachonristic ideas of loyalty and servility to a particular wealthy family based on an accident of birth and heredity, and the fact that their ancestors were successful in violently seizing power. This in turn entrenches and perpetuates inequality, promoting the idea that it is normal, natural and honourable for one person to bow down to another.

This was made clear by one particular shocking piece of BBC coverage this afternoon, before Elizabeth Windsor’s death had even been announced. BBC presenter Clive Myrie, referring to Parliament’s debate on energy bills, said it was “insignificant now given the gravity of the situation we seem to be experiencing with Her Majesty”. He placed such strong emphasis on the word “insignificant” that his colleague Damian Grammaticas said, “Well, certainly overshadowed” – apparently correcting Myrie’ language.

How can the death of Elizabeth Windsor make the energy crisis insignificant? Thousands of people are likely to die from the cold. Are their lives and deaths now insigificant because of the death of one particular person? They can be insignificant only if one person’s life is worth more than another’s – indeed, worth more than thousands of others. The existience of monarchy and the coverage of it are a celebration and promotion of inequality, a call to put aside the life-and-death concerns of working class people in favour of an excessive and subservient focus on the Windsor family. Nothing could illustrate this more than the bizarre decision of the CWU and RMT unions to call off strikes that are about vital and desperate cost-of-living concerns.

Now is the time to resist

Of course Elizabeth Windsor’s death is sad. It would be crass and unpleasant to suggest otherwise. Of course her family, friends and admirers want to mourn. Of course there will be a lot of media coverage. This is different from wall-to-wall, highly biased coverage that fails to address difficult issues, promotes subservience and portrays poverty and energy bills as trivial issues by comparison.

Even more importantly, it is no justification for imposing another unelected head of state on us and expecting us to be loyal to him. One person who tweeted me today told me that I should not be attacking a “grieving son”. I strongly support and respect Charles’ right to grieve for his mother. But the fact that Charles is grieving does not give him a right to claim to be our head of state.

When an injustice is taking place, it is ludicrous and dangerous to suggest that it is “not the time” to talk about it.

Liz Truss’ dangerous plan to ramp up military spending

I wrote this article for Left Foot Forward, who published it on their website this morning.

Throughout her leadership campaign, Liz Truss said she didn’t believe in handouts. She also promised to throw billions of pounds into raising military spending.

Truss has pledged to increase “defence” spending – as it’s euphemistically known – to 3% of national income by 2030. This represents a 60% increase on current levels. It will cost £157bn – and Truss won’t say where the money will come from.

These figures are are provided by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a thoroughly pro-military thinktank. RUSI’s report last week suggested that the cost of £157bn is equivalent to an extra five pence on Income Tax. RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers encouraged Truss to prepare the public for either tax rises or cuts to other areas of public spending to fund “defence”.

This is despite the reality that the UK already has the fourth highest military spending in the world.

Truss’ massive handout for generals and arms dealers contrasts with her vague words about tackling the cost-of-living crisis.

At the heart of the issue is the meaning of words such as “security” and “defence”.

Speaking as someone who grew up under Thatcher with my father on the dole, I know how poverty and safety are incompatible. There is no security if you are never sure how you will pay the next bill. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, homelessness and all the horrors they bring in their wake – these are what we need to defend ourselves from. We also need defence against global threats such as pandemics and climate disaster. For many people in the world, military aggression is a very real threat. It is an insult to these people to pretend that invasion is a likely threat faced by people in Britain.

Differences over security are more than a philosophical debate. They are a matter of life and death.

There are three very down-to-earth reasons for resisting Truss’ military spending plans.

Firstly, as RUSI’s reports makes clear, the enormous sums of money involved will mean cuts elsewhere, especially if Truss sticks to her policy of not raising taxes. This would be disastrous given the challenges that we face, with poverty spiralling and the NHS struggling to cope.

Secondly, higher military spending makes war more likely. Militarist politicians and commentators speak constantly about Ukraine because the British public rightly sympathise with the Ukrainian people in the horrendous suffering they face. The militarist lobby seem less keen to speak, for example, about the military training that British armed forces provide to the Saudi forces who are attacking civilians in Yemen in much the same way that Putin’s forces attack civilians in Ukraine.

I doubt the war in Ukraine will end other than through international negotiations and grassroots peacebuilding. However, only a relatively small percentage of UK military spending has anything to do with Ukraine. Far from “deterring” Russia or China, higher military spending only fuels arms races, with Russia and the West repeatedly using each other’s militarism to justify their own.

Thirdly, Truss’ policy represents a dangerous victory for the militarist lobby. In the 2010s, there was a steady stream of media stories about the UK’s supposedly low levels of “defence” spending. In reality, the UK had the seventh or eighth highest military spending in the world at the time. In 2020, as Covid brought a deadly reminder that weapons cannot make us safe, Boris Johnson announced the biggest increase in UK military spending since the Cold War. This was not enough for militarists, whose appetite grows by what it feeds on. Stories about supposedly inadequate “defence” spending soon reappeared, and Truss – who has a record of enthusiastic militarism – was ready to pay for the militarist lobby’s support.

The last two months have seen a string of revelations about military abuse. They include the shocking statistic that more than one in ten young women who joined the British army last year had reported being sexually assaulted within a year. This was followed by the accusation that former Chief of the General Staff Mark Carleton-Smith helped to cover up the murder of civilians in Afghanistan. None of this has deterred Truss from offering her £157bn handout to the organisations responsible.

Sadly, Keir Starmer seems terrified of appearing hostile to militarism. He welcomed Johnson’s increase in military spending in 2020, criticising only a part of the plan that involved a slight reduction in army personnel.

We need to be much bolder. Military spending is integral to Truss’ plans and we cannot resist her government without challenging militarism. We need to say clearly that Truss’ policies will make the world more dangerous and will offer no security to people struggling to make ends meet. The only thing that high military spending will make safe is the profits of arms dealers.

The Peace Protestors: A history of modern-day war resistance

I am delighted to report that my new book has just been published by Pen & Sword. It’s called The Peace Protestors: A history of modern-day war resistance.

I owe many thanks to everyone who helped, contributed and supported me in writing the book. This includes people who were interviewed, who shared information with me or who provided feedback on early drafts of the chapters, as well as everyone who encouraged me – and, of course, to people at Pen & Sword.

My book explores peace activism in the UK, particularly direct action, since 1980. This may sound like a short time period, but there was so much that I could have covered that I struggled with deciding what to leave out!

In writing the book, I sought to tell stories based on personal accounts of people who were part of them, while also drawing on media coverage from the time and later analysis. It is not primarily an academic book, but it does offer reflection and discussion of the events covered, as well as at times including newly discovered information and overlooked facts. I therefore hope it will be useful to academics and students, as well as to peace activists and other readers.

You can buy the book – with £5 off! – directly from my publisher’s website or order it from your local bookshop. (You can order it form the corporate tax dodgers at Amazon, but I hope you won’t!)

I’ll be speaking about the book as part of a panel with other peace historians at an online event on 21st June. Details of book talks in London and Birmingham will be available very soon.

If you have questions – or you’re reading the book and have comments, thoughts, disagreements or observations – it will be good to hear from you! Please feel free to email me or to comment below.

40 years on: the overlooked opposition to the Falklands War

While writing my new book on the history of peace activism, I was privileged to spend time researching peace campaigns that have often been overlooked or downplayed. For me, one of the most interesting topics for research has been the campaigns against the Falklands War in 1982. I wrote the following article for the Morning Star, who published it on 2nd May 2022.

On May Day 40 years ago, anti-war campaigners were arrested in cities around Britain.

Argentinian troops had invaded the Falklands Islands a month earlier. The British naval task force had been dispatched to the South Atlantic and the Thatcher government avoided a negotiated settlement. All-out war looked likely to break out very soon.

On May 1, 1982, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) called a Countrywide Day of Protest and Resistance. Demonstrations and vigils took place in at least 30 towns and cities. Some involved small-scale marches, others were more dramatic. Women in Sheffield occupied a Royal Navy recruitment office. Another recruitment office was paint-bombed in Holborn. Protesters in Glasgow were arrested while handing out leaflets and selling newspapers.

The day coincided with the RAF’s bombing of Port Stanley airstrip, the first British military action on the Falkland Islands themselves. When peace activists in Britain heard the news, some were keen to respond with direct action.

At about 3pm, they heard that there were press and television cameras clustered around the Ministry of Defence (MoD). “It seemed too good a chance to pass over,” explained Charles Davey of London Peace Action. Plans were made speedily for a vigil at the MoD, followed by pouring artificial blood on the steps.

“We knew we were likely to be arrested,” said Davey. “We discussed who would — who could — take part; who would be in the support group talking to the press, police, observing.”

Five of the blood-pourers were arrested and charged with criminal damage. The ministers, generals and admirals, meanwhile, were never arrested for spilling real blood.

I cannot claim to have taken part in any of these actions myself. Forty years ago, I was only five years old, so I had other things on my mind.

If you’re older than me, you may well have first-hand memories of the protests against the Falklands War. If you’re much younger than me, then it may feel like a historical event only.

I am in between — I grew up knowing about the Falklands War as a recent event. As a teenager during the Gulf War of 1991, I heard frequent comparisons with the Falklands. It took me a while to realise that much of what I had heard about the Falklands was wrong, or at least selective.

Like most working-class people who grew up under Thatcher, I have no illusions about the depths she would sink to, so I was unsurprised to discover that her rhetoric about the rights of Falkland Islanders was not matched by her behaviour in the preceding years. The British government had for some years been negotiating with Argentina for a compromise over the Falklands. When the Nationality Act was passed in 1980, Falklanders were denied British nationality. The British government had happily authorised arms sales to the Galtieri regime in Argentina.

None of this justifies Galtieri’s military aggression. It serves instead as a reminder that both the British and Argentinian governments had their own ends in mind. There were better ways to resolve the dispute than for two right-wing rulers to send working-class teenagers to kill each other.

In recent years, I have realised that another common claim about the Falklands War is also inaccurate. I have often been told that it was almost universally supported by the British public. But as I researched my new book on the history of peace activism, it became ever clearer to me that the opposition was both more widespread and more active than is often assumed.

While there is no doubt that the majority of the British population supported the war, a significant minority were opposed. Shortly after the war had finished, as Thatcher and her allies whipped up jingoistic hysteria, a poll for The Economist found that 22% of the population considered that the war had been wrong.

Given the jingoistic atmosphere, it is not surprising that some who had doubts kept their heads down. Older peace activists have told me it was “the hardest war to campaign against.”

Ann Feltham, a PPU member who leafleted regularly against the war, recalls that “while some people were hostile, many took leaflets or confided that they too had doubts.”

On the day of resistance on 1st May, Nottingham pacifists were surprised by how many passers-by agreed with them when they handed out leaflets with the local CND group. In the naval city of Plymouth, activists found far less support. Robert Harris, a peace activist in Bangor, found a more sympathetic response from Welsh-language media than their English-language counterparts.

At times, there was vicious hostility. “It was a very difficult time to be an anti-militarist,” remembers PPU member Albert Beale. “It was very lonely in a sense.” When anti-war campaigners marched through London on 23rd May, they encountered pro-war slogans blasted through loudspeakers by the so-called Coalition for Peace through Security, a Tory group set up to attack the peace movement.

907 people were killed in the Falklands War: three civilian Falklanders, 255 UK armed forces personnel and 649 Argentinians. The much greater number of people wounded in body or mind can only be guessed at.

The final arrests related to the Falklands War came on 12th October at the Victory Parade. A group who had planned to chain themselves across the road were bundled into a police van before they could do so. One was knocked unconscious in the process. Peace News reported on “the many people held in police vans for the duration of the march, presumably for not looking enthusiastic and patriotic enough.”

By the end of 1982, the Anti-Falklands War Support Network reported that they were aware of 118 arrests of anti-war activists. This is a small number compared to many earlier and later wars. There is no doubt that the Falklands War had a lot of public support.

But as I have researched it, interviewed people who resisted it and dug through the archives of peace campaigns, I have discovered that it is an outright denial of the evidence to say that almost everyone supported the Falklands War. Wherever there is war, there will be resistance.

My new book is called The Peace Protestors: A history of modern-day war resistance. It will be published by Pen & Sword on 30th May 2022. It can be pre-ordered now, with a £5 discount.

Militarism should not be glamorised in our schools

In my part-time job at the Peace Pledge Union, I am pleased to work alongside teachers, parents and school students who are challenging everyday militarism in their schools.

On 12th April, I wrote about the growing problems of militarism in schools for the Morning Star. However, I’m not always very good at remembering to re-post my articles on this blog site after they have been published elsewhere! You can read my latest article on the issue on the Morning Star website.

Ukraine: A British pacifist responds

Peace News recently asked me to write an article about the war in Ukraine from my persepective as a pacifist in the UK. I was pleased to be asked and my article appeared in the April issue.

Following this, I was invited to speak at a Peace News event on Ukraine, in which I was asked challenging questions about pacifism in the light of the Russian invasion. This has now been posted on YouTube.

Of course, there are many pacifists in Britain, and many more around the world, whose views on the war in Ukraine no doubt overlap in lots of ways but are not identical. I have no authority to speak on behalf of British pacifists as a whole. This is only my perspective, although it is informed by the thoughts of many other people from whom I have learnt much. If you’re interesteed, you can read my Peace News article here or watch my interview here. Many thanks to Peace News for running the article and event.

Christianity, pacifism and the war in Ukraine

I wrote this article for Premier Christianity magazine, who published it on 25th March 2022.

For some people, the question, ‘Can there be a pacifist response to the Ukraine crisis?’ is actually a prelude to insisting that there cannot be.

I find it frustrating that many of those who hold this view never seem to speak with any Ukrainian pacifists.

Ukrainian Pacifists have been challenging war and militarism since long before Putin’s invasion. Yurii Sheliazhenko is secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. He lives in Kyiv and every so often his home shakes due to “explosions nearby, because of Russian missile attacks”. Yurii’s friend Ruslan Kotsaba spent a year and a half in prison without trial after being accused of “treason”. His crime was to encourage people not to co-operate with military mobilisation against separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In both Ukraine and Russia, you can find peace activists of several faiths and none. For some, it is their faith that motivates them. “We, Christians, cannot stand idly by when a brother kills brother, a Christian kills a Christian,” declares a petition signed by Russian Orthodox priests.

As Christians, our starting-point is the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ. However, we are all influenced by our context and culture and Christians are not immune to the temptation to accept dominant assumptions without question. We can easily slide into assuming that violence is the solution to conflict and that the armed forces of the country we live in are the good guys.

Jesus’ life exemplified active nonviolence. As a resident of the Roman Empire, he lived under a particularly vicious and oppressive regime. He did not engage in violent resistance to it. This does not mean he did not challenge it. His teaching to “turn the other cheek” is an encouragement of nonviolent defiance. If he had meant it as a call to passivity, he would hardly have followed it with his action in the Jerusalem Temple, when he challenged the religious establishment who were puppets of the Roman rulers. Jesus’ forceful protest involved attacks on property rather than violence against people.

Social media is full of similar examples. Unarmed Ukrainian civilians are sitting in front of tanks. They are challenging Russian soldiers to their faces. They are marching daily in anti-occupation protests in cities controlled by invading troops.

“Reporting on conflict focuses on warfare and almost ignores nonviolent resistance,” says Yurii Sheliazhenko. “Brave Ukrainian civilians are changing street signs and blocking streets and blocking tanks, just staying in their way without weapons.”

Meanwhile in Russia, over 15,000 people have been arrested for peacefully protesting against war. Ioann Burdin, an Orthodox priest in the village of Karabanovo, was arrested after an anti-war sermon. He became the first person to be charged under a new law that allows up to three years in prison for “discrediting the use of the armed forces”. In Belarus, opponents of war have slowed down railway lines transporting Russian troops and equipment.

As I sit in relative comfort in Britain, it is not for me to judge people in desperate situations. I will not judge someone in Ukraine who feels that they have no choice but to use a weapon. While I cannot encourage such choices, it would be outrageously arrogant of me to condemn them.

Picking up a weapon in desperation is very different to planning a war. Several British commentators are recklessly calling for a “no-fly zone”. This would mean the RAF and US Air Force shooting down Russian planes and killing Russian troops (including teenage conscripts). It would mean a war between nuclear-armed states. Such calls are possible because we live in a militaristic society in which it is hard to reject the absurd assumption that the only effective response to violence is more violence. This is like trying to put out a fire with petrol.

As Brian Zahnd, an evangelical pastor in the US, puts it, we need to recognise that Mars, the god of war, is still being worshipped “under an assumed name”. As we criticise Russian Orthodox leaders for supporting Putin’s war, we must also notice the plank in our own eye. How many British church leaders are speaking out against Boris Johnson’s supply of weapons and military training to Saudi Arabia? Saudi forces are bombing civilians in Yemen just as Russian forces kill civilians in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Pacifist Movement suggests that peace protests in Russia and the West could push world leaders to the point at which they feel that they have no choice but to engage in meaningful peace negotiations. Militaristic attitudes include the assumption that it is politicians and generals who solve problems. But the hope I feel is strengthened when I see footage of Ukrainians standing in front of tanks and of Russians writing anti-war slogans in the snow. Christ stands with the victims, the marginalised and those who hunger for righteousness.

“Put not your trust in the powerful,” warns the psalmist (Psalm 146:3). It is advice that is never more relevant than when we are faced with war.

A new anti-war movement is gaining traction in Russia and Ukraine

I wrote this article for the Morning Star, who published it in their issue of Satruday 12th March 2022.

There’s a new joke going round Russia. What’s the easiest way to clear the snow from your street? Write “No To War” in the snow – and the police will clear it for you.

Footage on social media shows police obliterating anti-war messages written in the snow. But the Russian peace movement will not be so easily stamped out.

The size of anti-war protests in Russia has taken everyone by surprise. Russian police have carried out over 13,000 arrests of peace protesters since the invasion of Ukraine. Over a million people in Russia have signed petitions against the war.

Vladimir Putin accuses Russian peace groups of being friends of NATO. They are not. Anti-militarist groups in Britain are accused of supporting Putin. We do not.

The imperialism of NATO and the imperialism of Putin are two sides of the same coin. The real division is not between Russian capitalists and western capitalists but between the world’s ruling classes – whether Russian oligarchs or US billionaires – and the mass of the population in all countries, who never benefit from war.

As the Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg put it, “Any war is destruction, blood, violence, innocent victims”.

Presidents and prime ministers will not save us from war. Putin sits pompously at his absurdly long table, looking like he is auditioning for the role of a Bond villain. Zelensky is hero-worshipped by Western commentators who disregard his actual policies and record of militarism. Johnson is sighing with relief that the headlines are no longer about Downing Street lockdown parties.

Meanwhile, working class people are resisting war in Russia, Ukraine and around the world. They, not politicians and generals, are the people who offer hope of an end to war.

Hope amidst the horror

Like millions of people, I watched with horror as Russian tanks entered Ukraine on 24 February. I have no time for hypocritical ministers who condemn atrocities in Ukraine while providing weapons and military training to Saudi forces killing children in Yemen. Recognising this is no reason to feel less concerned about people in Ukraine. It was difficult to feel anything other than fear and sadness on the day the invasion began.

At the Peace Pledge Union, we quickly published a statement condemning Putin’s aggression and pointing to the background of militaristic policies pursed by both Russia and NATO.

It was not until that evening that I was uplifted by glimmers of hope. News came through of anti-war protests in Russia. I was cautious, aware that US or Ukrainian authorities could exaggerate or even fabricate such stories. But soon longstanding Russian peace groups, known for opposing NATO as well as Putin, were posting footage of thousands of people protesting in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Protests in Russia are now too big for politicians to ignore.. A law passed in Russia on 4 March provides for jail terms of up to three years for “discrediting” the “use of Russian troops”. It allows jail for 15 years for people guilty of spreading “fake” information about Russian military operations. Last week, I heard from Boris, a Russian activist who had been visited by police every day since the war began, putting pressure on him not to speak out. He said he would continue campaigning

Putin would be impressed by the Police Bill that Priti Patel is pushing through the British parliament, similarly suppressing rights to nonviolent protest. The ruling classes of supposedly opposing countries can be remarkably similar.

Rejecting militarism

In the Russian Duma, two members of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party have proposed a law to conscript anti-war protesters and send them to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk – so that they can “see with their own eyes” what the Ukrainian authorities have done.

But Russian peace campaigners are already aware of such things. Amongst all the anti-war statements produced by peace groups in Russia, I have not come across a single expression of support for the Zelensky regime or NATO.

As the Russian group Feminist Anti-War Resistance puts it, Putin has “never been concerned about the fate of people in Luhansk and Donetsk”. Russian Communist MP Vyacheslav Markhaev, who initially supported the recognition of the separatist republics, now accuses Putin of being “motivated by entirely different intentions” leading to a “full-scale war”.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Zelenksy has handed out rifles to untrained volunteers, incorporated the neo-nazi Azov battalion into the Ukrainian army and banned men aged 18-60 from leaving Ukraine, so they can be conscripted.

Thankfully the resistance of Ukrainians on the ground has been much more creative and effective. “Reporting on conflict focuses on warfare and almost ignores nonviolent resistance to war,” notes Yurii Sheliazhenko of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. He points out that “brave Ukrainian civilians are changing street signs and blocking streets and blocking tanks, just staying in their way without weapons”. In the mostly Russian-speaking city of Melitopol, residents are marching daily in protest against Russian military occupation.

I suspect it is only a matter of time before we hear stories of individual Russian soldiers following the advice of the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objectors and refusing to fight.

An international struggle

A demonstration by the Moscow group of Food Not Bombs was violently broken up by police a few days after the war began. Food Not Bombs also has groups in the West, who challenge NATO militarism as their Russian members challenge Putin’s militarism. Members of Food Not Bombs in Southampton were physically assaulted as they protested against Armed Forces Day in 2018. It is a reminder that resistance to militarism must be as international as war itself.

Coverage of Russian anti-war protests – which should be one of the big stories of the war – has been minimal in British media. The establishment tends to think that news is about the actions of powerful individuals, and to assume that such people determine the political future alone. They do not. Change comes from below, and war will end when people refuse to go along with it.