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.

Covid 19 reminds us that weapons won’t keep us safe

What makes us safe? What makes us secure? For years, “security” and “defence” have been euphemisms for war and preparations for war. But the Covid19 crisis is a deadly reminder that bombs and guns cannot protect us from a pandemic.

For years, the government’s own researchers have identified possible pandemics as a realistic threat to our safety. Yet the government had done little to prepare us for it – indeed, they have presided over an underfunded NHS and grossly inadequate social care system – while focusing on the supposed “security” that can be found in warships and missiles.

I’ve written two articles about this recently (both of which cite the government’s own security reviews, which have listed a pandemic as a serious possibility):

I wrote these articles in my capacity as campaigns manager of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), my main (part-time) job, alongside my teaching and writing work. You can read more on the PPU website about our call for military budgets to be diverted to tackling coronavirus.

Self-isolation: Some non-medical predictions

I’m not qualified to make any medical or epidemiological predictions, but here are some linguistic predictions:

1. When the Oxford English Dictionary choose their Word of the Year for 2020, it will be “self-isolate”.

2. In the next few weeks, there will be lots and lots of online articles with titles such as “10 top tips for self-isolating” and “15 great Netflix choices when self-isolating” and “How self-isolating taught me more about self-care /silence /friendship /cooking /prayer /sleep /relaxation /insert-something-else-relevant-to-particular-publication”.

3. In future years, the phrase “self-isolate” will evolve to mean “giving yourself a bit of space away from other people because you need to look after yourself”. In 20 years time, young people will say they’re “self-isolating” and we’ll say to them, “That word used to mean something a lot more serious. Do you know it derives from the Great Coronavirus Outbreak of 2020?”. They’ll say, “Yes, we do, because you keep telling us.”

My trial: prosecution backs down at the last minute

I was due to stand trial last week, nearly six months after being arrested while taking part in the resistance to the DSEI arms fair in London.

After months of confusion – and a massive waste of taxpayers’ money – the Crown Prosecution Service decided at the last moment to drop the charge. This followed a written submission by my barrister pointing out that the footage (which the prosecution had had from the beginning) disproved the charge of which I was accused.

I owe many, many thanks to everyone who has supported me and sent me encouraging messages, as well as to my lawyers and my comrades in the Peace Pledge Union. Thank you!

If you’d like to read my reflections on this absurd situation, you can find them here in an article I’ve written for Left Foot Forward.