Not doing what we’re told: The arms fair, the Daily Mail and civil disobedience

“You’re not supposed to talk to us,” said one of the police offiers protecting the set-up of the London arms fair from nonviolent protesters last week.

For a moment, I was confused. While I’ve often been ignored by police, I’d never been explicitly told be police not to talk to them.

Then I realised what he meant. When legal advice was read out by protest organisers every morning to the protesters outside the arms fair, it included the advice, “Don’t talk to the police”.

This is not advice that I choose to follow. This is not due to naivety: I am careful about what I say to the police and I don’t give away personal information (this is, I think, what the advice is aiming at). However, I don’t like the idea of not talking to someone, and I also believe in challenging the police about some of their actions, while following the longstanding Christian pacifist principle of distinguishing between the person and their actions.

I did not, sadly, get time to explain this to the policeman in question. He had heard us being advised not to speak to the police at all and he assumed therefore that this was something that we would do. He has to do what his superior offices tell him and he seemed to have been expecting us to operate on the same basis.

The difference is that we did not have superior offices. We did not have orders. We had advice, that could be accepted or rejected.

The protests over last week caused significant disruption to the set-up of the London arms fair, known euphemistically as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI). Over 100 people have been arrested in the nine days since the protests began for carrying out nonivolent direct action. This involved a great deal of organisation on the part of some of the groups involved, and spontaneous decisions in the case of others. But it didn’t require anybody to give orders, do things they did not believe in or fit into hierarchical structures. The police officer who talked about what we were “supposed” to do may have difficulty understanding this.

 

Most people (myself included) are far too ready to do what we are told. Of course, in some emergency situations, this may be the right thing to do: a surgeon who is operating on someone needs to make quick decisions about the equipment needed and their collleagues need to respond speedily when asked to pass something. At other times, what we are told to do may be the right thing to do anyway, or we may choose to go along with a collective democractic decision out of commitment to the group involved and its processes.

However, doing what we are told simply because it’s what we are told is nearly always a mistake. Most injustices involve large numbers of people. A dictator can only be a dictator because their troops fire when ordered to do so and the media print what the dictator wants people to hear. Of course it is unimaginably difficult for one soldier or journalist to stand up to a dictator single-handedly – and I’m certainly not judging them for failing to do so. But when large numbers of people withdraw co-operation from a government, it cannot function. A dictator whose troops refuse to fire becomes no longer a dictator, turning in a matter of minutes into a powerless person in a palace.

The Daily Mail has today effectively devoted its front page to attacking the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience. The headline suggests that Len McLuskey has compared himself to Nelson Mandela. He has, of course, done no such thing. Rather, he has defended the right of people to break unjust laws, including the Tories’ new laws restricting strikes. While I’m often very critical of McLuskey – not least for his support of the arms industry – I completely agree with him on this issue.

The Mail quotes McLuskey saying that Gandhi, Mandela and the suffragettes were all attacked for breaking the law. Indeed, they were all attacked by the Daily Mail for breaking the law. The paper described Christabel Pankhurst as the “most dangerous woman in Britain”, before she abandoned the suffrage struggle to back the army recruitment drive in World War One, after which the Mail loved her.

By saying it’s wrong for illegal strikers to compare their struggles to these historical ones, the Mail is implying that these struggles were praiseworthy and justified. It’s not the first time the Mail has conveniently forgotten that it’s been consistently on the wrong side of history and that most of the positions it’s backed have been firmly defeated.

There are plenty of respectable people who back civil disobedience – as long as it’s safely in the past. I one heard a Tory peer saying how much she would have supported the suffragettes. She was not, of course, backing any civil disobedience in the present.

 

Despite all the arrests last week, despite the police’s facilitation of the violence of the arms fair and the obscene sight of mounted police breaking up a Quaker Meeting for worship in the road, I freely acknowledge that we have far more rights to protest in Britain than in certain other countries (not as much freedom as we should have, but still a lot more than some). What rights and freedoms we do have, we have because our ancestors campaigned for them, and because we continue to assert them. They were not graciously handed down to us by the rich and powerful.

All worthwhile political change happens from the ground up. If people always did as they were told, we would have gained no rights at all. All large-scale injustice relies on people doing what they are told. To overcome injustice, therefore, we need to stop doing what we are told.

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Breach of the peace? A strange morning at Church House

One of the things that people don’t tell you about direct action is how much it involves discussing complex philosophical issues in a highly pressurised environment.

By the time this morning’s protest at Church House was over, I had discussed the nature of private property with a security officer, the definition of peace with a police officer and the question of whether the armed forces protect the British people with a member of Church House staff.

The last of these conversations took place while I was sitting on the floor in front of the entrance to Church House with my arms linked to other Christians who were nonviolently challenging a militarist conference by blockading the main entrance.

If I have any regrets about this morning, they relate to this conversation. I don’t think I explained my position very well, or made the point that it is naïve to imagine that your own country’s armed forces fight for freedom while their enemies fight against it (a position taken by militarists in every country in the world). Perhaps my theology and philosophy seminars at university would have been more effective if we had been required to discuss complex ethical questions with police and security staff standing over us while we were squashed into a doorway.

We were protesting against Church House’s decision to host yet another conference sponsored by arms companies. This year’s Land Warfare Conference, organised by the militarist lobby group RUSI and sponsored by Airbus Defence and L3, is the latest arms industry-funded event to take place at Church House Westminster (as Church House Conference Centre now calls itself).

It was addressed by the “Defence” Secretary Michael Fallon, who we sought to question about arms sales to Saudi Arabia as he entered the centre. He refused to answer and we were dragged away from our attempted peaceful conversation by Church House heavies.

One of the oddest moments of the protest was when Robin Parker, General Manager of Church House Westminster, put in a brief appearance by the doorway. When I called out, “This is a Christian conference centre”, he replied, “It isn’t actually”. He’s still trying to keep up the claim that it is independent of the Church of England (in practice it is a wholly owned subsidiary business of Church House Corporation). While Robin likes to make this claim every time he’s challenged, I don’t remember him previously stating that the centre is not even Christian.

As the police sought to remove us, I attempted to walk into the building (or “force my way in”, as the police later described it). I didn’t get very far, but I was immediately arrested for “breach of the peace”. Less than half an hour later, I was “de-arrested”.

It’s an odd use of the word “peace”: those planning violence inside the building were not considered to be in “breach of the peace”, but rather those who nonviolently tried to stop them.

This is the approach that confuses order with peace and conformity with morality.

We took this nonviolent direct action after five years of Church House (and Church House Westminster/ Church House Conference Centre) refusing to engage with us, ignoring letters and even blocking critics on social media. Yesterday they received hundreds of tweets about the Land Warfare Conference, and do not appear to have been polite enough to have responded to any of them.

It was possible for me to join in this action because of the friends and comrades who played an equal part in today’s protest and because of the many hundreds of others who sent us messages of support. Their encouragement and solidarity makes an immeasurable difference.

I’m going to finish with a quote from Martin Luther King, because he makes a point I want to make much better than I would. It’s an important point to make in response to some actual and potential criticism of our actions today. As King put it:

You may well ask, ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

How many excuses can a church find for hosting arms companies?

How many excuses can you find for hosting arms dealers? Church House Conference Centre rely on the same three, repeated in various ways to anyone who challenges them – if they reply at all.

Generals, arms dealers and officials from the Ministry of “Defence” will gather for their annual Land Warfare Conference on Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th June. They will be hosted in Church House, which includes many of the administrative offices for the Church of England along with the meeting rooms that make up the Church House Conference Centre – or “Church House Westminster”, as it has recently been renamed.

But it wasn’t the name that needed changing. It was the tendency to host conferences sponsored by arms dealers.

Protests against these militarist conferences at Church House have taken place every year since 2012. Church House have ignored letters, declined requests for meetings and even responded to the Fellowship of Reconciliation – a Christian pacifist network – by blocking them on Twitter.

activists hold a banner up outside chruch house denouncing the conference

Challenging a RUSI conference at Church House in 2015.

Militarist conferences are repugnant wherever they happen. I am particularly sad that a prominent Christian-run centre agree to host an event totally at odds with the active nonviolence exemplified by Jesus.

Church House have run out of excuses. They keep repeating the same discredited lines:

1. “Church House Conference Centre is independent of Church House”

This is a legal technicality. The Conference Centre (or “Church House Westminster” as it now calls itself) is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury. They sometimes vary this excuse by saying that Church House Conference Centre is “not a church”. Are Christian organisations expected to have lower ethical standards for some of their buildings than others?

2. “We can’t be expected to investigate the ethics of every company that wants to book a room”

This is a disturbing comment from an organisation supposedly rooted in Christian principles. It is not difficult to find out the ethics of the companies involved. For the last five years, we have been standing outside Church House with banners that draw attention to them.

3. “The bookings are not made by arms companies”

The conference is organised by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Church House tell us that RUSI is a “respected thinktank”. Respected by militarists, perhaps. RUSI promote the arms industry, the armed forces and military responses to global problems. Furthermore, these conferences are themselves sponsored by arms companies, often complicit in the supply of arms to some of the world’s most repressive and tyrannical regimes. In previous years, these have included BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. This year’s sponsors include Airbus and L3.

Sometimes, supporters of the Church House position have made arguments in favour of the arms industry. While I beileve passionately that they are wrong, this response at least has an honesty to it that the others do not. Church House themselves won’t make this argument, but given the feableness of their excuses, we can only conclude that they support  the arms trade or at least don’t object to it.

There have been protests, vigils and acts of worship on the steps of Church House in resistance to every RUSI conference there since 2012. This time, with several groups involved, watch out for news of more. One of the biggest protests will be online: we’ll be mass tweeting Church House on Tuesday (27th June). You can reach them at @Churchhouseconf. You can also phone Church House to ask politely but firmly for an explanation, on 020 7390 1590.

For news of any protests that appear during the event, follow the Fellowship of Reconciliation at @forpeacemaker, or me at @SymonHill.


This article originally appeared (in a slightly shorter form) on the blog of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) on 22nd June 2017. Many thanks to CAAT for hosting it.

Trident: Real security or playground politics?

Owen Smith, the absurdly self-described “unity candidate” for the Labour leadership, will be one of many Labour MPs voting in favour of the Trident nuclear weapons system today. Indeed, he has already gone further. Yesterday, he gave an explicit “yes” to the question of whether he would be willing to deploy nuclear weapons as Prime Minister.

While I can never agree that Trident is morally acceptable, at least some argue for it as a deterrent, rather than as something they would put to use. Even Neil Kinnock, after his about-turn to a pro-nuclear position in the late 1980s, refused to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he would be prepared to press the button. But Owen Smith said yes when asked – in effect – if he was willing to commit mass murder.

The Tories may have hoped that the Trident vote would split Labour in two. They will no doubt be delighted that it seems instead to have split them into three.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis are calling for a deliberate abstention, while Jeremy Corbyn will vote against. His Deputy Leader Tom Watson, along with leadership candidates Owen Smith and Angela Eagle, look set to vote in favour. Many – perhaps most – other Labour MPs will sadly follow their example.

By holding the vote earlier than expected, the Tories have seized the chance to hit Labour when the party is so weak by forcing them to debate the very issue that most divides them. Given how much the Tories have been tearing themselves apart over Europe, they will gain some comfort by addressing an issue on which they are virtually all agreed.

Theresa May will be able to use her first Commons appearance as Prime Minister to boast about her support for “national security”, “defence” and other such euphemisms for military power. As often happens on such occasions, a good many Tories can be relied on to jeer at anti-Trident MPs with a similar level of debate to that employed by school bullies mocking children who don’t fight as much as they do.

Opinion polls suggest the British population is split roughly evenly on Trident renewal. You won’t be able to tell this from the House of Commons today, as Labour MPs stuck in the 1980s are determined to believe that anything other than gung-ho militarism will lose them elections.

Nuclear weapons are one of the worst manifestations of a militarist culture. Let’s be clear that we do have a militarist culture in Britain. Militarist myths are treated as common sense: it’s taken for granted that violence solves problems, that nation-states have a right to our loyalty and that unquestioning obedience is something to be admired.

People who make arguments in favour of Trident often undermine their own case by revealing the depths of their militaristic thinking. They talk about a “deterrent”, as if threats to security consist solely in governments or groups that can be scared, rather than underlying causes of conflict such as poverty, inequality and climate change. They speak of weapons protecting “us” and what “we” would do if other states maintain nuclear weapons. 

Most of us have more in common with the people of other nationalities than we do with anyone who has command of an army, let alone a nuclear weapon. Yet we are supposed to believe that the government maintains weapons of mass destruction for our own protection. This is the same government that is itself attacking the British people, with heavy cuts to public services and the welfare state. People queuing at food banks, or shivering because they can’t afford the heating, are not going to be helped by nuclear missiles.

If maintaining nuclear weapons makes a country safer, this is logically an argument for every country in the world to have nuclear weapons. Supporters of Trident insist that they don’t mean this. When pressed, I have often found that they resort to using expressions such as “top-table nations” and saying the UK is one of these.

As soon as these phrases come out, it is clear that they are giving up the argument about security: Trident stops being about defence and becomes simply a matter of power and status. We are expected to put millions of lives at risk for the sake of appearing like a tough child in a playground. Militarism, in a very real sense, is about never growing up.

In Parliament today, we will hear people arguing that Trident exists to preserve peace. Like politicians around Europe in the years before World War One, they will keep repeating the Roman saying, “If you want peace, prepare for war”.

They were proved wrong in 1914, as they have been proved wrong so many times before and since. History shows time and again that if you prepare for war, you will get what you have prepared for.

 

US Defence Secretary admits British nukes are not independent

The US Defence Secretary has effectively admitted that the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system is not independent.

British cheerleaders for Trident like to call it “Britain’s independent deterrent”. Critics of Trident point out that it is dependent on US technology. Its supporters dismiss this argument. They will be disappointed that their friends in the US government are not more careful with their wording.

Ash Carter, US Defence Secretary, encouraged the British Parliament to renew Trident in an interview with the BBC. He said:

“We’re very supportive of it [Trident] and of course we work with the United Kingdom. We’re actually intertwined on this programme, mutually dependent. We want to have the programme for our own purposes; the UK wants to have it for its purposes. We’re partners in this.”

Asked by the interviewer if this meant that the US could “turn it off”, Carter stumbled over his words slightly, scratching his nose and saying:

“Well it doesn’t get down to – Of course, we have independent authorities to fire but we are dependent upon one another industrially. We depend upon the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom depends upon us. That’s part of the special relationship.”

That’s far short of an outright “no” to the question and perilously close to a “yes”.

Disappointingly (but unsurprisingly), much of the media coverage of Carter’s interview has focused simply on his call for the UK to renew Trident, rather than his comments about dependence. Headlines have tended to refer to his initial argument for Trident renewal. He said:

“I think that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is an important part of the deterrent structure of NATO, of our alliance with the United Kingdom and helps the United Kingdom to continue to play that outsized role on the global stage that it does. Because of its moral standing and its historical standing, it’s important to have the military power that matches that standing.”

What a sad illustration of the attitudes of the powerful: a belief that moral standing is enhanced by maintaining the ability to kill millions of people.

A handy guide to militarist euphemisms

As I write, the UK Parliament is debating government proposals to send troops to bomb Syria. There’s a great deal of jargon about, so I thought I might offer a public service by attempting to decode some of it.

Firstly, there are all those words about defence and security. Here are some definitions.

Defence: War and preparations for war

Security: War and preparations for war

Defence spending: Money for war

Defence industry: Arms industry

Security measures: Restrictions on civil liberties

Keeping us safe: Killing people whose relatives will then want to kill us

The national interest: The interests of the UK establishment

There are other words that concern the process of going to war:

Intervention: Military intervention, i.e. going to war

Doing nothing: Doing something that does not involve war

Bombing ISIS: Bombing areas controlled by ISIS, full of innocent civilians

Finally, there are some terms that describe groups of people:

Terrorists: Vicious killers that the UK establishment does not like (e.g. ISIS)

Allies and trading partners: Vicious killers that the UK establishment does like (e.g. Saudi Arabian regime)

Terrorist sympathisers: Those who oppose a proposal that will result in the deaths of innocent people

It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. Perhaps language is the second.

How the Church of England profits from the arms trade

Pope Francis last week attacked the “duplicity” of those who profit from the arms trade but “call themselves Christian”. Meanwhile, St Paul’s Cathedral in London has adopted a policy of refusing to host events sponsored by arms companies. Guildford Cathedral took up a similar policy some time ago, cancelling a booking at short notice when they realised that it was for an arms industry event.

It seems that none of this has made any impact on Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England, which is next to Westminster Abbey. This week it will again host a conference sponsored by arms companies – and profit from their business.

The ‘Land Warfare Conference‘ will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday (30 June and 1 July). Its sponsors include Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms companies. Lockheed arms one some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Bahrain and Egypt. The company makes Trident missiles for the US (and loaned by the UK government). Lockheed also provides the Israeli government with F-16 aircraft and Hellfire missiles, used in attacks on civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For the last two and a half years, Church House has been dismissing objections to its arms industry conferences, despite protests from within the Church of England and beyond.

Their first line of defence was to claim that the Church House Conference Centre was separate from Church House. Along with other campaigners, I have looked into this claim in some detail. It turns out that the Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose directors include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The separation is a legal technicality.

Church House are now trying to rely on the argument that the booking for the conference is not made by an arms company but by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. This is disingenuous. RUSI’s website makes clear that these conferences are sponsored by arms companies. Alongside Lockheed Martin, sponsors of this week’s event include MBDA Missile Systems (whose weapons were used on all sides in the Libyan civil war) and L3, owners of MPRI a “private military and security company” (or mercenaries, as they’re usually known).

Chris Palmer, secretary of the Church House Corporation recently claimed that:

“The conferences held at Church House by the Royal United Services Institute, an academic body respected throughout the world for its consideration and debate of defence and security issues, are perfectly legitimate and certainly do not breach any ethical stance taken by the Church of England.”

Whether or not RUSI is respected, it is certainly not unbiased. It lobbies for high military spending and promotes the arms industry. If you want to glimpse of the reality of RUSI, have a glance at the front page of the RUSI website, currently featuring a picture of them giving an award to the war criminal Henry Kissinger. Another picture features a celebration of the Duke of Wellington, who backed the use of troops to crush peaceful demonstrations.

But whatever we think of RUSI, Chris Palmer clearly finds it easier to focus on RUSI than on arms companies themselves. His comment deliberately ignores the fact that the conference is sponsored by arms dealers, whoever it is who made the booking.

In contrast, St Paul’s Cathedral has the wisdom to rule out “bookings, or sponsorship of bookings” from any company making more than ten percent of its money from the arms trade.

This is in line with the Church of England’s own ethical investment policy. The Church of England would not buy shares in Lockheed Martin, so why will it profit from it in other ways?

Chris Palmer said that the body that manages the Church’s investments has no connection to Church House and that therefore, “I cannot comment on its ethical stance”. He cannot, it seems, comment on why it has a higher ethical stance than Church House.

Chris Palmer’s comments were made in a letter to Richard Bickle, chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), who had written to him to raise objections to hosting arms dealers’ conferences. FoR is a long-standing Christian pacifist network. It is not only pacifists who object to these events at Church House. Others oppose them because they do not want to support companies that arm dictators and they do not want the Church to be making profit from the business of such companies.

As Christians, we do not hate arms dealers. We seek to love and forgive them. I for one know that I am just as sinful as an arms dealer, and that I need God’s forgiveness. I do not object to an arms dealer entering a church building. I would not have a problem with Church House hosting a debate on the arms trade (as long as it was not sponsored by arms companies), in which arms dealers were challenged and allowed to challenge others.

But this is not what is happening at Church House this week. This is about making money from the arms trade and giving it moral legitimacy.

FoR has been joined by groups including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Pax Christi and Christians for Economic Justice to call on Church House to adopt an ethical lettings policy and throw out the arms industry. Hundreds if not thousands of Christians, including Church of England clergy, have written to Church House to raise their objections.

Church House’s leadership, however, are not even engaging with the issues. As we can see from Chris Palmer’s quote above, they talk of the formal booking and ignore the issue of sponsorship. They have dismissed polite letters, ignored criticism in the media and refused to acknowledge that there is anything to talk about. Last year, security staff at Westminster Abbey tried to stop us from peacefully singing hymns as we held a vigil outside one of Church House’s arms dealers’ conferences. I cannot believe that everyone working for Church House shares these high-handed attitudes, but our polite appeals to reason are being met with rudeness and arrogance.

At 8am tomorrow (Tuesday 30 June), Christians and others will gather outside Church House for a nonviolent vigil and act of worship. A Church of England priest will lead us in Holy Communion. This is entirely appropriate. Communion is a memorial and a celebration of Jesus, who was tortured to death by the oppressive Roman Empire after his nonviolent activism. As a Christian, I have faith that Jesus rose again, heralding the eventual defeat of the unjust powers of this world.

Perhaps the Church House authorities expect our campaign to fade out, or to continue only as a minor irritant. If they do think this, they won’t be thinking it for long.