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.


Enemies become human in Royal Court production

It’s rare for me to give a standing ovation in a theatre. But on Wednesday I readily rose from my seat in the Royal Court Theatre to applaud six ex-soldiers from two sides of the same war. Despite the rawness of their memories, they had spent three months putting together a play to explore their experiences.

The Falklands War finished 34 years ago this month and all six veterans are now in their fifties. But we were left in no doubt of the deep impact that this brief but deadly episode had exercised in their lives.

The play – entitled Minefield  – could have been dry and worthy, but the six combined humour, anger and grief as they used a mixture of storytelling, drama, film and puppetry to impressive effect. The project was conceived and directed by Lola Arias.

The comedy was present from the start. One of the Argentines, Ruben Otero, explained that he was in a Beatles tribute band and sings in English. “Do you dress up as the Beatles?” asked one of the others. “No, I wear a T-shirt saying ‘The Malvinas are Argentine’.”

The humour was accompanied by intense and moving portrayals of pain and mourning. Otero was a survivor of the General Belgrano, the ship sunk by British forces, which accounted for around half the Argentine casualties in the war. He narrated his experience with a passion that showed no sign of being an act. At a dramatic moment, the light switched to a British veteran, Lou Armour, who said, “We were pleased when we heard the General Belgrano had been sunk. We didn’t care that it was travelling away from the islands.”

Thankfully, there was no pretence that the process of making the play had been easy. None of them spoke each other’s language fluently (the Argentines’ contributions were in Spanish with English surtitles). Some had buried their memories of the war for years until applying to be in the play. Others had become obsessed by them. One had previously taken to drugs and alcoholism to deal with his trauma while another spoke of his experience of therapy.

The play was of course only a snapshot, only a window into the events and emotions that had shaped six men’s lives. Although we heard extracts of speeches by Thatcher and Galtieri, there was little said about the wider political context. There was certainly no sign of the peace activists in both Argentina and the UK who campaigned against the war.

This of course was the point. An insight into the personal impact of war can be so much more powerful than a dry description or academic analysis of it.

The six veterans included three from each side. All there Argentines had been young conscripts, though one had been discharged by the time the war began and had volunteered to re-join the army when it broke out. Two of the British veterans had joined up at sixteen, one of them finding a “family” in the Marines that he had not found at home. For me, this was a a reminder of how the armed forces take advantage of loneliness and a lack of community, using them as recruiting tools. The other British veteran, Sukrim Rai, was a Gurkha from Nepal.

Headlines from Argentine newspapers flashed up, describing the Gurkhas as “mercenary killers”. Argentine soldiers heard rumours that Gurkhas cut the ears from their victims and ate them. One Argentine veteran, Marcelo Vallejo, explained that for years after the war he had wanted to kill a Gurkha personally. Now he sat opposite Sukrim Rai on stage and said he would prefer to go for a beer with him.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that all was forgotten and forgiven. The veterans focused on experiences and emotions. None spoke explicitly about their views on the rightness or wrongness of the war, but it was clear that there were mixed views among both the British and Argentine veterans.

In one scene, the six shouted accusations at each other about the behaviour of each other’s forces. It was not clear to what extent they were acting, but the arguments made by at least some of them were undoubtedly heartfelt. I doubt I was the only audience member left with the thought that both British and Argentine authorities had behaved appallingly.

In my eyes, the one shortcoming of the show was its failure to explore the participants’ political views more explicitly. Given the bravery involved in the play’s production and performance, it would surely have been possible to explore the veterans’ opinions as part of the production.

But perhaps that’s easy for me to say. These veterans had already done something remarkable. This production is more a work of poetry than a piece of historical analysis, but it is no less powerful for that. Reconciliation is a messy business. Anyone who dares to treat an “enemy” as a human being is taking a step towards it.

Christian Concern have crossed a line to outright racism with their attack on Sadiq Khan

The right-wing lobby group Christian Concern are well-known for their vocal homophobia and for stirring up prejudice against Muslims. With their attack on the man set to be the new Mayor of London, however, they seem to have crossed a line from nastiness to racism.

Sadiq Khan’s Tory rival, Zac Goldsmith, has rightly been accused of running a campaign that encouraged thinly veiled racial language and anti-Muslim prejudice. Christian Concern have gone further.

I have no brief to defend Sadiq Khan. I once shared a platform with him at a Fabian Society conference. He was friendly and seemed genuinely down-to-earth. But I disagree with him on too many issues for it to be likely that I would ever vote for him. I am angry not because I am a Khan supporter but because I am disgusted by racism, and furious when I see it promoted in the name of Christianity.

The day before polling day, Christian Concern published an article on their website entitled “Londonistan with Khan?”. It was written by Tim Dieppe, the organisation’s “Director of Islamic Affairs”. I was unaware that Christian Concern employed anyone in such a role; I think it’s fairly new. This being Christian Concern, it’s safe to assume that they mean “Director of Islamophobic Affairs”.

Dieppe’s article is truly vile. Some of Khan’s attackers accuse him of association with “Islamic extremists” but insist that they are not attacking him for being a Muslim. Christian Concern offer no such qualifiers. Dieppe states simply, “It is well known that he is a Muslilm who is devout in his adherence to the faith”.

The article then goes on to repeat some of the accusations about his “links” with extremists. Dieppe states that they have been “well-documented”, though the only link provided is to an allegation that he shared a platform with some extremists twelve years ago.

There is a list of six bullet points about why Khan is so terrible.

At least one of the points is factually inaccurate. Khan has not opposed the criminalisation of forced marriage but rather a particular law about it. Whether or not he is right about that law, this is not the same thing as wanting forced marriage to be legal.

But by far the most bizarre bullet point is the first. This states that, in his capacity as a lawyer, “Khan wrote a ‘how-to’ guide for people wanting to sue the police for damages”.

So whatever else he might be blamed for, it seems that Khan has been willing to help people who have been the victims of police racism or brutality. So why is this on a list of bad points?

Underneath his list, Dieppe has written, “Particularly concerning are his encouragement of suing the police for racism”. The implication is that the police should be allowed to get away with racism.

This becomes more explicit a few lines afterwards, when Tim Dieppe’s foul arguments reaches its height. He writes:

It is hard to see Khan supporting the police being more proactive in upholding the law in areas with high Muslim populations… Knowing they lack political support, the police are likely to continue in their politically correct ways, with disastrous results. Fear of causing offence will rule. We have already seen some of the effects of such politically correct policing in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities where Islamic rape gangs have been allowed to run riot, with the police terrified of being called racist.”

Well, at least Tim Dieppe and Christian Concern are not terrified of being called racist. They are blatant and open about being racist. I doubt they would describe groups of child-abusing priests as “Christian rape gangs” but when the perpetrators are Muslim, they blame the crimes on Islam.

The organisation says little about sexual abuse more generally or asks whether wider social attitudes and police prejudice contribute to the lack of rape convictions. Nor is such prejudice likely to be challenged by people who damn lawyers for writing guidelines on how to challenge the police.

There’s a thin line between Islamophobia and racism. Christian Concern are now clearly promoting the latter as well as the former. To suggest that police racism should not be challenged goes hand in hand with their focus on rape committed by ethnic and religious minorities rather than others.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern have never denied or confirmed the allegation that they held a planning meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the English Defence League. That tells you a great deal about Christian Concern.

I have no doubt that Christian Concern are, at least in many areas, entirely sincere about their beliefs. What I will not accept is that these beliefs have any basis in the teachings of Jesus.

100 years on, pacifism is just as important

Regular readers of my blog (a small but much appreciated group of people!) will know that I’ve been writing for a while about the peace movement during World War One.

It’s 100 years ago this year since conscription was introduced in Britain. I had intended to blog about resistance to conscription on every date that marked a significant centenary. Pressure of work and occasional health problems have meant that I’ve not kept up with this aim as well as I would have liked, but I believe the reasons for remembering the peace activists of the first world war are as strong as ever.

In December, I blogged about how the cabinet had decided in December 1915 to introduce conscription, a decision with caused the Home Secretary, John Simon, to resign in protest.

On 27th January, I blogged about the passing of the Military Service Act by Parliament on that date in 1916. This was the law that conscripted all unmarried men aged 18-41 in England, Scotland and Wales. It listed only a few exemptions, including people with a “conscientious objection”. This was not defined and in practice, rarely observed.

On 2nd March 1916, conscription came into force. I’m sorry I did not blog about this on 2nd March this year, but I’m glad there was a fair bit of coverage around.

One reason for my limited blogging in recent weeks is that I have begun a new job. I have taken up the role of Co-ordinator of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), one of Britain’s oldest pacifist networks, founded as a union of people who have pledged to oppose war.

White poppies

I am delighted to work at the PPU, an organisation that has been resisting war since many decades before I was born. I am honoured to be part of many things that the PPU has been working on for years, and to have the opportunity to work in building on them and developing the PPU’s work and external communication.

This doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging! I will still be blogging here, and writing elsewhere, although such writing is of course an expression of my own views rather than those of the PPU as a whole.

If you would like to keep up with anniversaries relating to the peace movement of World War One – as well as vital issues of war and peace today – you can follow the PPU on Twitter at @PPUtoday.

Thankfully, in Britain we are no longer physically conscripted to fight. Around the world, however, many people still are and they need our support. In the UK armed forces, those who develop a conscientious objection after signing up are in practice often denied the chance to leave and many are unaware that they have a legal right to do so.

Also, while our bodies are not conscripted, our minds are. We internalise hateful doctrines that present violence as the only solution to conflict, dehumanise our enemies and encourage us to view unquestioning obedience as a virtue rather than an abomination. Our money is conscripted to fund the world’s fifth highest military budget. Even our language is conscripted, so we unconsciously talk about “defence” when we mean war and refer to the UK government’s armed forces as “our” troops.

A hundred years ago, conscientious objectors were going to prison in their thousands. Today, pacifist resistance to militarism is as important as ever.

The Church of England’s budget response reveals twisted priorities

Institutional churches can be pretty slow to respond to injustice, so I’m not surprised that some people were pleased to see that the Church of England issued a speedy response to George Osborne’s budget yesterday.

Did the CofE’s response challenge the cuts to disability benefits? Denounce the tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy? Demand more funding for public services and the protection of the welfare state?

No. It did none of these things. The Church of England’s press release began with the following words:

“The Church of England has welcomed warmly the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget today of a £20 million fund for works to cathedrals.”

It continued along similar lines.

Thankfully, many Christians, including both clergy and lay people in the Church of England, have criticised the budget – the last in a long line of Osborne budgets to serve the rich at the expense of the rest. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been known in the past to criticise some of the cuts to the welfare state, although I believe he has yet to respond to the budget.

Nonetheless, it says a great deal about establishment that the first official response from the Church of England as a whole was to “warmly” welcome the crumbs that the Chancellor threw in their direction.

Some may say that this was a press release about the cathedrals repair fund rather than the budget as a whole. That, of course, is the problem. Why should this be considered the most important part of the budget for the Church to respond to? It is a trivial detail.

Nor should it be said that this announcement was more relevant to the Church than the other parts of the budget. It was not. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who led by example in showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised. He did not set up a charity for maintaining interesting old buildings.

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.