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.


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!

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.

100 years ago: Conscription passes into law

100 years ago today, the Military Service Act received the Royal Assent, introducing mass military conscription in the UK for the first time.

The Act stipulated that, from 2nd March, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales would be deemed to have enlisted in the armed forces. In May, the Act was extended to married men.

As a result, thousands of people were sent to needless deaths, while thousands who resisted found themselves in prison.

Those who claimed exemption were required to go before a tribunal to put their case. Most exemptions were on grounds of occupation, health or responsibility for dependents. The Act allowed for the possibility that some could be exempted on grounds of conscientious objection. In reality, this provision was largely ignored, with almost nobody being given total exemption on these grounds.

The “conscience clause” in practice

Many conscientious objectors were turned down altogether, while others were told they could join the “Non-Combatant Corps” (NCC). This was a unit of the army that did not carry weapons and was supposed to satisfy the consciences of objectors. It was absurd. Its members were required to swear the military oath, obey orders and observe military discipline. It played a direct role in facilitating the war. Despite this, there were several instances of NCC members refusing orders when they came too close to participating directly in warfare.

Others were allowed to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), a body set up by Quakers (by mostly upper middle class Quaker men, on the less radical wing of the Movement). However, many objected, saying that everyone who joined the FAU freed up someone else to go and fight. Later in the war, some were sent on the “Home Office Scheme”, a form of “alternative service” that seemed not dissimilar to being sent to a prison camp.

It used to be estimated that there were just over 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs) in World War One. Most scholars of the issue now accept that this is an underestimate, with the figure likely to be above 20,000.

Many of these were forced into the army against their will, where some refused to put on uniform, drill or obey orders. They found themselves in military detention and later in civilian prisons. Over 6,000 COs spent some time in prison during the war. Forty-two were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted. However, more than eighty COs died in prison or military detention, or shortly after being released on health grounds. Others never recovered their physical or mental health.

These numbers sound low compared to the millions who died fighting. The pacifists were the first to insist that they had not suffered as much as the soldiers had. They were suffering precisely because they were trying to stop the war in which these soldiers – and many civilians – were dying.

The COs were only part of the peace movement. They were by definition male and relatively young. But women and men of varied ages campaigned alongside them, liaising with opponents of war in Germany, France and elsewhere to resist the unspeakable mass slaughter.

Marking the centenary

This evening, I’ll be going to a reception at Parliament to mark 100 years of conscientious objection to conscription in the UK. It’s run by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who played a major role in resisting conscription a century ago, although the Society in 1916 was more divided than is sometimes thought (between firm pacifists and government sympathisers).

In 1916, some right-wing (or relatively right-wing) Quakers insisted that pacifists should “thank” the government for recognising the right to conscientious objection. Others replied, rightly, that no thanks were due when the right was not being observed in practice. Furthermore, the right not to kill is so basic that we are in a grotesquely twisted world when we have to thank our rulers for acknowledging it. While this evening’s event will, I’m sure, celebrate the resistance to conscription, I hope there will be no praise for the government of the time for inserting the largely meaningless “conscience clause” into the Act. As much as anything else, its inclusion was a sop to Liberal backbenchers who supported the war but were reluctant to vote for conscription.

The resistance to World War One was as global as the war. Only a small part of it was in Britain. It was resisted in France, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil and beyond. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that overthrew the royal rulers of Germany and Russia. A century later, we are still resisting conscription. This is literal in the cases of countries such as Israel, Eritrea, South Korea and Turkey, which still force people to kill. In Britain, our bodies are no longer conscripted. Instead our taxes are conscripted to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our minds are conscripted, with militarist ideology so engrained in us that we believe that violence is the ultimate solution to conflict. Our very language is conscripted, so that we talk of “defence” when we mean “war” and “doing nothing” when we mean “doing something other than fighting”.

We need to learn from those who resisted war a century ago. Their struggle is as relevant and vital as ever.




100 years ago: Home Secretary resigns in protest against conscription

100 years ago yesterday (28th December 1915), the British cabinet agreed to introduce military conscription. The Home Secretary, John Simon, resigned in protest.

It is sometimes said that the government was “forced to introduce conscription” because of the way the first world war was going. However, John Simon was one of many who ardently supported the war but opposed conscription.

The issue had been one of the biggest controversies in British politics over the proceeding year. Thousands of troops were dying ever day and they were no longer being replaced by equal numbers of volunteers. Some on the political right had campaigned for conscription for years – since long before the war began. Others now supported conscription on pragmatic grounds, believing it was necessary to win the war.

Many were opposed. Of course, those who opposed the war naturally opposed conscription. But it is important to recognise that there were many people, particularly in the Liberal Party, who supported the war but who opposed conscription.

The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith had given into pressure in May 1915 and formed a coalition government with the Conservatives and the pro-war wing of the (very divided) Labour Party. A small group of Liberal MP refused to support the coalition and sat as “Independent Liberals”.

The Tories in the government, along with certain Liberals such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, began to push hard for conscription (Churchill was on a political journey that saw him join the Conservative Party a few years later).

Asquith had not been keen on conscription, nor had Reginald McKenna, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, or John Simon, his Home Secretary. After lengthy debate in cabinet on 28th December 1915, Asquith backed plans to propose a bill to Parliament that would introduce conscription for unmarried men. McKenna was reluctantly persuaded to go along with it. John Simon was having none of it, and resigned the same day.

When Parliament debated the bill in January 1916, John Simon provided a powerful voice of opposition from the backbenches. But the bill was passed into law on 27th January 1916. On 2nd March 1916, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 40 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces.

The provision was soon extended to married men, and the age limit was later raised. Provisions guaranteeing exemption for conscientious objectors turned out to be almost worthless and opposition to conscription continued for the following three years.

I will be blogging on the centenary of significant events in this struggle. Watch this space.

Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

Many people in the UK wear a red poppy at this time of year out of a laudable desire to honour and remember the victims of war.

I have often been told by red poppy wearers that they wish to commemorate all those killed in war. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that this is not the stated purpose of those who produce the red poppy, the Royal British Legion.

According to the LegionRed poppy, the red poppy does not even commemorate all the British dead.

The Legion is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. At a stretch, they will commemorate allied military dead. But civilian dead don’t get a look in.

What about civilian stretcher bearers in the Blitz, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others? Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day? No, says the Royal British Legion.

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

If you click on the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website, you will found this blatant statement:

“The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.”

I do not wish to engage in such partial and sectarian remembrance. But it gets worse. The front page of this year’s Poppy Appeal website includes a large picture of a current soldier, with the headline:

“The poppy doesn’t only support veterans of the past”.

Current members of the forces are now given at least equal, if not more prominent attention, by the Royal British Legion on the web. The Legion clearly has a political position of encouraging support for the British armed forces as an institution, and by implication supporting war as a means of addressing conflict and celebrating military values such as unquestioning obedience.

Of course, the Legion has every right to adopt this position and to make an argument for it. But let’s not pretend it’s politically neutral.

Despite all this, the Legion does some good work. Their website includes a relatively prominent section about supporting veterans with mental health problems. Sadly, this is overshadowed by all the nationalism, militarism and romanticising of war with which their publicity is glutted.
White poppies
I want to commemorate all those killed, injured and bereaved in war. That’s why I wear a white poppy, symbolising the need to remember all victims of war and to honour them by working for peace in the present and the future.

You can buy a white poppy at http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop.

World War One: The overlooked opposition

Last year saw a flood of new books on World War One. When I saw a new one in a bookshop or library, I would pick it up and look up how much space it gave to the issue of opposition to the war. This was particularly so if it was presented as a general history of the war, or of Britian’s part in it.

The new  books are still coming, but I have largely given up on this practice. I became rather demoralised with books that failed to mention the anti-war movement, or confined themselves to a single paragraph on conscientious objectors or – worse still – claimed that almost everyone in Britain supported the war.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about the peace activists of World War One. Everywhere, I am met with surprise about the level of opposition. Here are some much-overlooked facts.

  1. There were peace demonstrations throughout the war. Around 15-20,000 people demonstrated against the war in Trafalgar Square on 2 August 1914. About 5,000 protested in Glasgow at the same time, with thousands of others around the UK. The Women’s Peace Crusade organised protests around Britain from 1916-18.
  2. The Tribunal, newsletter of the leading anti-war group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), had 100,000 readers in 1916, despite being a semi-underground publication.
  3. On 9th July 1915, a Captain Townroe wrote from the West Lancashire Territorial Force to Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He reported that: “Over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”.
  4. Women from around Europe and North America gathered in the Hague in April 1915 for an international peace congress. The UK government prevented most British delegates from sailing, but three of them managed to make it.
  5. In early 1917, around 200,000 people in the UK signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace (Germany had offered peace talks and the UK government had declined).
  6. In January 1917, a pacifist called Albert Taylor won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Rossendale by-election, standing on an anti-war ticket.
  7. At least 16,100 people (the lowest estimate) refused to join the British army and became conscientious objectors (the highest estimate is around 23,000).
  8. Over 6,000 British conscientious objectors were sent to prison after refusing exemption or rejecting the conditions for partial exemption.
  9. 35 British conscientious objectors were sentenced to death in 1916, although the sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment following political campaigning on the issue. Over 80 conscientious objectors died in prison, military detention or work camps, mostly due to ill treatment and poor conditions.
  10. Dozens of peace activists, both women and men, spent time in prison under the Defence of the Realm Act for offences such as handing out anti-war leaflets, producing illegal publications and encouraging people not to join the army.
  11. There was industrial unrest throughout the war, particularly in 1918. The summer of 1918 saw strikes in arms factories and on the railways, including a strike by female cleaners on the railways calling for equal pay with men. On 30 August 1918, the majority of the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
  12. There were a string of mutinies among British soldiers between November 1918 and February 1919, as the government failed to demobilise them despite the end of the war. Some of the mutineers elected Soldiers’ Councils and set up soldiers’ trades unions.