Blogging, Remembrance and white poppies

I’ve realised I’ve gone two months without blogging here. This isn’t because I’ve been writing less but because I’ve been writing more.

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, I’ve been focused on my work with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). At this time of year, the PPU distributes white poppies, promotes remembrance for all victims of war and makes links between remembrance and peace.

Whitepoppywreath-Remembrance2016Usually I’m at the PPU for three days per week. But like several of my colleagues I’ve been working much longer hours in the Remembrance period. I’m very pleased to be part of a team (consisting of a few staff and a lot of volunteers) who are working to remember the horrors of war by campaigning for peace in the present and the future.

There is a report here from the ‘i’ newspaper about the PPU’s approach to Remembrance, while here are Frequently Asked Questions about white poppies. The issue gained a lot of social media attention this year, with messages and posts ranging from the very supportive to the abusive and threatening – as well as some constructive disagreement and debate. I’ve reflected on this – and in particular on the experience of being called a “snowflake” – in a blog post for the Student Christian Movement.

I’ll be getting back to blogging here more regularly soon!

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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.

How radical is the Greenbelt festival?

The following article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 2nd September 2017. I wrote it after attending the Greenbelt festival the previous weekend.

Last weekend communist theologian Marika Rose called for the abolition of the police.

It’s nothing remarkable: she has been expressing such views for years. What was different this time is that she was addressing an audience at one of Britain’s largest religious festivals.

Greenbelt is a Christian-based festival of music, comedy, arts, talks, debate, politics, worship and theology. In recent years, it has projected a clearly left-of-centre image.

Taking place every August, it is now held in east Northamptonshire. It attracted over 11,000 punters this year, as numbers rose after falling from the high point of 20,000 some years ago.

Mariks’a comments triggered a mixed response. One festival-goer told me she was delighted to hear such radical views at a Christian event. Another wrote: “Shame on you” to Marika.

The controversy provoked a minor Twitter storm, with some apparently angry that such a view should be given a platform at Greenbelt. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more anger a few years ago.

This is not to say that Greenbelt is centre of communist activism, however its conservative detractors portray it. It has been described as “the Guardian does Jesus.” While this criticism comes from right-wing critics, there is a certain accuracy to it.

Like the Guardian, Greenbelt is liberal and centre-left, preferable to the powerful interests on its right, but broadly accepting of capitalism and compromised by its role as a large commercial institution.

You can hear repeated attacks on poverty and austerity at Greenbelt, but they often focus on specific policies rather than any deeper challenge to class structures.

Thankfully, there are exceptions: this year’s highlights included Teresa Forcades I Vila, often described as “Europe’s most radical nun.”

Pacifist activists Sam Walton and Dan Woodhouse spoke about their attempts to disarm a BAE warplane destined for Saudi use in Yemen. Anglican priest Rachel Mann offered a complex but accessible analysis of the link between militarism and masculinity. Interfaith events looked at how Christians can support struggles against Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Greenbelt has been a truly liberating event for many people. In the early 2000s, it was the first Christian event at which I saw a same-sex couple holding hands. Nowadays you can see almost as many same-sex couples there as mixed-sex couples.

At most Christian festivals, this would be unthinkable. For countless LGBT+ Christians, Greenbelt was the first place in which they could be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Socialists at Greenbelt this year welcomed a new tent hosting stalls from co-operative businesses and discussions on the co-operative movement.

There was for the first time a women-focused venue on site: the Red Tent, with a number of events open to all who define themselves as women. This seems particularly important when transphobia is so prevalent in churches, and when even some on the left wish to deny trans people equality.

There were a number of firmly progressive groups running stalls in the middle of the festival, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a radical peace organisation), Church Action on Poverty and groups promoting resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In important ways, however, Greenbelt fell short. The theme of this year’s Sunday morning communion service (the main event at Greenbelt) was disability.

There was an inspiring sermon by a disabled teenager as well as contributions from other disabled people about ways in which they are included or excluded.

Remarkably, however, despite all the discussions of poverty at the festival, not a single word was spoken in the service about the way in which disabled people are facing systematic attacks on their livelihoods by a government that is slashing and burning the welfare state.

And over it all hangs the shadow of an incident in 2011, when festivalgoer Ceri Owen was dragged from the festival by police as she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The most positive interpretation is that Greenbelt organisers overreacted and misunderstood the situation when they called the police. But far from apologising, they continue to defend their behaviour and Ceri has been banned from Greenbelt ever since.

At the same time, she has become an increasingly prominent mental health activist, frequently appearing in the media to speak about cuts to mental health services.

The importance of Greenbelt for promoting progressive views among Christians should not be underesti lives. For some LGBT+ Christians in particular, it has literally changed their lives.

But as Ceri’s exclusion demonstrates, when push comes to shove large institutions tend to veer towards self-justification and conventional power dynamics.

Such problems can also be seen in a number of secular left organisations, including certain trade unions. Radical change requires people working at the grassroots from the bottom up.

Thankfully, the more radical punters at Greenbelt will soon be joining in with the large number of protests, vigils and direct actions planned for the run-up to the London arms fair.

Despite Christianity’s many compromises with wealth and privilege, we still have Jesus’s example of standing up to the rich and powerful. The reign of God is not compatible with the power structures of this world.

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.

Resisting militarism – and doing other things

If you’ve visited this site in the last couple of months, you’ll notice that I’m not blogging nearly as often as I used to.

This is mainly because I’ve been busy in the job I started in April: working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). It’s a real honour to work at the PPU, as we develop campaigns against militarism and speak up for nonviolence and disarmament. I’m pleased to work alongside some great people at the PPU and to be part of a historic movement.

This is all the more necessary as everyday militarism becomes an ever more visible part of life in the UK: military visits to schools are on the rise; Reserves Day has become an annual event along with Armed Forces Day; Remembrance is heavily militarised; and parts of the right-wing press are effectively arguing that the UK armed forces should be above the law.

My work for the PPU doesn’t mean I want to neglect my other work, or indeed activism more broadly. Many of the same issues are involved in them all. I’ll be very busy at the PPU as we approach Remembrance Day, calling for remembrance for all victims of war and for a focus on peace. One of my resolutions for the slightly quieter period after that time is to blog more often on here. In the meantime, I will try to post links to what’s going on at the PPU as well as on other issues when I get the chance.

Many thanks for the support, encouragement and helpful disagreement that I so often receive in response to my writing and campaigning. It makes a big difference.

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.