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.

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.

Mourning Ian Paisley

The political figures of my youth are gradually dying off. Ian Paisley has joined Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the ranks of dominant figures of the 1980s who are no longer with us.

That said, Paisley wasn’t a dominant figure only in the 80s, but in the 70s, 90s and 2000s as well. He’s been around for so long that it was quite a surprise when I realised today that he was in his forties before he became an elected politician.

Today, I’m mourning Ian Paisley, a man who I disagreed with very strongly on almost every major issue of politics and theology. I am not mourning him out of politeness, or out of a difficult effort to love an enemy, but mainly because I admired him. This may come as a shock to some of those who know me or my views.

The former leader of the Alliance Party, John Cushnahan, rightly said yesterday that we should not be “rewriting” Paisley’s life and overlooking the “pain and suffering” to which he contributed. There can be little doubt that he often stirred up sectarianism and acted as a block towards power-sharing agreements several times. He also led the vicious “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign against the legalisation of sex between men in Northern Ireland in 1982 (responses included the slogan “Save Sodomy from Paisley”).

None of this should be overlooked, even as commentators naturally focus on his good points in the wake of his death. Many people who met Ian Paisley, including journalists and critics as well as opponents, say they were surprised by his friendliness and gentleness. His speeches in the Commons contained much more humour than is sometimes acknowledged. It’s also good to see a politician who sticks by his principles.

However, principle in itself is not enough. The truly admirable quality about Ian Paisley was his willingness to apply those principles in a new way that contributed heavily to reconciliation, even though he alienated former friends and supporters in doing so.

Cushnahan was right on one level when said that Paisley’s support for power-sharing was “too little, too late”. It can reasonably be argued that Paisley and Martin McGuinness, along with the other Sinn Feiners and Paisleyites, may not have needed to lead Northern Ireland in such a painful peace process if they had not spent so long stirring up division and resisting reconciliation.

But that of course is the point. For reconciliation to be meaningful, it must involve those who are hard to reconcile. Peace cannot be built solely by people who have always been trying to build it, but must involve those who have long resisted it. Reconciliation, paradoxically, can only be achieved by those who are not sure that they want it.

I’m not rewriting history. I’m not forgetting the sectarianism, the homophobia and the barriers to peacebuilding for which Ian Paisley shares responsibility. I don’t blame those who were affected by these things for being considerably less complimentary about Paisley than some of the commentaries in today’s papers. But Paisley showed that there was more to him than that. To make a major transformation so late in life cannot be easy.

Paisley died too early to give us his response to the result of next week’s Scottish referendum on independence. Today, Orangemen have travelled from Northern Ireland to join a pro-union march in Edinburgh. In discussing questions of national identity, the British media’s focus has moved from Ulster to Scotland.

Messy and complex struggles for peace with justice continue. Let’s stand against many of the ideas which Paisley often represented, while being ever open to the spirit of reconciliation to which he eventually turned.

Terror threat: Let’s not fall for it again

Do they expect us to believe it all again? With weary familiarity, I have been reading the government’s claims that we face a heightened “terror threat”. UK governments have been making this claim every so often since 2001. It is usually followed by a fresh restriction of civil liberties or the departure of British troops to yet another war zone.

Despite Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destructions, despite the killing of the entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes, despite the absurdity of tanks sent to Heathrow in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, despite the widespread distrust of politicians, we are for some reason expected to fall for it this time.

When the “terror threat level” was raised a few days ago, I predicated a new assault on civil liberties. I’d barely typed the prediction on Twitter before Cameron and Clegg began to fulfil it. We can apparently expect some sort of announcement from them on Monday about new measures to tackle the “threat”. Cameron has spoken of filling the “gaps in our armoury”.

Ed Miliband has loyally weighed in with his own suggestions for reducing our freedom. In his article in today’s Independent, he makes some good points about tackling the root causes of support for IS and working multilaterally. He then ruins it with a call for the return of control orders and a “mandatory programme of deradicalisation for anyone who is drawn into the fringes of extremism”. I’m not sure what this phrase is supposed to mean, but it seems to imply that people should be punished for their beliefs rather than their actions.

The odd thing is that the “terror threat” claim might be true. It could be the case that we face a greater than usual threat of terror attacks on British soil. But we’ve got no idea, because the claim has been used so often to mislead and manipulate us that a true claim would not stand out.

Certainly, the announcement is convenient ahead of the NATO summit in south Wales next week. The front page of today’s Independent shows residents of Cardiff passing through metal detection barriers in order to be allowed to walk around their own city. Restrictions on peaceful anti-NATO protests, and the arrest of protesters, will no doubt be justified on the grounds of the threat of terrorism.

The concept of protecting NATO from terrorism would be funny if it were not so sickening. Unlike Iraq, several NATO members actually do own weapons of mass destruction (the US, UK and French governments own nuclear arms). NATO’s explicit policy is to encourage high military spending among its members, inevitably reducing spending in socially useful areas such as healthcare and education. NATO’s attitude to Ukraine is every bit as aggressive and imperialist as the Russian government’s.

In short, the leaders of NATO have at least as much blood on their hands as anyone that they want “protecting” from.

I’m not denying that there is a chance, perhaps a strong chance, of terror attacks in Britain. The British government’s killing of innocent people around the world makes it likely that some will wish to respond by killing innocent people here. I am not for a moment suggesting that this makes such killing justified. To identify someone’s motivation is not to condone it. Nor will I pretend that the UK government is in a better moral position than those it condemns.

Cameron’s government sells weapons to the vicious regimes of Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia. British drone pilots have been killing civilians in Afghanistan for years. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith have snatched away the livelihoods of some of Britain’s poorest people, who may well feel more under threat from their own government than from terrorists in Iraq.

Whatever the “terror threat”, I cannot support efforts by Cameron and Clegg to defeat it. I detest “Islamic State” as it now calls itself. It is a gang of mass murderers and no decent-minded person of any religion will offer them the slightest measure of support. Nor do I support the terrorism carried out by the US and UK governments. I oppose NATO as much as I oppose Putin, and the IDF as much as Hamas.

In short, I will not unite with one group of killers against another. The people of Britain, of Iraq, of Ukraine, of Palestine, of Israel, of Russia and of the US share a common identity and future as human beings. We have too much in common with each other to give in to those who kill in our name.

Reflections on Greenbelt

Having got back from the Greenbelt festival a few days ago, I’ve mostly (but not completely) caught up on sleep. I’ve also had time to reflect on the festival.

If you would like to read my thoughts on this year’s Greenbelt, I had two articles about it published yesterday.

The first was in the Morning Star. This is a short article aimed at a mostly non-Christian audience (and I didn’t choose the headline myself!). The second, which goes into more detail, forms my latest column on the Ekklesia website.