Darkest Hour: War, class and Winston Churchill

It was not the positive image of Winston Churchill that put me off the film Darkest Hour. It wasn’t the representation of people calling for peace. It wasn’t the historical inaccuracies. It was the portrayal of working class characters, and in paricular Churchill’s brief interaction with a group of working class people on a tube train.

Darkest Hour is primarily about a decision facing the British government in May 1940: to keep on fighting, depite devastating losses and German millitary superiority, or to enter peace negotations with the Nazi regime. It was an unenviable decision, choosing between two horrendous possibilities. The film pits Churchill, who would “never surrender”, against those pushing for a negotiated peace, notably Edward Wood (Viscount Halifax). The film’s bias is clearly in favour of Churchill: an easy postion to cheer with the benefit of hindsight, removed from the millions who died as an invasion of Britain was prevented, more by luck than anything else.

When I was a child, Churchill was frequently presented as an uncomplicated hero. Nowadays, it is much more common to see him potrayed as a flawed hero. Many people are well aware that Churchill was rude, indecisive and an alcoholic. References are less frequent to his racist attitudes, brutality as Home Secretary and opposition to votes for women and free secondary education. However, there are people who recognise all this but still see him as the saviour of Britain during World War Two. If he’s no longer convincing as an unblemished hero, then a flawed hero is still a hero.

Darkest Hour portrays Churchill’s rudeness as a comical, almost endearing quality. Despite my problems with the film’s biases, I appreciated that proponents of a negotiated peace were presented relatively sympathetically and their arguments given a hearing. I was enjoying watching the film, until the scene around three-quarters of the way through in which Churchill spontaneously leaves his government car and travels on the London Underground.

In recognising Churchill’s flaws, the film acknowledges his elite background, mentioning early on that he has never travelled on a tube train. When he enters the tube train later in the film, he talks to seven or eight working class people, to discover what “the people” think about a negotiated peace.

The portrayal is patronising in the extreme. Improbably, they all have exactly the same view – opposition to peace negotations. They are uniformly deferential to Churchill, and offer their views only after he asks them a highly biased question in extremely simplistic terms. The fact that one of them is black seems to be an attempt to ward off assocations of Churchill with racism.

The aristocrats, royals and upper middle class politicians who argue with each other throughout the film are considered intelligent enough to have a range of nuanced views. The working class characters, allowed to appear only briefly, are given only simplistic statements to utter.

Historical inaccuracies are inevitable in films; some flexibility is essential to make the story flow. And I can cope with a film having a different bias to my own. What I can’t cope with is the absurd notion that Churchill decided to rule out peace negotations because of an encounter with “the people” – in the form of a handful of randomly selected individuals on a tube train.

The rights or wrongs of entering peace negotiations in May 1940 should certainly be debated a lot more than they are. More importantly, however, we need to address the way in whch World War Two influences our culture, our politics and our society. Every military action today is equated with World War Two by those who support it. Every tyrant opposed by UK governments is compared to Hitler (but not the many tyrants supported by UK governments). Everyone supporting peace or cuts to military spending is compared, with staggering inaccuracy, to people who backed appeasment in the 1930s. The portrayal of Churchill as a hero is magnified and mlutiplied by the refusal to recognise allied atrocities, as if the greater atrocities of the Nazis make all other actions OK.

Perhaps worst of all, the myth of Britain “standing alone” against Hitler is used to portray war as inevitable and right. This is possible only by blanking out all sorts of facts and possibilities from our collective memory.

That thoughts of World War Two should still exercise so much influence is perhaps unsurprising. This is no reason to be naïve about it, or to refuse to challenge one-sided narratives that continue to be used to justify war, nationalism and militarism today. It is a shame that a film as well acted and directed as Darkest Hour essentially serves as fuel to the militarist myth machine.

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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!

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 once 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 underestimated. 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.

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.

Will anti-Trident churches now back direct action?

My abiding memory of today’s debate on Trident will be the sight of Labour MPs falling over each other to declare their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, their support for the Tories’ policies and their opposition to their own leader.

Playground-style arguing saw at least one Tory MP suggesting that opponents of Trident need to “grow up”, as if a belief in using violence to resolve conflict were a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, Theresa May failed to answer one of the first hostile questions she has received from an MP since becoming Prime Minister (from Caroline Lucas) and stumbled through her answer when challenged by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about costs.

Today’s vote can hardly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the childish antics and macho posturing that pass for democracy in the House of Commons. The question for opponents of Trident is: What do we now?

Last week, five major church denominations – the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the United Reformed Church – collectively urged MPs to reject nuclear weapons and vote against Trident renewal. This was excellent.

It will be even better if they will follow through on their principles and encourage peaceful struggles against Trident to continue by other means.

Parliament is only part of the process. We all share some responsibility for what our society does. Nobody has a right to prepare an act of mass murder. Today’s vote should make us determined to back nonviolent direct action for disarmament, whether in the case of nuclear weapons or others.

The churches’ voices would be stronger if they would vocally back nonviolent direct action, at least against Trident if not against militarism generally. Most of them maintain chaplains in the armed forces. What an impact it would make if they would declare that their chaplains will encourage troops to disobey orders if Trident is renewed.

While several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have, as individuals, criticised nuclear weapons, the Church of England as a whole has generally shied clear of lining up with other denominations to oppose it. Last year, however, a Church of England statement suggested that the arguments for Trident need “re-examining”.

I suppose this is progress of a sort. At least the Church of England is beginning tentatively to lean in the right direction. It’s also profoundly mistaken. The arguments do not need re-examining. They have been examined for years. We need to get beyond the call for debates and take up the all to action. Let’s get on with 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.