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.

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.

 

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.

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.