The hypocrisy of Emily Thornberry’s critics

Welcome to the baffling world of political priorities in 2014.

Last month, the multi-millionaire welfare minister David Freud suggested that some disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage. He is still in his job. Last week, Bob Geldof implied that not only poverty but also disease can be solved by the performances of super-rich celebrities. Most of the coverage did not even mention that there were those who disagreed with his approach.

On Thursday, however, Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigned from the front bench after sending an ambiguous tweet with a photo of a house decked out in large English flags, with a white van in the drive. Her tweet has made the front page of several national newspapers.

On Friday, the Sun devoted Page 1 to covering Thornberry’s “sneers”, Pages 4-5 to an interview with the owner of the house in question and Page 8 to a scathing editorial attacking Labour’s “ugly, snobbish prejudices”. If you turn over to Page 11, you can read the latest full-page piece by Katie Hopkins, a Sun columnist who has made her name by attacking working class people. Earlier this year, she said that unemployed people should be obliged to wear uniforms in the street.

The Daily Mail blamed the tweet on a “condescending, arrogant” elite. This is a paper that demonises benefit recipients on an almost daily basis. David Cameron accused Thornberry of “sneering at people who work hard”. On Cameron’s watch, wages are so low that millions of people who work hard are relying on tax credits to top up their wages, while those unable to work due to disability find their livelihoods snatched away.

Attacking working class people in general, and the poorest in particular, has become a routine activity for many mainstream politicians and columnists in the UK. It seems to be acceptable to attack working class voters, destroy their services and remove their benefits. What appears to be unacceptable is to criticise working class people who may be nationalistic.

I wrote more about this situation for an article in Politics.co.uk, published yesterday. You can read it by clicking here. In addition, I recommend two articles by people who have articulated the issues far better than I have: the first by my Ekklesia colleague Savi Hensman and the second by Sarah Ditum at the New Statesman.

Exeter students reject arguments in favour of World War One

I had the privilege last week of speaking at Exeter University Debating Society, opposing the motion that “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I am pleased to say that those present voted against the motion by seventy votes to forty.

The motion was proposed by Andrew Murrison, a minister for Northern Ireland and the government’s Special Representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. He was supported by Daniel Steinbach, a historian from King’s College London. I was pleased to be joined in opposing the motion by Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition. The debate was chaired by Exeter student Lewis Saffin.

Prior to the debate, I had pointed out on my blog that Andrew Murrison’s support for the motion undermined his stated desire not to glorify the first world war. When it came to the debate, Andrew said he did “not like” the wording of the motion but would instead argue that World War One was a just war. This is hardly the same thing, so I’m not clear why Andrew agreed to propose the motion. However, in voting against the motion, the students seemed to be ejecting his claim about just war as well as the wording of the motion itself.

The text below equates roughly to the words I used in the five minutes I was given at the beginning of the debate. Having drafted it beforehand, it inevitably varied slightly in practice, but the substance remained the same.

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What is a victory? How can anything that leads to the deaths of tens of millions of people be described as a victory? How can something that leaves a world in ruins, that leaves millions of people starving to death and susceptible to disease be a victory? The notion of victory in war, any war, is an absurdity. As Jeanette Rankin, who in 1917 became the first female member of the US Congress, put it, “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake”.

The ending of the war was not great for the British people. The war led to a massive national debt, next to which the current British debt – about which we hear so much – pales into insignificance. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, promised that after the war Britain would be “a land fit for heroes”. Instead, there was mass poverty and unemployment. My own great-grandfather, who fought at the Somme, was awarded five medals during the war. After the war, unemployed and struggling to feed his children, he was forced to sell all five medals in an attempt to survive. What “great victory” did he have – or the thousands and thousands like him, thrown into poverty by a government for whom they had fought?

The poverty in Germany by the end of the war was much more severe. The British government, backed by the pro-war media, had justified the war on the grounds that Belgium must be defended from German aggression. It is true that Germany invaded Belgium and that atrocities were committed against Belgian civilians by German troops. I don’t deny it for a moment. I condemn those atrocities. Yet as the war went on, the British navy blockaded Germany with a clear intention of starving Germans into surrender. Thousands of German and Austrian civilians were starved to death as a result, killed by the British government as surely as if British troops had been sent to stab their bayonets into them directly. There is nothing great about mass murder.

Justifying war with reference to Belgium was a piece of staggering hypocrisy. In 1914, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times, which only days before had been condemning proposals for home rule for Ireland, transformed themselves overnight into champions of “the rights of small nations”. British troops had been committing atrocities in colonial wars for decades. Horatio Kitchener, who was made Secretary for War in 1914, had himself commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in 1898.

This year, with the centenary of the outbreak of war, we’ve been focussing a lot on how the war started. I wonder if we’ll be any more honest in four years’ time, when we consider how the war ended. From 1916 until 1918, there was increasing discontent among working class Germans, both civilians and troops. There were strikes in German arms factories and occasional mutinies, encouraged by the spread of socialist ideas and the realisation of the injustice of the war. By October 1918, with Germany starving and losing the war, there were mass mutinies in the German navy and working class protests around Germany. The Kaiser abdicated. It was not the Kaiser but his successors who signed the armistice. Yes, allied troops were winning the war by October 1918, but it was the German working class who ensured that the war ended at this point. If only British troops had also mutinied in large numbers at the same time, things might have turned out a let better for people in both Britain and Germany.

Even now, there are those who tell us that World War One was necessary to defeat German militarism and stop Germany dominating Europe. I don’t know how that sounded to people in India or Malawi or Ireland, whose countries were controlled by a British Empire whose rulers spoke about resisting German imperialism. The reality is that most people in Britain and Germany had more in common with each other than they did with their rulers. That’s why, on the eve of war, over 100,000 people demonstrated against war in Berlin. Thousands more demonstrated throughout Britain – including 15,000 in London and 5,000 in Glasgow, according to media reports at the time.

Contrary to the impression given by the majority of books and documentaries on World War One, there was an active pacifist movement in Britain throughout the war. In July 1915, a territorial army officer in Lancashire, a Captain Townroe, wrote to Kitchener reporting that “over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading peace group at the time, produced a semi-illegal newspaper that had 100,000 readers in 1916. These figures hardly fit with the oft-repeated claim that almost everyone supported the war. Over 6,000 people in Britain went to prison for opposing the war. The majority were conscientious objectors who were denied exemption from the army, while others were locked up for illegal activism, such as handing out pacifist leaflets in the street.

The end of the first world war was not a victory, for millions of people were killed or impoverished. It was not a success for the British people, who had far more in common with their German counterparts than with their rulers. And it certainly was not great. It is not being British that makes us great, but being human. We can only be truly great, and we can only end war, when we give our loyalty not to a nation-state, but to humanity as a whole.

Tory minister to argue that World War One was “a great British victory”

Andrew Murrison MP is the government’s special representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. At Exeter University tomorrow (14 November), he will propose the motion “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I have been asked to oppose the motion.

The government has denied accusations that it wants to use the centenary to glorify the first world war, or to glorify war in general. This is hardly consistent with sending the minister responsible to propose a motion that implies the war was successful and something to be celebrated.

I’m very pleased to have been asked to speak against the motion that Andrew Murrison is proposing. I am looking forward to the debate. Andrew Murrison’s fellow proposer will be Daniel Steinbach of King’s College London. Opposing the motion alongside me will be Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition.

In addition to his responsibilities around World War One, Andrew Murrison is a junior minister for Northern Ireland and MP for South-West Wiltshire.

If you study or work at Exeter University, you can attend the debate at 7.00pm on Friday 14 November. There are more details here.

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.”

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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.

Iraq, 38 Degrees and everyday militarism

One sign of the impact of militarism is the number of progressively minded people who express a belief in peace but support war once it is proposed. This is rather like being teetotal until you’re offered a drink.

Today, only 43 MPs voted against bombing Iraq, although I appreciate that some others struggled with their consciences before abstaining or reluctantly voting in favour. Sadly, there was pretty enthusiastic support for bombing from some who are regarded as being on the left.

It was particularly disheartening to receive an email this morning from 38 Degrees, the online campaigning organisation.

The group chooses campaigning positions based on votes amongst members, so I would not expect them to take an anti-war stance straight away. I filled in their form asking for opinions on this issue yesterday, and expected that the majority of respondents would oppose bombing. They seem after all to be a broadly left-wing, progressively minded group of people. 38 Degrees regularly campaigns on issues such as corporate tax dodging and public services.

Today’s email from 38 Degrees declared, “Tens of thousands of 38 Degrees members took part in a vote to decide whether 38 Degrees should launch a campaign about this. The response was quite mixed. 45% of us are in favour of the air strikes, 42% are against. 13% haven’t decided yet.”

So a slight majority of this group of progressive activists are in favour of UK troops joining another war in Iraq.

As anyone who has researched the anti-war movement during World War One knows, hopes for an international socialist front against war faded in the first few days of August 1914. Left-wing parties in all the combatant countries split, with majorities in most of them supporting war. We saw a similar development with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. There are so many people who are against war until their opposition is needed, and then they decide that this war is somehow different. History shows that this claim is always made and usually wrong.

To be fair, it is very hard to oppose war. Resisting pro-war thoughts in your own head can be difficult for the most dedicated pacifists. Militarism is so deeply ingrained in our society, culture and mindset that it can seem almost impossible not to think in military terms.

This is reflected in the militarist language that even peace campaigners sometimes slip into using. Thus we talk about “intervention” when we mean military intervention, “doing nothing” when we mean not engaging in warfare and the “defence industry” when we mean the arms industry.

I respect much of what 38 Degrees does. I’m sure their organisers don’t think of themselves as a pro-war group. But their emails this week have reflected a militarist mindset that I suspect they have absorbed without noticing.

Thus they talk of “air strikes”, a much cleaner term than “bombing”. They refer to this being done “against the group known as Islamic State” rather than in the areas controlled by this group – where there are plenty of civilians who do not support IS but are likely to be hit.

Most significantly, the email from 38 Degrees began with the words, “By the weekend, we could be at war”.

This is not true. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and many supporters of 38 Degrees may be at war, but I won’t be. Nor will the many others who reject participation in war in any way. I will of course be engaged in conflict – opposing oppression, injustice and indeed war naturally leads to conflict, not least with those who hold to dominant views. And I will be complicit in the sins of a unjust political and economic system of which I am part, even though I try to oppose it. But I will not be at war.

You and I do not need to be at war. Despite the dominance of militarism, the first step to ending something is to refuse to participate in it.

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.