Category Archives: Nonviolence

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Jeremy Corbyn: coups and anti-coups

Jeremy Corbyn: coups and anti-coups
by Ian Sinclair
Left Foot Forward
29 May 2016

In April 2002 the Venezuelan military, supported by the nation’s corporate media, carried out a coup d’état against Huge Chavez, the democratically elected president whose popular government had been undertaking significant reforms in favour of the nation’s poor. Chavez was arrested and Pedro Carmona, the head of the nation’s largest business group, was declared interim president. The constitution was suspended, the National Assembly disbanded and Supreme Court closed. The US quickly moved to recognise the new government and pressured other countries to follow its lead.

However, in an extraordinary example of people power, fewer than 48 hours after he was forced out, Chavez was returned to office after hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets of Caracas demanding he be reinstated.

Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert and proponent of non-violent resistance, has a name for what happened in Venezuela: an anti-coup. Sharp argues successful anti-coups were also staged in the Soviet Union in 1991, against hardliners intent on deposing reforming President Mikhail Gorbachev, and in France in 1961 to stop a group of generals from overthrowing Charles de Gaulle’s government.

Should Sharp write about anti-coups in the future, he will have another case study to discuss: Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Since his landslide election in September 2015, Corbyn has faced an almost uniformly hostile media and constant rumours of attempts to unseat him, including from a senior serving British General.

His enemies heralded the local elections in May 2015 as a particular danger point, with reports suggesting there would be an attempt to remove Corbyn if Labour performed below the very high bar set by his opponents in the party. However, on the day before the local elections the Guardian reported “Jeremy Corbyn’s critics inside his party have set aside the possibility of a post-election leadership challenge in the face of warnings by pollsters that the party leader remains impossible to defeat in any vote of Labour members.” According to Joe Twyman from YouGov, the polling data confirmed Corbyn remained “a country mile” ahead of other potential candidates. “The bottom line is that those eligible to vote in the Labour party leadership election strongly supported Jeremy Corbyn last year and that has not significantly changed”. The Guardian went on to note that Corbyn is “being shored up by the grassroots movement Momentum, which has compiled a database of more than 100,000 supporters that it believes could be used within days to help fight off any potential challenge.” In other words, popular opinion and grassroots pressure has staved off an attempt to remove Corbyn (though the mainstream media will never frame it in these terms, of course).

Jon Lansman, the Chair of Momentum, explained Momentum’s role in an interview with the Guardian in March 2016, saying he thinks it is possible that people might move on Corbyn.  Asked if Momentum is preparing for an attempted coup, he claimed they are not, though suggested the group’s huge database of supporters and networks of local groups could be activated should the need arise. “Part of my role has been to ensure that Momentum is equipped to campaign to defend the legitimacy of Jeremy’s leadership”, Lansman told the New Statesman in May 2016.

With Labour’s predicted local elections meltdown failing to materialise, Sadiq Khan elected as London mayor and a new YouGov poll putting support for Corbyn within the Labour Party at 64 percent it seems the MP for North Islington is safe for now.

Though it may be obvious, it bears repeating just how high the stakes are for the British people: arguably Corbyn’s leadership will be the best opportunity for significant progressive change in Britain for a generation. And, as I argued just after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, just like all progressive change throughout history, it is the size, power and tactical nous of the popular movement/s supporting Corbyn’s leadership that will be the deciding factor: whether he continues as leader of the Labour Party, the extent to which he will need to compromise his political positions and his chances of being elected Prime Minister in 2020.

If they can be built and sustained, then the popular campaigns and mass movements backing Corbyn should have two broad aims. First, to protect his leadership from the incessant attacks – from the Tories, from big business, from the military, from within the Labour Party and from the media (Corbyn’s politics inevitably means he has a lot of powerful enemies). Activists need to understand it is not just the right-wing press that have their knives out, but that much of the liberal press, including the Guardian and BBC, has played an integral part in the ferocious propaganda campaign targeting the Labour leader. To change the media story, the movement should go on the offensive, pressuring news outlets and journalists, setting the agenda and controlling the narrative as much as possible. Popular pressure should also be applied on Labour MPs who are attempting to undermine Corbyn and his political positions.

Second, pressure should be applied to Corbyn himself and his supporters within the Labour Party – to make sure he keeps to his promises. The more active support he gets, the more confidence he will have in pushing forward his political vision. But more importantly, pressure needs to be applied on Corbyn to push him to be more green and radical. For example, Sadiq Khan – whose Mayoral campaign was backed by Corbyn – has already removed a key obstacle to the expansion of City Airport. In addition, despite the rising climate chaos engulfing the planet Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell continue to push for economic growth. “In other words”, the Green’s Rupert Read noted, “they repeatedly call for worsening the number one cause of the ecological crisis.” McDonnell’s positive noises about a Universal Basic Income suggest the Labour leadership is open to considering ideas coming from the radical grassroots.

Importantly, the mass movement backing Corbyn needs to be pro-active, not reactive as Lansman’s comments above suggest. It is imperative that Corbyn does not continue to get tangled up in Westminster’s web of petty political point scoring. If Corbyn is to have any chance of becoming Prime Minister then talk of coups and plots and the never-ending intra-Labour snipping needs to end quickly. Because if the atmospherics and coverage around Labour is still full of coup rumours and often concocted scandals like the anti-Semitism ‘controversy’, come 2019-20 then it will likely be game over. Instead Corbyn’s team needs to go on the offensive and set out their political vision and reach out and build alliances with like-minded politicians and parties such as the Greens.

Hidden within the liberal rhetoric of his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, Senator John Edwards made some important remarks about the possibility for political change. According to Edwards, the general public and incoming president need to be clear: an “epic fight” is required with “entrenched, powerful monied interests” to reclaim back American democracy so it works for the whole population, not just the few. “We better be ready for that battle”, he warned.

The question when it comes to Corbyn and changing British society for the better in the face of established power is this: is the Left and Corbyn’s supporters up for the “epic fight” that is required? If not, we better be. And soon.

Book review: The Hammer Blow. How ten women disarmed a warplane by Andrea Needham

Book review: The Hammer Blow. How ten women disarmed a warplane by Andrea Needham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 April 2016

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Hammer Blow is the perfect illustration of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous quote.

The book tells the extraordinary story of how, in January 1996, ten women activists, including author Andrea Needham, worked to disarm a British Aerospace Hawk jet which was about to be sent to Indonesia.

Led by the murderous dictator Suharto, in 1975 Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor and proceeded to carry out what US dissident Noam Chomsky described as “one of the greatest bloodlettings in modern history compared to total population”. Approximately 200,000 people – about a third of the total population – are reported to have died by the mid-1990s, with the Indonesian forces using the British-made Hawk jets to subdue the East Timorese.

Appalled by the UK government aiding and abetting Indonesia’s genocidal actions, and having unsuccessfully lobbied British Aerospace and the government, the ten women formed an affinity group to explore how they could stop the slaughter using direct action. The preparation for what is now known as the Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares Action took ten long months. Needham explains the group bonded over a number of weekends including lengthy “life-sharing” sessions and “spent a lot of time discussing philosophical questions: militarism, patriarchy, co-operation with authority, secrecy and openness, when is it right to break the law”.

Like the rest of the book, Needham’s account of sneaking into the British Aerospace factory at Warton and disarming the Hawk – that is hammering and smashing parts of the aircraft – is absolutely riveting. Eventually discovered by security, the three women who carried out the action – Needham, Jo Blackman and Lotta Kronlid –along with Angie Zelter, were arrested.

Reasoning they acted to prevent a larger crime, their subsequent trial in Liverpool is a fascinating and uplifting example of passionately principled people presenting their case to the conservative British legal system. “I’m not breaking the law, I’m upholding it”, Kronlid told the prosecutor. After six months on remand in prison and a huge support campaign publicising their actions the four women were acquitted by the jury on 30 July 1996 to jubilant scenes outside the court.

“In twenty years of resistance we were never able to shoot down an aircraft”, Jose Ramon Horta, the future President of East Timor, noted in a letter to the women in prison. “You did it without even firing a single shot and without hurting the pilot”.

Frustratingly, after it was elected in 1997 Tony Blair’s Government, with Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, refused to stop arming Indonesia – “exposing Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ for the sham it was”, notes Needham. Yet, the action of these dedicated activists arguably played a role in ending the occupation of East Timor and will inspire fellow activists for years to come. Best of all it is a barnstorming and engrossing read that will have readers racing to the end to find out what happens next.

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
4 April 2013

In the last few weeks I have been doing a number of talks around England to promote my new book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’. At a couple of talks a few people have raised objections to some of the criticisms of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that I make. Below, I attempt to address these objections by summarising my findings about STWC and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from the more than 110 interviews and research I conducted for the book.

STWC has been the leading organisation in the UK anti-war movement since its establishment in 2001. In particular, it was the most significant member of the tripartite coalition that led the movement against the Iraq War – the other members of which were the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Given the importance of the STWC, then, it’s worth considering one of the main debates that surrounded it – the role of the SWP.

According to many people I interviewed, STWC started out as a broad-based coalition. However, the SWP gradually came to dominate its leadership and effectively took control after 2003. Senior members of the SWP Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and John Rees (all of whom left the party in 2010) organised STWC’s founding meeting, and have made up the core leadership ever since. Importantly, many of the other senior members of STWC such as Andrew Murray, Andrew Burgin and CND’s Kate Hudson are close allies of German, Nineham and Rees.

As the chief architects (along with CND and MAB) of the 15 February 2003 anti-war march in London – the largest demonstration in British history – I applaud and am thankful to the STWC leadership for their extraordinary level of work. However, many of the people I interviewed were often frustrated and/or angry about the SWP’s dominating role in STWC. As peace activist Gabriel Carlyle told me: “I would put it this way: the SWP were probably the anti-war movement’s best asset and, in some respects, its greatest liability as well.” The SWP were the movement’s “best asset” because, as many people agreed, they were excellent organisers and extremely dedicated activists who helped to quickly build one of the largest social movements in our nation’s history. As Carlyle amusingly put it: “If it had been up to the traditional peace movement to organise the response [to the impending invasion of Iraq], they might have had a candlelit vigil with 200 people.”

In terms of the SWP being the anti-war movement’s “greatest liability”, many people I interviewed, including people previously centrally involved in STWC, criticised the SWP’s centralised style of working and methods which were felt to be controlling, aggressive and bullying. This destructive behaviour, according to activist Yasmin Khan, “played a part in the downfall of the movement.” Carol Naughton, the Chair of CND from 2001-3, noted in a ‘Strictly Confidential’ June 2003 memo that STWC “did not seem to understand or accept the culture of working in partnership once we had agreement to go ahead with joint events.” More concerning, Naughton reported that she “was on the end of some very unpleasant, aggressive and abusive phone calls from the Coalition” and that she “was lied to and misled by [STW] Coalition leadership” who she found “to be duplicitous and manipulative in trying to get my agreement when I had given them a decision that they disliked.”

STWC had a Steering Group, made up of representatives from different organisations, which met regularly. However, according to Mike Podmore, who was on the Steering Group himself in 2003, the SWP “orchestrated these meetings completely” with dissenting views “argued or shouted down.” James O’Nions, a former member of the SWP and member of the Steering Group, agrees with Podmore. For O’Nions, the Steering Group:

Was run a bit like any Socialist Workers Party conference. You had a member of the SWP central committee give a spiel about what we should think about a certain thing, and then there would be a discussion.  But there was no common attempt to find a solution. Rather the solution had already been agreed, and the session was about the officers of the Stop the War Coalition winning over everyone else to what they wanted and trying to get people to mobilise them around it. That is how the SWP operate basically.

Mike Marqusee, a veteran activist and press officer with STWC from 2001-3, goes further:

They [the SWP] used methods to isolate or exclude people or discredit people who were questioning their leadership that are not acceptable, including smearing people, misrepresenting them and whispering things about them that weren’t true. There was a fear of what they considered to be mavericks or loose cannons. What is an anti-war movement without mavericks and loose cannons? I mean please. The anti-Vietnam War movement wouldn’t have got anywhere if it had excluded those people because they were doing the whole show from the beginning.

Arguably the SWP’s domination of STWC led to organised direct action and civil disobedience not being pursued fully by the anti-war movement in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. What the interviews I conducted show was that after 15 February 2003 there was an attempt to have a serious debate in STWC about how to move the movement forward, and whether direct action should be pursued. However, according to Marqusee an open discussion “was not favoured by the SWP or a number of the other leaders of the Coalition.” Instead, according to Marqusee “they began labelling people who were saying they wanted a different [tactical] emphasis as divisive.” Not only did STWC not support groups looking to carry out organised direct action, according to Naughton they actually tried to undermine it. In her ‘Strictly Confidential’ CND memo she notes:

Incidents happened that were actively countering the work that CND was doing such as the office of the [Stop the War] Coalition telling callers that the CND [direct action] event[s] in Whitehall and the Fairford and Menwith demos were all cancelled when in fact all of these were well and truly going ahead. I have personal experience of this as I received the emails and phoned myself to check it out.

Interestingly, despite multiple defections from the SWP since 2003, there seems to be agreement between current and former senior members, in that they all see the role of the party in STWC as an unqualified success. For example, Alex Callinicos, a current member of the SWP’s Central Committee, recently amused himself by noting journalist Owen Jones agreed with him that the SWP played a vital role in STWC. Despite strongly challenging the SWP leadership over the party’s on-going rape scandal, influential former member Richard Seymour broadly agrees with Callinicos on STWC. Replying to journalist Laurie Penny’s assertion that the SWP “has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade” the Lenin’s Tomb blogger praised the SWP’s role in STWC, which he described as “perhaps the most high profile campaign of the last decade… which brought together Labour party members, CNDers, members of various far left groups, and – once again – SWP members in a leading role.” Finally there are German, Rees and Nineham and their supporters, who left the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire. As noted these people were the senior members of the SWP in STWC, and still effectively control STWC. The two books they produced on the anti-war movement – Chris Nineham’s ‘The People v Tony Blair’ and Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Mass Movement, the official STWC history of the anti-Iraq War movement written by Andrew Murray and Lindesay German – are both uncritically positive about SWP’s role in STWC. The latter book bears mentioning for another reason as well. One interviewee told me they considered this book a “joke” because it “looks like something from Soviet USSR – just like Lenin was airbrushed out of history by Stalin, key figures in the Stop the War movement were eroded out of history by the SWP.” Thus, except for one passing mention, the important role played by Marqusee who fell out with the leadership in 2003, is missing from the book.

Lastly, as far as I can tell*, there was no serious attempt to reflect critically on the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-Iraq War movement at the ‘Confronting War 10 Years On’ conference organised by STWC in London on 9 February 2013.

These considerations support the judgement of Marqusee, made after he parted company with STWC, that “the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practice. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them.”

I would like to reiterate I think the STWC leadership did a brilliant job in growing and leading the largest social movement in recent British history. However, we cannot escape the fact that while the anti-Iraq war movement had many important achievements, it was unable to exert enough pressure on the Government at the crucial time. We will never know, but it is worth noting the possibility that different organisational and tactical approaches could have led to a different political outcome regarding the Iraq war – a sobering thought.

Two on-going trends make the critical perspectives I present above all the more important. Firstly, the Government’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy means we desperately need an active and effective anti-war movement. And secondly, the same people who dominated – and continue to dominate – STWC are now leading the Coalition of Resistance, the group which seems to be taking a lead role in the movement against the Government’s austerity agenda. Surely, then, if we want to have the broadest, most effective anti-war and anti-cuts movements, we need to be aware of, and have an honest and open discussion about, the problems within STWC in the early 2000s?
*I didn’t attend the conference but have watched many of the videos of the talks from the day.

Interview with David Gee, co-founder of Forces Watch

Interview with David Gee, co-founder of Forces Watch
by Ian Sinclair
Camden Review
14 May 2015

Speaking to me on his houseboat moored on the canal near Angel, David Gee explains Britain has historically been a very militaristic society. However, he believes there has been a recent upsurge in militarism – the topic of his new book Spectacle, Reality, Resistance: Confronting a Culture of Militarism.

So what lies behind Armed Forces Day, Help for Heroes, the Troops to Teachers programme and the media scrum around the military funeral repatriations in Wootton Bassett?

The government presents these pro-military schemes as an attempt to encourage understanding and appreciation for the armed forces. Gee, the 42-year old co-founder of the Islington-based activist organisation Forces Watch, is unconvinced.

Citing opinion polls, he argues the general public “are becoming more sceptical of Britain’s wars in faraway places” such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “This has worried the armed forces, it’s worried the government and it’s worried the establishment”.

For example, in 2009 Chief of Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup declared that the “declining will” among the public to support the war in Afghanistan was more of a threat to British troops’ morale than the Taliban’s roadside bombs.

For Gee the initiatives above are a response to this change in public opinion, “intended to embed the armed forces and what they call military values into civilian culture so we are more supportive of the next war”. Indeed Stirrup himself also stated “Support for our service men and women is indivisible from support for this mission.”

“There has been in the media a lot of jingoistic support for what the armed forces are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq”, Gee says. And while he stresses the varied coverage of the BBC, he notes there has never been an example of a serving British soldier criticising a war on BBC television news. Strict rules ban soldiers saying anything that embarrasses the armed forces or the government. However, Gee also believes the BBC is a strong conservative force when it comes to the armed forces. “The BBC would not want to show that on the eve of a war soldiers have doubts about what they are being asked to do”, he says. “They are much more comfortable with saying ‘Soldiers are ready to go’ and ‘They’ve got a job to do’ and the rest of it”.

Turning to the future, Gee is keen to see significant change in British foreign policy. “Given the ghastly mess that the US and the UK have made of the Middle East, really creating the grounds for ISIS’s rise, the first thing I would like to see – and I don’t think I’m alone – is for the UK and the US to stop invading other countries, to stop thinking it is their job alone to solve problems abroad”.

And what about the armed forces? “In most states across Europe, across most of the world, armed forces are there to defend the territory of the realm in the event of the attack”, he says. Therefore, Gee hopes British armed forces will be used “much more explicitly for defensive purposes” in the future. As we end the interview he explains the government spends around £38 billion a year on its military “while saying we don’t have enough money to staff the NHS properly.”

“It is irrational”, he concludes.

Spectacle, reality, resistance: Confronting a culture of militarism is published by Forces Watch, priced £7. www.forceswatch.net.

Review: We Are Many documentary

Review: We Are Many. Directed by Amir Amirani
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2015

Four stars

15 February 2003 “was the single largest mobilisation of people in the history of humanity – bar none”, notes US analyst Phyllis Bennis in We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s brilliant new documentary about the global anti-war movement against the Iraq War.

Beginning with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Amirani uses tons of stirring archive news footage and original interviews with key figures like Tony Benn, Clare Short, Jesse Jackson and Noam Chomsky to tell the story of that momentous day. Around 30 million people marched in 789 major cities in over 72 countries across the world. A small rally even took place at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

With over a million people marching through London in the biggest protest in British history, in one sense the story will be familiar to many Morning Star readers. However, the film includes many important and interesting snippets of information.

US Air Force veteran Tim Goodrich blows apart the fiction that war was a last resort, noting that the US bombing of Iraq increased by over 500 percent in autumn 2002 “with the purpose of trying to goad Saddam Hussein into retaliating to give us a reason to go to war.” Elsewhere, Hans Blix, the Chief UN weapons inspector from 2000-3, amusingly explains the US and UK “were 100 percent sure that there were weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq though “they had zero percent of knowledge where they were.” And who knew Virgin boss Richard Branson had made an unsuccessful attempt to stop the war by flying Nelson Mandela to Baghdad on the eve of the invasion?

The film ends by exploring the long-lasting impact of 15 February 2003, including its role in shifting British public opinion so much that it made it impossible for the Coalition Government to go to war against Syria in August 2013. Amirani also tells the unknown story of how the global movement against the Iraq War inspired Egyptians to start protesting against President Hosni Mubarak. “That’s exactly when I was thinking, and others, that if we were triple that number, or four times that number, we could take down Mubarak”, notes one Egyptian activist about the 20 March 2003 protest that occurred in Tahrir Square against the war.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler commented that the global demonstrations were “reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Taking its name from the last line of Shelley’s 1819 poem Mask of Anarchy, We Are Many is itself a moving and timely reminder of the power of activism and protest – the perfect antidote to the despair created by the new Tory majority government.

Interview with Emily Johns about The World Is My Country

Interview with Emily Johns about The World Is My Country
by Ian Sinclair
Camden Review
March 2015

Since last year we have been in the midst of the centenary commemorations of the First World War.

Emily Johns, co-editor of the monthly newspaper Peace News, believes the often nationalistic tone of the public discourse has been a continuation of pro-military campaigns like Armed Forces Day and Help For Heroes. These have been “created as a response to people’s dissatisfaction with war and various governments commitment to going to war”, the 51-year old peace activist argues as she speaks to me in Peace News’s Caledonian Road office.

“I think the government has been putting a lot of effort into trying to counter that shift”, she says about the public opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “And where you put that concentration is cultural.”

Realising the commemorations would focus on the idea of military sacrifice, Johns teamed up with her Peace News colleague Gabriel Carlyle to create The World Is My Country, a 100-page alternative history of the First World War that celebrates the people and movements opposed to the conflict.

With Carlyle’s lively prose interspersed with ten posters painted by Johns, the booklet is populated by many fascinating characters and stories – from philosopher Bertrand Russell being banned from a third of Britain to the setting up of The Women’s Peace Crusade, a countrywide socialist movement pressing for peace negotiations. Johns’s favourite tale of resistance is of Tribunal, the newspaper of the No-Conscription Fellowship, an organisation which supported Conscientious Objectors. With the male members of the group in prison, the paper was run by women who had gained organisational experience as Suffragettes before the war. Under police surveillance, proof copies were secretly delivered by an old woman with a pram. “Whenever their printer ran out of type for producing their paper they would go round to the Daily Mail’s printers and borrow type from them”, Johns laughs. “The Daily Mail didn’t realise it!”

Taking a view I haven’t seen in any of the media coverage of the 1914-18 conflict, the booklet begins by noting “The very term ‘The First World War’ is highly ideological.” Johns explains: “It’s a way of eradicating the past several hundred years of a continuous world war which was being waged by the colonising European nations against the rest of the world. At the end of the nineteenth century European countries are having these brutal wars of suppression and colonisation against people of the Global South.”

What does she hope readers will take from the book? “Recognising that anti-war movements have been very, very strong for the past 100 years and that political action against militarism was deeply embedded in Britain and Europe and other parts of the world when the First World War started”, she replies. “It was a very serious objection to how the elites were governing and creating the world.”

Making links between the past and present, she also hopes the book will encourage people to expand their understanding of “honourable sacrifice” beyond the idea it “is solely about a military sacrifice”.

“A lot of Conscientious Objectors died in prison in Britain because they refused to go and fight people”, she notes. “That level of commitment and sacrifice is something to measure up to in a time now when we are engaged or about to engage in wars around the world.”

The World Is My Country is published by Peace News Press, priced £5. To purchase the book or to invite Emily or Gabriel to speak visit http://theworldismycountry.info/