Resisting Trident during the general election campaign

I’ve written a couple of articles lately about the role of Trident in the general election campaign.

One was for Waging Nonviolence, an international website about nonviolent activism, based in the US. It’s written with a non-British audience in mind. Given the nature of the site, it assumes that most readers will be anti-Trident. It is a discussion of strategy and tactics in resisting Trident.

The other was on the Huffington Post and was a more general reflection on the role of Trident in the election campaign, particularly as it affects the Labour Party.

Labour need to stand up and say they’ll scrap Trident

Trident is trending on Twitter. At present, it is the Number One trending topic in the UK.

Opponents of Trident have been hoping for years that Trident would become an election issue. It is ironic that it has hit the headlines because the Conservatives have decided to talk about it.

In saying this, I’m not downplaying the efforts of thousands of activists who have stepped up anti-Trident activism in recent months, blockading bases such as Aldermaston and Faslane and spreading opposition to Trident in their local communities. Nor am I dismissing the efforts of anti-Trident parties, such as the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru.

However, it is worth noting that the Conservative Party would not have sought to make Trident a headline issue today if they did not consider it an opportunity to gain support.

This is rather bizarre, given that opinion polls consistently show that a majority of the British public are opposed to Trident renewal, especially at a time of austerity and spending cuts.

The situation with Russia and Ukraine may have affected this figure to a limited extent. Michael Fallon’s rhetoric this morning may gain the Conservatives a few votes from the “defend our nation” tendency. Such people talk as if everyone in the UK had the same interests and the same concerns, whereas it seems to me that the British and Russian people have more in common with each other than with their own governments. It is the global super-rich who are robbing and threatening us all, as more people are coming to realise.

However, issues of “defence” feel like safe ground to Conservative politicians such as Michael Fallon. Both Tory and Labour members look back to the 1980s, when Labour’s opposition to nuclear weapons was blamed for its election defeats.

A good many voters going to the polls this year – those aged under 32 – were not even born at the time of the Conservative landslide in 1983. Many more of us – those between 32 and 50 – were born but not old enough to vote. The very youngest people who will vote on 7 May were born in the week after Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not dismissing those voters over 50 who did vote in 1983. They make up a sizeable chunk of the electorate. But many of them have moved on from the 1980s, whereas the Tory and Labour leaderships seem not to have done so. The Conservatives think they can gain support by banging out about “defence”. Labour are frightened and are desperately pleading that they too will retain Trident and defend Britain.

When I say “Labour”, I mean the Labour leadership. It was recently discovered that three quarters of Labour candidates oppose Trident. The question, as a friend of mine put it, is whether three quarters of them have backbones. Will they simply give in to the Tory pressure?

In 2013, Ed Miliband showed real guts by leading his MPs to vote against bombing Syria. In recent days, he has made strong progressive points about “non-doms” and other forms of tax dodging. Why will he not have the courage to say what the majority of the public believe and commit himself to scrapping Trident?

It’s great that Trident has become an election issue. Let’s not leave it to politicians and the mainstream media to decide the way it is discussed. We need to increase the pressure on Labour candidates to take an anti-Trident position. Let’s not forget for a minute that we must put pressure on SNP candidates to ensure that they really do make Trident a red line issue. And we need to be out on the streets, in our communities, our faith groups, our trades unions and online, making the case against Trident.

Parliament is due to make a decision on Trident renewal next year. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop it going ahead, making the world safer, leading the way on disarmament, and spending £100bn on something worthwhile at a time of spiralling poverty and imminent climate chaos.

Britain has never been a Christian country

Happy Easter!

As Christians around the world mark Easter Sunday and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, there are some who are using the occasion to demand that Britain needs to turn the clock back.

The right-wing lobby group Christian Concern has published a survey suggesting that 73% of the public believe that Britain has become “less of a Christian country” since the general election five years ago.

This suits Christian Concern in their attempt to push their two main messages: Firstly, that Britain should be a Christian country. Secondly, that Britain is no longer a Christian country.

David Cameron has also been known to employ such language, albeit from a different angle. In his Easter address this year, he insisted that Britain is still a “Christian country”. His address, which  made no reference to Jesus, seemed to confuse “Christian values” with middle class respectability.

I have on many occasions challenged groups such as Christian Concern to explain how Britain was “Christian” when its leaders were involved in the slave trade, when its representatives were committing genocide in Tasmania and when its troops were setting up concentration camps in South Africa. They have never answered this question.

I have little idea of what a “Christian country” is supposed to be. Jesus never said anything about establishing Christian countries. This is hardly surprising, given his general hostility to political and religious authorities. But if a “Christian country” is supposed to mean a country based on Jesus’ teachings, then Britain has never been a Christian country. Nor has anywhere else.

Judging from their press release today, Christian Concern seem to think that Britain is “less Christian” because of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Jesus’ teachings on poverty, violence and power, about which he said a great deal more than sexuality, seem not to concern them.

On Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ execution at the hands of a brutal empire with the collusion of the religious establishment. On Easter Day, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, in which God breaks through the cycle of violence and reveals that the power of love and liberation will ultimately triumph over the evil, oppression and injustice. Today, let’s seek to follow – however imperfectly – Jesus’ example of loving resistance and active nonviolence. This means challenging the powers of this world as well as allowing ourselves to be challenged. It has nothing to do with “Christian countries”.

Christian Concern’s general election campaign: Distorting the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassroots activism and the Leaders’ Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote for us! We’re slightly better than the others! (Or: An evening at the Quaker hustings)

Lindsay Northover, a Liberal Democrat junior minister, began her remarks at a Quaker-organised hustings event yesterday by commenting on how few people go to hustings these days. Leaving the event an hour an half later, my main thought was “I’m not surprised”.

The Religious Society of Friends had done a good job of organising the event, the first of three to be held in Friends House, the Quaker central offices opposite Euston station. While the Green and UKIP candidates stood out, the representatives of the three traditional parties blurred into one, their views largely indistinguishable. No wonder so few people go to hustings if the message you hear is “Vote for me! I’m slightly better than the others!”.

If you had shut your eyes at this event, it would at times have been difficult to guess which party you were listening to. For example, have a guess at placing the following quotes:

  • “We’re an internationalist party.”
  • “We’re a strongly internationalist party. We look outwards.”
  • “We’re a generous nation and a generous people.”

The first of those was from Lindsay Northover for the LibDems. The second was from Jeremy Lefroy, speaking for the Tories (insert your own joke here). The third was from Gavin Shuker, Labour’s Shadow International Development Minister.

When it came to issues of war and peace, comments included:

  • “We will meet our obligations… our obligations on defence.”
  • “NATO has kept the peace in Europe for sixty years and beyond.”
  • “We need to defend the country. We’ve provoked the Russian bear.”
  • “We are committed to retaining nuclear weapons.”

The first and second of those were from Tory MP Jeremy Lefroy, the third from UKIP’s Pete Muswell and the last from Gavin Shuker for Labour. Shuker began his answer by saying that the Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems were “all committed” to nuclear arms, as if this unanimity meant it wasn’t an election issue. In reality, it shows the distance of mainstream politicians form public opinion, shown consistently in opinion polls to be anti-Trident.

Lindsay Northover said that the credit for delaying a decision on Trident renewal lies with the LibDems, which is probably true. She said vaguely that the LibDems are “coming down the ladder” on Trident. But as the Green Party’s Sharar Ali was quick to point out, Northover failed to say that the LibDems would vote against Trident renewal, let alone oppose the building of nuclear weapons generally.

When it came to immigration, the questioner focused on asylum-seekers in detention, particularly children. Can you match the comment to the party?

  • “It’s abhorrent to me that children should be detained.”
  • “The system doesn’t take into account that these people are human beings.”
  • “[Ending child detention] would have my vote every time.”
  • “Nick Clegg is strongly opposed to child detention.”

The first comment was from UKIP’s Pete Muswell (does Nigel Farage know about this view?). The second was from Jeremy Lefroy (he’s right, but has he told his leader David Cameron?). The third was from Gavin Shuker (this was a glimmer of hope; let’s hold him to it). The last one, of course, was from Lindsay Northover for the LibDems, who seemed to be missing the point (if only Nick Clegg held a position where he could do something about it; Deputy Prime Minister, for example).

This frustrating evening of political uniformity would have been even more unbearable were it not for the different perspectives offered by the Greens’ representative, Sharar Ali, the party’s joint deputy-leader. Ali began by framing progressive ideas in relatively mild language, and to be honest was a bit rambling, but he seemed to become emboldened as he realised that he had a largely left-wing audience. He was soon drawing applause for condemning Trident and poverty. One of his last comments was an attack on the invasion of Iraq, when, he said, “We should have brought the country to a standstill!” The more radical audience members clapped vigorously as the UKIP candidate frowned severely.

UKIP’s Pete Muswell is the party’s candidate for Islington South. He described himself as “working class” despite owning his own business. He seemed to represent the more humane and rational wing of UKIP, by which I mean that his views were extreme, irrational and jingoistic, but slightly less so than some of his UKIP colleagues. He struck me as someone who is genuinely compassionate on a personal level. The  ability of some people to combine personal decency with support for the nasty, vicious and murderous policies never ceases to amaze me.

Muswell said he was nervous because it was his first big hustings, but I thought he stood out on the panel for the quality of his delivery, as he sought to address questioners directly and by name in a way that the others largely didn’t. Nonetheless, his views were abhorrent.

The most outrageous moment came when Muswell talked about the overseas aid budget, a UKIP hobby horse. He began by saying, “I consider myself to be, as a Christian, a good Samaritan”. He said that the aid budget should be for going “to the aid of innocent people” but that the needs of British people should take priority. No-one pointed out that the point about the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable is that he was a Samaritan, who was racially and religiously different.  Jesus told the parable in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”, implying the very opposite of the idea that charity begins at home. If UKIP had been in charge at the time, the Good Samaritan would not have even been there, as he would have been arrested at the border as an illegal immigrant.

Muswell then went on to say that the aid budget should be lowered because people are going hungry in Britain. He added that spending on aid “is frankly leaving old ladies starving in their flats”. This from a man who wants to spend £100bn renewing Trident nuclear weapons.  You might have thought that our money was being swallowed up by tax dodgers, banks that got bailed out or arms companies receiving massive contracts. If we follow UKIP, it seems that the people who are really to blame are Ebola victims in Liberia. This is a party that has turned victim-blaming into a political philosophy.

As Sharar Ali pointed out, “We have the vote and we can act beyond the vote.” A general election is an event in democracy. But it is only one small part of democracy, only one way in which we can influence the world and seek to make things better. After my experience yesterday, I’m extremely grateful for that.

Death, mental health and Andreas Lubitz

My first reaction to the news of last week’s aeroplane crash was, of course, horror. Millions of people reacted in a similar way. For the friends and relatives of those killed, the reaction was naturally more intense. It is hard to imagine what they are going through, as for all those bereaved suddenly and without explanation.

The news that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane added a further level of stunned horror. In such a situation, some will naturally seek to understand, others to blame, others to prevent such incidents occurring in future.

Some airlines have said that they will change procedures so that no pilot can lock themselves in and operate the plane alone. While I can’t claim to know much about airline procedures, that seems to be a sensible decision.

In all this discussion, we seem to have forgotten just how rare such incidents are. I mean no disrespect to the dead and bereaved when I say that we should accord just as much respect to the hundreds of people killed every year in British road accidents and of course to the millions around the world who die of hunger and preventable diseases.

We have a hierarchy of death. When someone dies in an unusual way, we ask how to prevent it in future. When death occurs in a way we find routine, we simply allow the routine to continue. Questions of road safety, let alone global hunger, are rarely addressed as urgent questions.

Much of the media reaction to the tragedy in the Alps has been very sensational. But it is far worse than this. In seeking to understand, to blame or to sell newspapers, they have talked of the co-pilot’s mental health in a way that demonises everybody with mental health problems.

It is years since British newspapers produced such prejudiced front page headlines about mental health as we have seen over the last few days.

It has been suggested that Andreas Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly because he was depressed. Let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of people with depression and other mental health problems will never kill anyone. They are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others. The vast majority of people who kill themselves do not kill others with them. Behaviour such as Lubitz’s is very, very rare.

There are some who want to prevent people with mental health problems from holding responsible jobs, or jobs at all. Of course some people with mental ill-health are not able to work. They are as entitled to society’s support and respect as anyone else. Many other people with mental health problems (myself included) have jobs. There are so many of us that much of society would collapse if we were all prevented from working.

Certain newspaper editors and columnists seem to think that people with mental health problems should not be allowed to work, but those same editors and columnists would be the first to complain if such people received benefits as a result of giving up their work.

People with mental health problems are not some distant and scary group. They are people we meet at work, pass in the street, chat to after church. They are people who serve us in cafes and shops, drive our buses, teach our children, treat us when we are sick, preach to us on Sundays and yes, work as aeroplane pilots.