At 80 the PPU is in good shape, with more staff and more work planned than for many years - the end of war is still some way off - and so our work continues.
We would welcome your support and one way you can do this is to become a Council member and help oversee the PPU's work and developments. PPU Council meets 3-4 times a year in London (usually an afternoon meeting on days that suit its members). Council members are responsible for staff, fundraising and financial matters as well as setting direction for the PPU's future work. Council reports on its work at AGMs. The present Council wishes to add to its number.
If you are interested in helping with this important and responsible work please let us know your interest by writing to Jan Melichar telling us something about the ways you might be able to contribute to the Council’s work. We will then be able to send you more detailed information.
Lucy Beck writes | Albert Beale writes | Bill Hetherington writes
Lucy Beck writes.
2015 has been a busy year for the PPU staff, and a little bit for PPU Council members too! Peace work isn’t just about visible demonstrations or direct action, but involves detailed painstaking work behind the scenes. I was thinking about what I had done as a PPU Council member this year, and realised that I was looking at it back to front - I should really write about what I gain as a PPU Council member. I get to meet the staff regularly, to hear about the work they are doing; I meet other PPU members at our events and conferences; I have the chance to think about and plan the future of the PPU; I meet and work with other friendly peace groups through the First World War Peace Forum which the PPU started some years ago; I learn about the lives of the conscientious objectors from that war through the work for our website; I am given access to books about the women who supported the conscientious objectors and have the privilege of doing research into their stories. And of course there are always meetings to attend, conferences to go to, job applications and fundraising submissions to be drafted, proof-reading, checking proposed publications written by the staff, packing poppies and other more routine work as required, which keeps me active in my ‘retirement’.
Attending the AGM and conference brought me up to date with developments around militarism in education and in the country, which has provided fresh stimulation for the PPU to take this issue forward in a more active way than we have done for many years. And I was reminded once again of the seriousness of the issues while in a shop last week - I heard someone saying ‘that is scary’ and saw a child with a toy hand grenade, which their mother was happily buying for them. This may seem trivial while wars rage on, Parliament decides to send bombs into Syria, the Trident renewal debate grows nearer, and the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia lead to our weapons being used to kill people in Yemen. But that mother’s purchase of a toy hand grenade is a symbol of the unthinking acceptance of violence in this society. Our original Campaign against Militarism in the 1980s began with a soap hand grenade spotted in a shop. We have a long way to go and need all the help we can get!
2016 is a important year of WW1 anniversaries, including the Battle of the Somme, and for the peace movement, the introduction of conscription in 1916 and the very first right of conscientious objection to military service established in the UK after the campaigning of our predecessors 100 years ago. I hope you will help locally and nationally to take the PPU’s work forward in whatever way you can.
Albert Beale writes.
One of the voluntary jobs I do for the PPU - alongside being a member of the Council which oversees the organisation's work - is to take on much of the PPU's interaction with the media.
There isn't always time to initiate contact with the press, radio and television - and even when we do, it doesn't always result in any coverage. But luckily, they often come to us! Although journalists sometimes want "a militant pacifist" to give a distinct line on all sorts of issues of war and peace, much of their interest in what the PPU has to say centres on Remembrance and white poppies. In some years, we get as much press interest in the few weeks surrounding Remembrance as we do in the rest of the year put together.
Requests sometimes come from journalists we haven't dealt with before (but who've done their homework!), and at other times I or the PPU office will get a call from someone we already know, who's aware of the value and interest - or at least the controversy value - of what we have to say. There is sometimes interest from print and on-line publications, and from television, but the most frequent interest is from radio stations.
Our radio coverage is most commonly on local stations (they have a lot of airtime to fill!), but also on national networks from time to time. The majority of news or discussion programmes we're invited to take part in are on BBC channels, but some speech-based commercial channels also show an interest, as do some community and student broadcasters.
This year's Remembrance coverage was reasonably typical: one moment I might be running round London from studio to studio, taking part in three live radio programmes in a day ... and then nothing for a couple of days. The ones which are probably most useful for the PPU in terms of getting our message across - and the ones I tend to enjoy most - are the longer discussion programmes, where I get to go head to head with some pro-military type for half an hour or so. Although journalists interviewing me are rarely particularly sympathetic to a pacifist worldview, their challenges are at least (mostly) fairly polite; but some of the "opponents" I end up in a studio with seem to think that pacifism is inherently barmy, and don't hold back from saying so.
I think a reason that we get increasing amounts of press interest around Remembrance is precisely because the government and the military are more and more using the emotions around Remembrance as a way to increase support for (and recruitment to) the forces: a perspective which refuses to accept that the armed forces should have any role at all in the world is seen as especially objectionable, even offensive, in that context.
An example of this is a Radio 5 programme I was on one Remembrance weekend evening a few years ago. I spent half an hour refusing to discuss the relative de-)merits of specific military activity, and the degree to which we should sympathise with the military's suffering; rather, I made it clear that from a pacifist perspective we ruled out resort to armed force completely, and that the military being commemorated (precisely because they'd chosen to take up arms) were not the main victims of the horrors of war, but the main cause of those horrors. One of the BBC researchers told me afterwards that I'd come close to breaking the record for the number of "string 'im up" hate calls ever generated by a speaker on their weekend evening discussions.
Bill Hetherington writes.
Ever since the 1688 Bill of Rights, keeping a standing army in Britain has been unlawful unless sanctioned by Parliament. For centuries Parliament passed an annual Army Act to keep the Army, but since mid-20th century this has been reduced to every five years (with intervening Statutory Instruments), and the Navy and Air Force have been incorporated into the system.
For Armed Forces Bills a House of Commons Select Committee receives evidence from interested organisations as to particular aspects of the Armed Forces, and suggested improvements. From 2001 the PPU has taken part, alongside organisations such as Child Soldiers International (previously, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers), Forces Watch and At Ease. Such focus on the British armed forces at present coincides with renewed efforts by the PPU and others to counter militarism in Britain generally. Evidence is published as part of the Select Committee’s Report, a Parliamentary paper permanently available on record, establishing the PPU as a responsible body with evidence-based argument.
In the PPU’s submission for the 2016 Bill, I focussed on two issues - conscientious objection and under-age recruitment.
From WW1 the question has arisen of people volunteering for the armed forces, but after a time coming to realise that they are involved in activity contrary to their conscientious scruples and seeking a way out – with the difficulty that armed forces contracts are not subject to simple and immediate resigning. In WW1 Max Plowman was court-martialled for trying to resign his officer commission, but went on to become the first General Secretary of the PPU. In WW2 there were more such men, together with others who originally accepted call-up, but developed a conscientious objection, and eventually the system for conscientious objectors was adapted to cover them. After abolition of conscription in 1963 a version of that adaptation has remained for regular members of the armed forces, but there are problems.
One is that, unlike conscientious objection to conscription 1916-19 and 1939-63, it is not written in law but a non-statutory concession. It is little known, and not easily found within differing administrative procedures of the three armed forces.
Another problem is that applications for discharge on conscience grounds are very few, so that experience in dealing with such cases never develops within the armed forces or within the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors, a lay body chaired by a lawyer set up to hear appeals from applicants after rejection as conscientious objectors at initial application within the navy, army or air force hierarchy. Also, it is little understood that in Britain so-called “political” grounds for objection have been eligible for consideration on the same terms as religious, moral or humanitarian grounds. Recommendations for improvement have been urged.
Britain has a long, and, we argue, dishonourable, history of recruiting boys, and now girls, as soon as they are able to leave school, originally at 14, then 15, and now 16. It is not simply a matter of accepting those especially keen at that age, but a calculated policy of deliberately focussing on that age for recruitment, on the principle that if they are not “caught” (that is the actual word used) then, they might go on to further education, apprenticeships or whatever and be lost to the armed forces, whose relentless “need” is valued above the personal development and education of young people.
The Army, which recruits far more people (adults and youngsters) than the other two forces together, exacerbates the problem by requiring under-18s to sign up to a longer contract than adults.
These policies have been repeatedly condemned by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, the Duty of Care Report of the Commons Select Committee on Defence, and even past Select Committees on Armed Forces Bills.
The PPU submission draws attention to all these reports and urges an immediate end to the UK’s pariah status as the only country in Europe still recruiting at age 16.