Two weeks ago on Armed Forces Day a group of men handing out leaflets in Blackpool was ordered by a private security firm’s employees to stop what they were doing immediately and leave the promenade.
What on earth was on those leaflets? Something highly offensive, surely, to have forced the authorities into such dramatic action to prevent the public seeing it? Well, yes, if you consider the promotion of peace to be offensive.
Because this particular group of men belong to an organisation called Veterans For Peace UK and as the name suggests they have all served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Yet they were ‘escorted’ from a public space on Armed Forces Day by corporate security staff working on behalf of Blackpool Council. They were even told that they could not return to the promenade if they were wearing their group’s t-shirt. VFP UK’s t-shirts carry the words: ‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’. Highly offensive sentiments that should never be aired in public I’m sure you’d agree; especially when there are impressionable children about.
￼Photo credit: Neil Harvey
On Armed Forces Day the group’s name carries particular significance, of course. The first word presents no problem; veterans are held up to be revered on this day just as they are on Remembrance Sunday – with the help of the arms industry funded British Legion. No, the trouble begins with the next two words, ‘For Peace’, because this makes them, according to one of the VFP UK members present on Blackpool’s promenade, ‘the wrong kind of veteran’.
Yet it is in being ‘veterans for peace’ that the power of this organisation lies, as does its perceived threat. For I can guarantee that a group of veterans wearing blazers festooned with medals could have distributed leaflets urging youngsters to join the army until darkness fell and the famous illuminations came on and no-one would have interfered. Because that is what Armed Forces Day is after all – a massive propaganda exercise for the military and for militarism. It’s the unashamed promotion of War, the support for which ensures the arms companies continue to rake in their bloodstained billions.
Armed Forces Day is the manufacturing of our consent, cynically packaged as a fun day of national pride and patriotism, and it cannot be allowed to be interrupted by a group of people who have, as I have previously written, been through the mind-altering conditioning programme of armed forces training but ultimately proved immune to its effects. Veterans For Peace UK is powerful because no-one can say to its members, ‘you weren’t there’ or ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’; no-one can berate them for ignorance of the armed forces and its culture, and no-one can attack them for spreading lies or disinformation – though, as we have seen, they are often attacked for spreading Truth, which is infinitely more dangerous to the purveyors of lies.
Armed Forces Day was dreamt up to help us all refocus on hero-worshipping serving military personnel, rather than veterans, because it wasn’t enough to worship the past with its ‘noble’ and far more easily defendable conflicts after modern era wars like Iraq had eroded public trust in successive governments’ military exploits. Something had to be done to win us all back, and what better antidote to such cynicism than good old patriotism? The conflation of support for ‘our boys’ and for the (illegal and murderous) wars they are sent to fight in became crucial to ensuring the coffers of arms companies remain full to the brim, as did the public’s belief in the humanitarian nature of these interventions.
This fetishising of the British soldier, of which Armed Forces Day is the lurid circus, is a public relations campaign of the highest importance to the corporate state, and all the tentacles of that corporate state – including local councils and private security firms tellingly working together – will act as the corporate entities they are in order to neutralise any challenge to it. And if our civil liberties have to be trashed in the process then so be it. Hence, on a beautiful summer’s day two weeks ago in Blackpool, ex-servicemen promoting peace had to be quickly removed from public view.
If you want to see how emphatic the authorities are in their efforts to destroy civil liberties in this country in the pursuit of war and profit you have only to watch the truly jaw-dropping documentary On The Verge. Filmed by antiwar activists and including damning police footage and audio it documents the collusion of police, arms company and local council in an attempt to stop campaign group, Smash EDO, from protesting outside the premises of arms manufacturer, EDO MBM Technology in Brighton. Sussex Police and Brighton and Hove Council even took the step of warning the venue due to premier the film that it faced legal action if the screening went ahead due to ‘health and safety concerns’, and according to Wikipedia: ‘in March 2008 the film began a tour of venues across Britain and was dogged by similar censorious events in a number of towns and cities in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign by unknown elements in the British establishment to have the film banned.’
But perhaps the most outrageous action – due to its sheer scale – designed to dismantle our civil liberties in order that anti-war protest be stopped was the Blair government adding a section to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, known as the now notorious, SOCPA 132. It was brought in, as parliamentary record shows, solely to rid Parliament Square of long-term anti-war campaigner Brian Haw, whose defiant permanent protest outside the Palace of Westminster was a daily reminder to the malefactors within of their war crimes. He had to go. And with him the right of spontaneous protest within one kilometer of Parliament for every person in the UK.
From now on, we’d all have to ask permission from the police if we wanted to demonstrate about anything, which meant going to a police station and filling in a form before (maybe) being given a permit. A permit! to claim a fundamental democratic right? Do you remember the furore when this outrage happened? The protests in the streets? The furious debates on Newsnight and Channel 4 News? The newspaper headlines screaming about the ushering in of a police state? Neither do I.
This was the moment, in 2005, when I knew civil liberties no longer existed in my country, so off I went to Parliament Square to talk to the inspirational Brian Haw and join the activist group, People In Common, who went by the threatening moniker, the Parliament Square Picnickers, members of which had been arrested in the square for being in possession of a cake with the word ‘peace’ written on it in icing.
Brian Haw’s lawyers challenged SOCPA 132 and the court ruled that, as his then four year long protest predated the Act, he was not bound by it and could stay on the Square. Not so the rest of us. Every other citizen of a supposedly free country had to seek approval from the state before demonstrating outside their own Parliament, the place where the Chartists and the Suffragettes had battled their causes.
In 2006 Dan Kieran wrote a book that I think should be on the national curriculum. It’s called I Fought The Law. Get it. Read it. Because it documents this tragically unchronicled watershed in the history of citizens’ rights in this country, a story that the corporate state would much rather you remained ignorant of. In his chapter, Don’t Let Them Eat Cake, Dan writes: ‘back in 1992 when Tony Blair was a lowly member of the opposition, he pledged that Labour would be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Few could have guessed that picnicking was what he had in mind.’ But SOCPA was serious business:
Maya Evans was convicted under section 132 for simply standing at the Cenotaph and reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. Isn’t that the kind of thing we are told only happens in nasty authoritarian countries? But, you see, the War Project can’t be sustained if people are reminded that a career in the armed forces involves, as well as scuba diving and bonding with your mates in exotic locations, killing and getting killed.
Brian Haw was often assaulted by the police, mostly when they had him out of sight in the back of their van (I know this because he told me himself and because I witnessed the disgraceful behaviour of Met officers in and around the Square) but here he is being assaulted by them in broad daylight. Brian endured all of this for ten years because he had a profound compassion for his fellow man and because he knew he had to bring the injustice of war to light. If you want to see how deeply Brian felt, here he is addressing a crowd in Parliament Square on the day George Bush visited Downing St.
Brian didn’t care about nationality, he saw only one human family, and so the cynical appeal to ‘patriotism’ had no effect on him. He was irascible, he was passionate, and he was brave. The might of the British state couldn’t stop Brian; neither could the police – only cancer stopped him. And if anyone deserves a statue in Parliament Square it is him. Brian, alongside the monuments to the warmongers and imperialists? That will never happen. Not while the warmongers and imperialists of today make the decision.
Brian was visited in Parliament Square by Veterans For Peace UK founder and ex-SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, who regularly defies a high court injunction to speak out on his experience in Iraq of UK complicity in torture. Brian was most impressed by him. Here’s what he had to say about Ben.
What do you think Brian would have to say about Ben’s fellow Veterans For Peace UK members being forced off Blackpool’s promenade for spreading the message of peace on a day devoted to the ‘glory’ of war? He would give those responsible the tongue-lashing they deserve you can be sure. He might have said that the petty panjandrums at Blackpool Council are not fit to lick these men’s boots. That the utter lack of integrity driving their decisions is in complete contrast to the integrity displayed by the men of VFP UK in having the courage to change their lives and tell their truth. A truth that is vital to the building of a just and peaceful society.
Veterans For Peace UK, whose members include Joe Glenton jailed for refusing a second tour of Afghanistan, and Michael Lyons a Navy medic, jailed for refusing rifle training, will be marching to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in this centennial year marking the end of the carnage of the First World War. Why don’t you join them to show your support? And maybe then you could walk the few metres down to Parliament Square and take a moment to think of Brian. I can still hear his voice echoing there.
Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews.