Christian Concern’s general election campaign: Distorting the Gospel

With the general election coming up, there are a range of websites and other resources to help Christians to engage with the issues. My favourite is of course Vote for what you believe in set up by the Ekklesia thinktank, but I am rather biased, given that I’m an associate of Ekklesia.

Nonetheless, there are some other good sites. Many complement each other, while some come from different perspectives, which is fair enough.

I feel slightly sick, however, having just looked at the general election website of Christian Concern, a homophobic right-wing lobby group that sadly has influence over churches beyond its own extreme position.

The site lists “four key areas” that Christian Concern claims serve as a “litmus test” for society.

The first is “Family”, by which they mean a defence of the nuclear family and opposition to same-sex marriage. Nuclear families as we understand them today did not exist in Jesus’ time. Jesus himself does not appear to have been overly keen on biological families generally, insisting that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3, 35).

The second is “Foundations”, which seems to refer to protecting Britain’s “Christian heritage”. Britain has never been a country based around the teachings of Jesus, however powerful churches may have been at certain points. Does preserving a certain set of cultural practices have anything to do with living out the Gospel of Jesus?

The third is “Liberty”, by which they mean liberty for Christians. Christian Concern make artificial connections between a wide range of cases that supposedly show discrimination against Christians. Some are about over-the-top uniform codes. Most are about the supposed right of Christians to discriminate against others (usually same-sex couples). Jesus never taught his followers to demand rights for themselves that they deny to others.

The fourth is “Life”, which begins with the promising line “How we treat the most vulnerable in society speaks volumes about what we really value”. Is this the point at which Christian Concern will declare their opposition to austerity, their outrage at food banks, their solidarity with the homeless, unemployed and low-paid?

No, of course not. It’s all about abortion. Christian Concern think they can stop abortion simply by banning it. If they really want to reduce abortions, they need to tackle the causes, challenging poverty and sexual abuse, amongst others. In coming years, we are very likely to find that cuts to disability services have led to an increase in the number of abortions of disabled babies. But while Christian Concern will not say a word against these cuts, I’m not willing to take their claims seriously even on the question of abortion.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern is an organisation whose leaders have refused to answer questions about the allegation that they held a strategy meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the far-right English Defence League.

The Bible says far, far more about poverty and violence than it does about sexuality and marriage. This is not to say that marriage and sexuality don’t matter. The Bible makes clear that they do matter. Jesus’ teachings about love and liberation apply just as strongly to sexual matters as they do to others (although I argue that they lead naturally to support for loving same-sex relationships, not opposition to them).

But how can anyone claiming to apply a Christian voice to an election completely ignore poverty? How can they insist that an unborn child should be born but say nothing about the chances of that child being killed in warfare? How can they demand the “right” of Christians to discriminate against gay and bisexual people but not defend the right of disabled people to equality and respect? How can they talk of the supposed destruction of Christian values but have nothing to say about the very real destruction of our God-given environment?

Jesus began his ministry by saying he had come to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4,18). Luke tells us he said “Blessed are you who are poor… Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6, 20-24). In Matthew’s version, Jesus blessed “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5,3) – that is, those who side with the poor. The majority of Jesus’ parables concerned economic themes. He spoke of a kingdom in which the first would be last and the last first.

I am sure that my own interpretations of Jesus’ teachings are mistaken in all sorts of ways. We all make errors. We are all influenced by our preconceptions and desires. Seeking to follow Jesus is a moment-by-moment challenge. Like many others, I fail all the time. Please let me emphasise that I do not expect all Christians to agree with me. I learn a great deal from those who don’t.

This does not mean that I can sit back while a group claiming to be a Christian voice in the general election use that voice to ignore the growth of poverty and inequality (thereby helping them to grow) and to stir up homophobia. Surely it is barely possible to come near to any understanding of Jesus’ teachings if we wilfully ignore the centrality of issues of wealth and power to almost everything that he had to say.

To speak of the Gospel without reference to poverty is not simply to twist the Gospel. It is proclaim another gospel all together .

Grassroots activism and the Leaders’ Debate

Leaders’ Debates are always going to be unbearable on some level. The petty attacks, the narrowness of the discussions, the very limited time span, the tendency of some people to think that shouting loudly constitutes debate (meaning Nigel Farage in this case).

Nonetheless, it could have been a lot worse. Compared to the equivalent debates in the 2010 election, this one included reference to some relatively progressive ideas. There was talk of scrapping zero-hour contracts, cracking down on dodgy landlords, building more houses, ending NHS privatisation and challenging energy companies. While Farage blamed everything on immigration, the panel did not generally dance to his tune and for once his nasty xenophobic agenda failed to dominate the discussion.

I’m not being naïve. Discussion of progressive policies does not necessarily mean that they will be introduced, even if those who promoted them come to power. Also, things could have been considerably more radical. It’s a shame that in the education discussion, no-one challenged the power of fee-paying schools. Capitalism was not attacked explicitly. Only one leader (Nicola Sturgeon) repeatedly mentioned nuclear weapons.

This won’t stop me being glad that progressive ideas came up more than might have been expected. They may even have shifted the election debate slightly to the left (though this partly depends on which bits the media choose to focus on, and I’m not holding my breath).

So why did these progressive ideas come up in the Leaders’ Debate?

Partly, of course, it was due to the presence of three leaders to the left of Labour (Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon). Wood did a good job of challenging xenophobia, telling Farage to be “ashamed of yourself”. One of the best quotes of the evening surely has to be Wood’s comment, “It was not Polish care workers and Estonian bar workers who caused the economic crisis. It was bankers.” All three of them rejected the notion of austerity, with Sturgeon saying we can’t “afford any more austerity” and Wood saying Miliband offered only “austerity light”.

While none of these three went as far as I would have liked, I think we have a lot to thank them for.

Yet some of the progressive ideas were emphasised by Ed Miliband: ending zero-hour contracts, cracking down on corporate tax avoidance, raising the minimum wage, tackling private sector rent levels. I don’t believe that these things came up simply because Ed Miliband feels strongly about them. Indeed, when he became leader four and a half years ago, he had barely mentioned most of them.

These issues became noticed because of the work of people at the grassroots, in their communities, high streets and workplaces, speaking up and taking action. Corporate tax-dodging was noticed by the media and mainstream politicians only after UK Uncut took nonviolent direct action in tax-dodging shops in 2010-11. Zero-hour contracts and fuel poverty have been the focus of campaigns backed by trades unions, faith groups and others around Britain. The state of private sector renting has been a disgrace for decades, but the efforts of campaigning groups have combined with criticisms of rising house-prices to make people like Ed Miliband realise that challenging it can be a vote-winner.

Whether Labour – or for that matter, the SNP or others – will stick to these policies after the election is another matter. That’s why we will need to keep up the pressure after 7th May. But the fact that they are even talking about them demonstrates the effect that grassroots activism can have.

Elections are only one small part of politics, only one event in democracy. Real democracy means using our power whether or not an election is on. That’s why we need to keep campaigning after the election – through pressuring politicians, through direct action, through protests, boycotts and strikes, through living out our values where we find ourselves.  When we vote we hand over only some of our power, temporarily, to the people we elect.

We need to cut ‘defence’ spending, not increase it

The Daily Telegraph’s campaign for high military spending has gathered momentum. Tory backbenchers, retired generals and even some Labour MPs have backed calls to keep “defence spending” at 2% of GDP. Last week, in a Commons debate attended by very few MPs, the majority of those who bothered to turn up voted in favour of the proposal.

There are several facts that rarely get mentioned.

Firstly, when they speak about “defence spending”, they mean the budget of the Ministry of Defence. A great deal of military and war-related spending is from other budgets. This includes funding for research and much of the cost of fighting actual wars. When this is added in, the figure is far above 2% of GDP.

Secondly, the UK’s military (or “defence”) expenditure is not low by international standards. It is very high. According to academic research in Sweden in 2013, the UK has the sixth highest military budget in the world. Even if it has fallen slightly since then, Britain is still spending far more on war than most of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. The Daily Telegraph itself published a chart illustrating that the UK is spending a higher percentage of GDP on “defence” than almost every other member of NATO and the  European Union.

Thirdly, “defence” is clearly a euphemism for spending on warfare and preparations for warfare. Despite the choice of wording, much of this expenditure has little or nothing to do with defending the British people. Supporters of “defence” spending talk about “national security” as if only weapons and soldiers can make anyone secure. In reality, the use of British troops as a support act in US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan has increased terrorist threats to Britain, making us less secure. All sorts of things help to make people secure – including a warm home, enough to eat and healthy relationships. These are being denied to increasing numbers of people in Britain by vicious cuts to public services, the welfare state and local authority budgets – cuts that are much larger than cuts to “defence” spending. The British people are threatened more by their own government than by any foreign power.

The militarists are increasingly vocal and well-organised in lobbying for high military spending in the UK. As the pressure grows, those who believe in real security need to speak up and expose the reality.

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.

New Year Revolutions

A number of my friends have today written “Happy New Year” messages on Facebook with strongly political content: 2015 is the year to “get rid of the Tories” or “kick out the ConDem coalition”.

I couldn’t agree more with the desire to get rid of this nasty, petty, poor-hating government. The government is so awful that many people would understandably accept almost any alternative. This is itself is a problem, for if we choose the lesser of two evils, we are still choosing evil.

I will have a sense of relief if Labour replaces Cameron in the general election this May. But I do mean “relief”, not joy or celebration. A Labour government would be slightly better than a Tory one.

Despite Tony Blair’s attempts this week to portray Miliband as some sort of radical leftie, the reality is that Miliband’s policies are basically pro-austerity. Miliband has bought into the ConDem rhetoric about “reducing the deficit” (although the deficit is not high in either historical or international terms). He is not committed to reversing most of the Tory benefit cuts and is firmly behind the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

True, Labour is committed to scrapping the bedroom tax, introducing a mansion tax, raising the minimum wage and taking action on zero-hours contracts and energy prices (although the details seem worryingly vague). If all this happens, I’ll be very pleased, although it’s only scratching the surface in terms of building a fairer economy. My fear is that Miliband will be pushed to the right once in office and these policies will be watered down or scrapped altogether. Virtually every Labour Prime Minister has moved to the right once in power; the exception is Tony Blair, who was already too far to the right to move any further.

Things might be better if a minority Labour government has to do deals with the SNP (or, if things are very close, even with Plaid Cymru and the Greens) to remain in power. However, I’m not optimistic about Trident renewal being prevented in this way alone (a minority Labour government could rely on Tory votes to get Trident through). Further, we would need to keep campaigning to hold minority parties to their progressive pre-election promises once the sniff of power reaches them.

Nonetheless, I will never agree with those who say that the election result makes no difference. Even a slight improvement on the current situation is welcome. This does not mean that a slight improvement should be our aim.

When the suffragists and Chartists campaigned so hard for the vote to be extended to women and working class men, they believed the vote was the most powerful tool for bringing about change. Indeed, the vote has been used to bring about some pretty massive social changes: the National Health Service would not exist at all were it not for the Labour landslide of 1945. At the same time, we must remember that this was an election result made possible only by the growth of left-wing ideas during the second world war, ideas which spread at the grassroots rather than through formal political processes.

Most suffrage campaigners did not foresee that power would move away from Parliament, making the vote less relevant. Economic changes that are sometimes lumped together as “globalisation” have globalised wealth and power but have not globalised democracy. Even if a genuinely progressive government were to be elected, it would struggle to follow progressive policies in the face of the vast power wielded by multinational corporations and other unaccountable vested interests. As it is, most party leaderships are stuffed full of people who have an interest in basically preserving the status quo and who see corporations as their allies rather than as a threat to democracy.

This is why I respect people who take a principled decision not to vote. They do not want to legitimise an unfair system. But while I respect them, I take a different position. I believe in using what power we do have, as well as taking advantage of the results – however limited – of our ancestors’ campaigns for the vote. The system is already morally bankrupt; low turnouts have not led to is rejection.

Voting is only a small part of democracy. If we had to choose between voting or working for change in other ways, I would choose the later. If voting makes anyone feel that other forms of activism are unnecessary, I would rather they did not vote. However, it is possible to vote and at the same time to take to the streets, to the media, to the internet and to the picket lines to work for change.

So I will go out on the morning of 7th May and vote for what I believe in, or as near to what I believe in as I am able to. I do not yet know who I will vote for; I don’t know who the candidates will be in my area. The constituency I live in goes by the quaint name of Cities of London and Westminster, although I am not sure that I will still be living here in May. It is a rock-solid Tory seat and you might well say that my vote will make no difference. This will not stop me expressing my view through the ballot box, just as I will express it on the streets and in the media.

So what should someone like me do during the election campaign? Carry on as normal, as I believe the election is only one event in democracy? Throw myself in to campaigning for left-wing candidates, hoping that a strong vote for parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru will send a message even if they have no chance of taking power?

To be honest, I’m not sure and I haven’t decided. I’m willing to campaign for candidates and parties when I share many of their views, as long as they do not believe that elections are the only way to achieve change. I have a lot of time for the Green Party and back many of their policies, but I am nervous of how Greens elsewhere in Europe have moved rapidly to the right, notably in Germany and the Republic of Ireland. I could campaign for the Greens while being to the left of many of their members, but part of me wonders if I would be very different from those left-wingers who join Labour despite disagreeing with many of its policies. When it comes to much smaller outfits such as the Peace Party, my instinct is to ask them, “Why don’t you just join the Greens, who you agree with on most things?”. But is that any different to Labour left-wingers asking Greens why they don’t just join Labour?

As you can tell, I have more questions than answers about involvement in election campaigns. They are questions to myself at least as much as to anyone else, and I would value your thoughts. I know that several of my friends and comrades will refuse to vote and see participation in the election as collusion with an unjust system. At the same time, other friends and comrades, who in many ways are just as left-wing, will be enthusiastically campaigning for particular candidates or parties.

There is one thing I am confident about: we can use the election to campaign, whether or not we vote. With the media focused obsessively on the party leaders for several weeks in April and May, creative protests and interventions can have at least some influence on the course of political and media debate. For example, the four leaders on whom the London-based media will concentrate – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – will not be talking about Trident. We can be thankful that Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett will talk about it, but let’s not rely on this alone. If we can find opportunities to challenge leading politicians about Trident, face-to-face or as close as we can get, during election time, they will at least be caught on camera and draw some public attention.

It’s only one tactic, of course, on only one issue. But effective activism requires creativity as well as persistence and a diversity of methods. That’s why I’ll be trying to do things like this, as well as casting my vote according to my beliefs. And whatever the result, I’ll be out on the streets after the election as well as before, because justice comes from below and never, never from above.

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.

English people and the Scottish referendum

I’ve been wary of blogging about Scottish independence, not least because I’m well aware of how many English people are writing about it in a way that implies they know more than the Scots. It seems that the referendum debate is engaging thousands of people in Scotland who were previously seen as apolitical. I don’t doubt that they know more about the issues than commentators in London.

I’ve therefore resolved to focus on the effect of the referendum on the rest of the UK.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the attitudes of English people towards the question of Scottish independence. Many seem to have strong views, or at least feelings, on the issue. Some have remained indifferent but now that the London media have finally realised that the Yes side might win, the referendum seems to have become a major issue of popular discussion down here as well. Unfortunately, the London media seem to be helping to distort English people’s perceptions.

One of the oddest aspects of English discussion is the way so many people speak of Scotland “leaving us” or “going away”, as if Scotland were to be physically detached from the rest of Britain. Some talk of Scotland “leaving Britain”, when they mean “leaving the UK” (Britain, of course, is a geographical area). Some English people seem to regard the idea of Scottish independence as a personal afront, as if Scotland were collectively refusing their company rather than choosing between different methods of government.

Scotland will still be there. Travelling to it from England will still be easy. We will still be welcome. We will not have to queue up at some sort of military checkpoint just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, nervously clutching a passport in one hand and a Gaelic phrase book in the other.

Newspaper headlines refer to the Yes campaigners as “nationalists”. Some of them undoubtedly are. Many of them are not. People are voting Yes for all sorts of reasons: a belief that Scotland will more democratic outside the UK, a hope for a fairer society, a desire to avoid Tory government, opposition to Trident, desperation that something has to be better than the present set-up. We can debate whether these beliefs are accurate or right, but it is absurd to label them all as “nationalist”.

The No campaign also includes nationalists, such as people who are fiercely proud to be British. I fear that the referendum has also triggered a rather ugly strain of English nationalism, with a (hopefully small) number of people in England attacking Scotland for having the temerity to consider independence.

By voting No, Scots would not be rejecting nationalism. They would be choosing the United Kingdom over a Scottish nation-state. In England, left-wing supporters of the No campaign frequently condemn nationalism and tribalism. I hate nationalism as much as they do, but I wish they would admit that they are, on some level at least, advocating for the United Kingdom.

Defending the union in yesterday’s Independent, George Galloway tied himself in knots trying to avoid this reality. He referred to “the 300-year old Britain”. This is a ludicrous phrase; this island’s been here a lot longer than that and will remain here whatever the outcome on Thursday. But Galloway was avoiding referring to “the 300-year-old United Kingdom”, which is what he is really defending. It is a United Kingdom built on monarchy, warfare and empire.

Nationalists of various sorts can be found in both the Yes and No camps. Both sides also include people who thankfully reject nationalism and are motivated by other, and often better, considerations.

So what are people really voting about if not nationalism? Both sides in this debate are reluctant to admit that the idea of “independence” is an anachronism. Nowhere is really independent in today’s globalised world. Different decisions have to be made at different levels. Some things are decided at the level of your street, some as a town, some as a region and so on, up to those decided at the level of Europe or even the world.

Labelling one of these levels as a “country” and demanding that it is the one that has our greatest loyalty, seems arbitrary, not to say absurd. What we can do is to ensure that all levels are as democratic as possible. We can also choose what decisions we want made at what level. It is this that the Scots are voting on, not on nationalism or “going away”.

Of one thing we can be certain: the UK will change forever on Friday. If London politicians and commentators think that a No vote means business as usual, they will quickly find themselves mistaken. Politics in Scotland has been shaken up, with people from all walks of life are engaging in political issues in ways not seen for decades. Whatever the result, I hope that some of that enthusiasm, excitement and engagement will spread to the rest of the UK. Scotland isn’t going away. Indeed, if their democratic fervour spreads southwards, our politics may be getting closer to theirs.