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.

Catching up: my recent articles

I have to admit that I’ve not done a great job of keeping my blog updated lately. But I have been writing lots!

I’ve written articles for various publications over the last few months. Some (but not all) of them are related to my part-time job as Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union. Looking at them now, I realise that there are quite a few that I have not posted here. I will be sure to do so in future!

Meanwhile, by way of a catch-up, here you go:

11 January 2021 (Tribune): The British government is covering up its role in Yemen

11 December 2020 (Left Foot Forward): Ignore the spin: the Hague’s ruling on British war crimes in Iraq is damning

23 October 2020 (Morning Star): A white poppy for Yemen and all the other forgotten wars

21 October 2020 (Left Foot Forward): This Remembrance Day, we must remember the victims of today’s wars too

23 September 2020 (Left Foot Forward): The Tories are trying to remove accountability for war crimes. What will Labour do?

3 September 2020 (Shiloh Project): Looking at men looking at women: Is Matthew 5,27-28 liberating or oppressive?

September 2020 (Reform magazine): Who’s afraid of the Beast? Time to take another look at the Book of Revelation

17 August 2020 (Left Foot Forward): Will the Labour First Minister in Wales allow training of Saudi pilots on Welsh land?

27 June (Morning Star): 10 reasons not to support Armed Forces Day

17 April (Morning Star): Why waste money on bombs and bullets when ventilators are what’s needed?

Imagine if we took mental health as seriously as the struggle against Covid

Happy World Mental Health Day! It’s a good day to remind ourselves of the need to take care of our own and each other’s mental health.

That’s much harder in a society in which economic and social systems are built on greed, personal accumulation and working for the sake of working. So it’s also a good day to campaign for better mental health services and, longer term, for an end to capitalism.

The Covid pandemic shows how much society can be changed, and how quickly, both by a major health problem and by the attempts to prevent, contain or treat it.

It is quite right that we make a major priority of addressing Covid 19. But I think it’s also important that we take other health problems very seriously too. Don’t get me wrong: I am not for a moment suggesting that Covid should be taken less seriously. I am suggesting that we should apply the same concern and commitment to addressing health problems more broadly.

Mental health services in the UK, perhaps particularly in England, are often under-funded, badly run, badly publicised and insufficiently connected with wider health and wellbeing services. This is not to criticise the many brilliant people working within them. But no amount of hard work by dedicated staff can make up for a lack of funding and political support in an overwhelmed public service.

This is all the more so because the very structures of British capitalist society add to mental health problems, with the constant pressure to conform, to consume, to be economically productive (often for the sake of someone else’s profits) at the same time as being a perfect partner, parent, relative or friend. The pandemic has fuelled certain types of mental health problems and the poverty resulting from the recession will fuel more.

When the lockdown was announced in March, mental health services should have received extra funding and support as part of the response to Covid. Instead, they became less of a priority and some who run them started to misuse the horror of the Covid pandemic as an excuse for lack of support from mental health services.

The Covid pandemic is pretty certainly bringing a mental health pandemic in its wake. The seeds of a mental health pandemic have been sown over years.

I don’t have easy answers for addressing this problem. I really do think that the prevalence of mental health problems cannot be seriously addressed within the current socio-economic system.

But on World Mental Health Day, let’s just imagine for a moment. Let’s just imagine that we viewed mental health as just as important as the vital struggle to tackle Covid 19.

Imagine if the government and media stressed the importance of taking time off work if you had poor mental health symptoms (without needing to “self-isolate”).

Imagine if bosses were criticised for not allowing workers with mental health problems to take time off work.

Imagine if workplaces were legally obliged to implement mental health and safety arrangements.

Imagine if shops, pubs, schools and universities were only allowed to open if they implemented measures to protect and promote the mental health of their customers and staff. Imagine if they faced being closed if they didn’t.

Imagine if the state paid the wages of people who couldn’t work because of mental ill-health, rather than trying to snatch away meagre benefits.

Imagine if people developing symptoms of mental health problems were more often met with support and offers of help rather than ignorance or contempt.

Imagine if the government published a daily or weekly count of the suicide rate, and of numbers of people diagnosed with mental health problems, because tackling these problems were regarded across society as a national priority.

Imagine if billions of pounds could be devoted overnight to mental health support, because it is such an urgent need.

Imagine if society encouraged mutual aid so that people could rely on each other when struggling with mental health problems.

Imagine if the headlines were full of debates about the best way to fund mental health services and improve mental health across society.

Imagine if workplaces, universities, faith groups and the arts all adapted quickly to include people who might otherwise be excluded for mental health reasons, with the speed with which home-working and Zoom meetings developed in the spring.

Imagine if we decided that mental health matters as much as physical health (which would still matter just as much). Imagine if we tackled the mental health crisis while also tackling the Covid crisis.

Imagine if we realised that we can’t meaningfully tackle either of them without restructuring society.

Prejudice, privilege and face masks

Just over two weeks ago, a 16-year-old was verbally abused on a train for seeking to communicate with her deaf sister.

Saule Pakenaite was travelling from Liverpool to Stockport with her sister Karolina on 16th July when she briefly lifted her face mask from her mouth so that Karolina could lip-read. She was then loudly denounced by another passenger, who refused to believe her explanation about Karolina’s deafness.

This vile incident has made the news partly because it was filmed. It’s horrifying to think how many similar incidents are going unrecorded, undiscussed and unnoticed by all except those affected by them.

It is sometimes said that crises bring out the best and the worst in people. The Covid 19 pandemic has seen many people demonstrating kindness and a sense of community, coming together to tackle common problems. As well as the judgemental woman who insulted the Pakenaite sisters on the train, let’s not forget the passenger who intervened and challenged her. But in England this solidarity and compassion has appeared despite, and not because of, the government’s patronising messages.

While many people on the ground have gone out of their way to help their neighbours, the government has paid only limited attention to people facing unemployment and poverty and has completely neglected the mental health services that should have been a priority for attention and funding as the UK went into lockdown and mental ill-health shot up.

Sadly, the crisis seems also to be seen by petty-minded and judgemental people as a licence to make assumptions about other people’s behaviour and to blame individuals and marginalised communities for a global problem exacerbated by economic unfairness and handled appallingly badly by Boris Johnson’s government.

Only yesterday, Tory MP Craig Whittaker abandoned any attempt to mask his racism and simply asserted that the “vast majority” of people not taking Covid 19 regulations seriously enough in his constituency were in BAME communities.

In a similar vein to the disabilism encountered by Saule and Karolina Pakenaite, social media commentators have mocked the exemption to compulsory face coverings for people who would experience “extreme distress” if their face were covered. These include people with PTSD and various other mental health problems. If, to take an example, you have a traumatic memory of someone trying to suffocate you, it is entirely reasonable that you should be exempt from wearing a mask that would trigger a panic attack.

On the other side of the coin from those who mock exemptions are those privileged people who mock the idea of wearing a mask when they have no grounds for exemption themselves. Certain Tory backbenchers object to masks on the grounds of a concern for civil liberties that they have never previously demonstrated. Most of these people are never seen speaking up about real threats to civil liberties, such as the rise in facial recognition technology, the massive amount of data gathered by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon or the government’s threat to restrict jury trials.

The right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens has somehow managed to combine the self-importance of the anti-makers with the contempt for disabled people shown by verbally abusive people on trains.

Hitchens claims that face masks turn people into “voiceless submissives” – but his rants on the subject fail even to mention the existence of exemptions. Hitchens has in reality been encouraging submission to capitalist authority for decades. On the one occasion when I met him, he said, with a straight face and apparent sincerity, that there is literally no poverty in Britain. He regularly attacks campaigning movements and trades unions that stand up to authority. The only right with which he seems concerned is the supposed right of privileged people not to wear something that might protect more vulnerable people from harm.

I am reminded of the people who objected in 2007 when the ban on smoking in pubs came in, complaining that it infringed their civil liberties. Such arguments completely miss the point of civil liberties, which are about equal freedom for all, not about allowing some people to make other people ill, or letting the privileged use their power to harm people less powerful than themselves.

There are people who are really frightened about going to a place where lots of people are not wearing masks. Other people are equally frightened of being judged and insulted by people who don’t recognise their legitimate exemptions.

There are two important principles that are surely pretty straightforward: wear a mask unless you’re exempt and don’t judge people who are exempt.

I know that most people are following both these principles: judgemental disabilists and entitled Tory toffs are thankfully a fairly small part of the population. Supporting and respecting each other really shouldn’t be this difficult.

The statue-destroyers are teaching us history

With the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue today, there are probably some people in Britain who have learnt more about the reality of the British Empire this afternoon than they ever learnt at school.

No doubt the protesters will be accused of trying to “erase history”. Far from erasing history, they are teaching people about it.

History is not simply about remembering the past in the way that those with the power to build statues would like us to. It is about interpreting the past for ourselves, exploring the meaning of the past with each other, learning from the past for the sake of the present and the future.

As I emphasise when I’m teaching history for the Workers’ Educational Association, history is not just something that we learn. History is an activity. We do history when we act on our understanding of the past in the present, and seek to affect the present and the future as a result.

Doing history, interpreting the past, involves deciding what we will celebrate and what we will mourn. A statue is not a neutral piece of information. Building a statue of someone implies that the person in question should be celebrated.

The protesters in Bristol this afternoon have literally been doing history. They have been acting on their beliefs about what should and should not be celebrated from the past and upholding an interpretation of the past that is very closely related to their understanding of the present and the future.

Black lives matter. We cannot, as a society, meaningfully act on this message if our understanding of history involves celebrating the destruction of black lives by racist slave-traders. Nor can we do so if we see a symbol that celebrates such a thing as some sort of neutral representation of “history”. To change, we must address the realities of the past and the present.

During the time that Edward Colston was involved in the Royal African Company, the company abducted over 80,000 men, women and children from Africa and transported them across the Atlantic. Roughly a quarter of them are estimated to have died on the journey; many more after their arrival. The rest were enslaved for life.

We cannot build a just society, we cannot defeat structural racism, we cannot say and mean “Black Lives Matter” if we expect these enslaved people’s descendants to walk passively past a statue of a man who played such a part in this atrocity.

I am sure that right-wing commentators are even now desperately trying to write comment pieces attacking the removal of the statue without appearing to condone or downplay slavery. The criticisms they are likely to come out with are, on the whole, rather predictable.

The only criticism that seems to me to be at all valid relates to the Covid-19 pandemic. While I am worried that the protests of recent days may have helped to spread the virus, I am not going to condemn them. I have seen expressions of concern, particularly from black disabled people, about the need to maintain social distancing while protesting. In many places in which protests have taken place, social distancing has taken place (as photos from Carlisle, Cardiff, Oxford and elsewhere demonstrate). At times, I’m sure that protesters have intended to maintain social distancing but this has been made virtually impossible by the number of people turning up.

If someone has a genuine criticism about the lack of social distancing, I can understand and respect that. I have no respect, however, for people who will bring up social distancing as a convenient way of attacking the Black Lives Matter movement while avoiding the very real issues of race and power that have given rise to it.

The removal of Colston’s statue by protesters would not have been necessary if the authorities in Bristol had responded to the campaigns that have been going on for decades and removed the statue. Critics of the protesters are in no position to criticise their methods unless they have been personally involved in lobbying for the statue’s removal by other means. I doubt that many of them have done so.

There will be some who describe the destruction of Colston’s statue as “vandalism” and “violence”. They are inaccurate. Vandalism involves random destruction, not the deliberate removal of a particular object. Violence involves harm to people, or at least to sentient beings. The destruction of an inanimate object, whether it is right or wrong, is not in itself violent. I speak as a pacifist when I welcome the removal of Colston’s statue. Pacifism is not passive. Destruction of symbols is not violence. And we can be pretty confident that most of those who describe this action as “violent” are very happy to support actual violence when it comes to debates over war.

The repercussions of today’s events in Bristol will probably be felt for years. As a Christian, I am particularly keen to see how churches in Bristol and elsewhere react to this development. Christian churches in Britain have their own legacy to deal with regarding slavery and racism. We need to acknowledge this as we address the past, the present and the future.

History is not just about the marriages of kings and queens, about lists of dates or diagrams of battles. It is about the lives and actions of billions of people across time. Let’s be inspired by people down the centuries who have challenged the rich and powerful and acted to change the world for the better. And let’s do history by celebrating them, and following their example, rather than the the people and systems who oppressed them.

This is about class, not Cummings

This crisis is not about Dominic Cummings. It’s not about how far he drove, whether he tried to conceal it, his level of influence over the Prime Minister or his apparently eugenicist views.

It’s not about Boris Johnson either. It’s not about his bizarre attachment to Cummings, his hypocrisy or his shocking, overwhelming, mindnumbing arrogance.

Of course I am exaggerating. To some extent it is about all those things.

But primarily it is about class. It is about how members of the ruling class – or the elite, or the rich and powerful, or the 1%, or whatever term you wish to use – are able to get away with behaving in ways that are denied to the rest of us.

To be sure, most of them are most subtle about it than Johnson and Cummings. If this had happened when Cameron or May were Prime Minister, it would be possible to imagine them pushing the adviser in question to offer profuse apologies, and saying he had done the wrong thing in difficult circumstances, before telling us to move on. Johnson and Cummings cannot even be bothered with insincere apologies. They are arrogant enough just to assume they can get away with it, and more or less tell us that they don’t have to follow their own rules.

But it’s the level of arrogance that varies, not the basic structures. This issue at its heart is about the divide between those who control most of the wealth and power in society on the one hand and the vast majority of the population on the other. Unlike some savvier members of the elite, Johnson has never put much effort into denying whose interests he is serving.

It is easier for Johnson when he can wrap himself in the Union Flag and talk up his faux patriotism. Then he can claim to be representing the “national interest”, a phrase which in pretty much every country means the interests of those who hold the power in that country.

Of course, there are many variations of wealth and power in society. This too affects how the lockdown is implemented. For example, the lockdown was introduced with almost no thought given by the authorities to the support of people with mental health problems. Further, it was no surprise to see that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are 54% more likely than white people to be fined for breaking lockdown rules.

This does not mean that the lockdown is wrong. It means that the basic structures of society are wrong. They need changing, lockdown or no lockdown. The promotion of inequality during the pandemic is simply an intensification of the inequality that grips British society all the time. The majority or near-majority of people in virtually every top profession is made up of people who went to fee-paying schools – who form 7% of the UK population.

It is important that opposition parties and critical commentators don’t fall into the liberal trap of talking as if this issue were all about individuals rather than structures.

This is about power and wealth in a vastly unequal society. The many forms of inequality in the UK cause varying levels of harm to almost everyone in it. And the most important form of inequality is between the ruling class and the rest. Now is a good time to say so.

75 years ago: 3 British peace activists sent to prison for their views

On 27th April 1945, three people were sent to prison in the UK for their distribution of leaflets and newspapers opposing the war. In effect, they were political prisoners, locked up for expressing their opinions.

Incidents such as this don’t get talked about very often. They undermine all the claims about how the war was fought for freedom and democracy.

Philip Sansom, Vernon Richards and John Hewetson spent nine months in prison. The war was over by the time they were released.

Technically, they were convicted of conspiracy to engage in “incitement to disaffection”: that is, encouraging armed forces personnel to question or disobey their orders. Their publications, in particularly the anti-war anarchist newspaper War Commentary, had been sent to a small number of members of the armed forces. Most if not all of these recipients seem to have been people who had chosen to subscribe to the paper, but this didn’t stop the court convicting them.

War Commentary

The three writers were tried alongside another contributor to War Commentary, Marie-Louise Berneri. She was found Not Guilty on an obscure (and sexist) legal technicality: she was married to Vernon Richards and the law on conspiracy specified that a husband and wife could not be guilty of conspiring together. This at least allowed her to keep War Commentary running while the others were in prison.

Democracy and free expression are often among the first casualties of war and militarism. It would of course be absurd and offensive to suggest that the imprisonment of British activists was in any way on a level with the horrors of the Nazi regime, or the Stalinist government of the Soviet Union. The four defendants strongly opposed Nazism and Fascism and did not believe that the rulers of the Allied powers were motivated by a concern for democracy. Ironically, the state proved their point by imprisoning them for saying so.

A common feature of militarism is the assumption that soldiers should have fewer rights than civilians: they should not be allowed to hear anti-war views. Those who sent them anti-war publications were imprisoned. As Philip Sansom later put it, “Soldiers are not supposed to think and it is a criminal offence to encourage them to do so”.

This is one of the paradoxes of militarism: cheerleaders for war like to talk of respecting the armed forces, but in practice they take away the rights of military personnel, while pacifists and other anti-militarists uphold them.

I know I would have disagreed with all four of the defendants on several issues. This does not stop me supporting their right to speak out, and the right of both civilians and military personnel to hear them.

I admit that I had intended to write this blog post on 27th April, to mark the 75th anniversary of the conviction. I hope it’s still relevant a few days later. The UK’s imprisonment of anti-war activists is not likely to be mentioned much when the 75th anniversary of VE Day is celebrated next week.

50% off The Upside-Down Bible during lockdown!

I’m pleasedUpside-Down Bible to say that my book The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence is temporarily available for half price as an ebook.

You can now get it for only £5.00. If you would like a print copy, you can buy it for £9.99.

This is thanks to my publisher, Darton, Longman and Todd, who have made a lot of their ebooks available at half-price during the lockdown. I’m not sure how long this offer will last, so I encouarge you to buy the book soon (OK, so I may have a vested interest)!

The book explores Jesus’ teachings based on the insights of people reading them for the first time, reflecting on their reactions in the light of scholarship and asking questions about how Jesus’ teachings relate to our own lives.

You can read what various people have said about the book.

If you have any questions about the book – either before or after reading it – please feel free to comment below and I will do my best to get back to you.

The military top brass are using the Covid 19 crisis to promote their own power

I wrote the following article for Left Foot Forward, which published it on Thursday (23rd April).

Has Britain become a country in which government briefings are given by a man in military uniform?

General Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, popped up next to Dominic Raab at Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing. He was supposedly there to tell us about the role of the armed forces in tackling the pandemic. In practice, he produced a lot of words while saying very little.

Nonetheless, three things have become clear.

Firstly, Carter provided one solid piece of information. He said that between 3,000 and 4,000 UK armed forces personnel are involved in tackling Covid 19, with another 20,000 available. The latter group is not active because “the sort of skills and capabilities that are in the remaining 20,000 are not necessarily the ones that people need at this point in time”.

Like most people, I am grateful to everyone who is building hospitals and delivering medical supplies, including military personnel. The impression given in parts of the right-wing media is that coronavirus has become the armed forces’ main focus. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claims that the “entire” Ministry of Defence is devoted to tackling it. This is, to put it bluntly, a lie.

According to the latest figures, the UK armed forces have 192,160 personnel. Of these, 132,360 are full-time trained troops. So what are the other 108,000 or so doing? Whatever Nick Carter’s intention, he has made clear that the armed forces are not focused on tackling coronavirus. Over 87% of them are not involved at all.

Carter talked vaguely of what the rest of the armed forces are up to, referring to “operations in Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East and further afield”. Perhaps “further afield” includes Saudi Arabia, where the RAF are training and assisting the Saudi forces who have spent five years targeting Yemeni civilians. While some troops are helping to build hospitals in Britain, other UK troops are helping Saudi forces to bomb hospitals in Yemen.

The second thing we learnt is that the military establishment is increasingly shameless about using the coronavirus crisis to promote and increase the role and power of the military.

In a particularly bizarre moment, Carter used Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing to express his belief in “defending the homeland with the nuclear deterrent”.

On Wednesday morning, ahead of Carter’s appearance, the Times ran a story based on anonymous quotes from a “senior army source”, suggesting that the armed forces should take over responsibility for logistics from the NHS. Two days earlier, Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh used a string of inaccurate statistics to make an attack on Public Health England and contrast them with how well the army had done.

This power-grab is entirely consistent with the recent behaviour of the militarist lobby. In the last 15 years or so, everyday militarism has become an increasingly prominent feature of British life.

Armed Forces Day is now an annual institution, the UK government funds “military ethos” programmes for “disadvantaged” school pupils in England and the Cadet Expansion Programme has seen millions of pounds of public money going into military cadet units across the UK just as other youth services are cut.

The third point we can take away from yesterday’s events is that the armed forces are the last people who should be responsible for security.

Carter’s alarming view of the world was revealed when he finished talking about coronavirus and then said, “Despite all of this we are still involved of course in protecting the country”.

Despite their work on coronavirus, they are involved in protecting the country? Do Carter and his colleagues not regard tackling a pandemic as a matter of protecting people in Britain? Clearly not.

Militarists live in a world in which protection and defence are mere euphemisms for war and preparations for war. If you’re in hospital with coronavirus, or you’re a care worker without protective equipment, or your mental health problems are getting worse in isolation, or you’re struggling to pay the rent because you have lost your job, the immediate threats facing you do not include a military invasion by a foreign power.

Yet in the privileged world of the military elite, such things are of secondary concern to preparing for war.

On the same day that Carter appeared at the briefing, nineteen charities and NGOs published an open letter calling for military resources to be diverted to tackling coronavirus and related problems.

Covid 19 is a deadly reminder that armed force cannot make us safe. We urgently need to transfer military budgets and resources to protecting us from real threats to human security, including pandemics, poverty and climate change.

While some see the pandemic as an opportunity to promote armed force, the rest of us need to take the chance to restructure our society and economy based on real human needs and security.

Covid 19: We need co-operative communities, not patronising politicians

Is Matt Hancock trying to live out a fantasy of being an old-fashioned schoolteacher? Increasingly, he seems to be giving the impression that he thinks that the key to saving us from coronavirus is to patronise us as often as possible.

This morning, Hancock said, “If you don’t want us to have to take the step to ban exercise of all forms outside of your own home, then you’ve got to follow the rules.”

These are the condescending and insulting words of the sort of teacher who threatens to punish the whole class for the behaviour of one or two pupils. The notion of “follow the rules or I’ll make the rules harsher” sounds as absurdly illogical to me today as it did when I heard some of my own teachers make similar comments three decades ago.

Perhaps at Hancock’s next briefing, a bell will ring as he finishes. If people get ready to leave, he will say “The bell is a signal for me, not for you!”. Then if they start talking to each other, he will say, “It’s your own time you’re wasting, you know.”

But this is about something that matters more than Hancock’s irritating condescension. At the heart of this issue is a conflict over two ways of attempting to deal with the pandemic: one based on people working together co-operatively as equals, the other based on the rich and powerful controlling the rest of us.

Like the vast majority of people, I am observing the physical distancing principles that have been put in place. In my daily walk, and in my occasional trip to the Co-op, I keep at least two metres from others as I walk (usually far more).

It seems to me that the vast majority of people are already following these guidelines. I suspect most of us are doing so because we appreciate the urgent necessity of tackling coronavirus, rather than simply because there is a rule about it. These guidelines are working because most people see them as a community effort to protect each other and save lives, not because we’re frightened of Matt Hancock.

I have no wish to defend the people who were photographed gathering in groups in parks yesterday. They should have not done so, and I would be happy to see them dispersed. We need to remember that these people are a very small percentage of the population as a whole. However shocking these pictures are, photos of the parks in which people were observing the rules are considerably less likely to make the news.

Other politicians may be reluctant to disagree with Matt Hancock today. Perhaps they will be concerned about not sounding tough. But they can sound tough by asking why the police were not dispersing the people gathering in parks, as they have the power to do within the existing rules. I have heard from several friends who have been questioned or criticised by police while walking far away from anyone else and behaving well within the guidelines. Stories of over-the-top and ineffective policing are starting to appear, and there will almost certainly be a lot more of them.

Sadly, there are police who seem keen to follow in the old policing tradition of throwing their weight around to no good purpose and beyond the limits set out by the law. Surely some police could use their power to disperse the gatherings that have been pictured in parts of the media?

Like the sort of old-fashioned teacher who he seems to be channelling, Matt Hancock fails to explain why he thinks that people who are breaking existing rules will adhere to stricter rules. People already breaking the rules would be likely also to break new rules.

The people who will lose out if all outdoor exercise is banned are not the sort of people who cheerfully gathered in London parks yesterday. The people who will suffer are those who are carefully following rules out of concern for others, and who will be prevented from taking safe and careful walks distant from anyone else. Some of them are people without gardens and without spacious homes; some are very lonely, others lack any chance for physical or emotional distance from the people they live with. Despite this, many have gladly observed the rules because they want to save other people’s lives.

Such selfless behaviour should be met with gratitude, not with new rules that prevent safe behaviour while contributing further to the epidemic of mental ill-health that is likely to follow on from the coronavirus pandemic.

But as Matt Hancock knows very well, every time newspapers or social media posts focus on individual behaviour, they are not focussing on the systemic problems that make this crisis even worse than it would otherwise be. Even the fairest and most well-prepared society would struggle to deal with Covid 19. But it could cope with it a lot better.

We are now being told to “Protect the NHS” by a party who have spent years underfunding it. We are relying on the dedication of carers, cleaners and drivers whose pay and job security are among the worst in the UK. We are trying to cope with measures that inevitably increase loneliness in a society in which loneliness and social isolation are already endemic. And while NHS staff struggle with insufficient protective equipment, the government maintains the seventh highest military budget in the world, spending billions on nuclear submarines that are pathetically powerless to make us any safer.

So let’s follow the guidelines. Let’s support our neighbours. Let’s save lives. Let’s exercise safely and carefully. And yes, let’s disperse groups of people gathering in parks or elsewhere. And let’s not allow the government to attack people who are behaving safely as way of diverting attention from their own failures and the failures of the systems that they uphold.