Remembrance Sunday 2013. Tavistock Square London

Peace Pledge Union Peaceowrks Peace Passage London N7 0BT


I suppose I am here to speak this morning because I am known as somebody who criticizes nationalism. In particular I’ve argued that nationalism and racism are linked especially in this country because—rather than all human life being valued the same, our lives become more precious more important than the lives of others. That discrepancy most readily apparent when nations are at war. It is important for our understanding of Human Rights and their limits.

For a long time Britain’s combination of racism and nationalism meant that people like me had our belonging challenged. We were told continually to go back to our own countries.

But I had nowhere to go back to. I was born in London and grew up in the shadow cast by world war 2. We played on the bombsites and in the old shelters. We listened, petrified, when the old air-raid sirens opened up—not knowing if it was a test or the end of the world.

We lacked the concept of post-trauma which helped to explain why some of our teachers gibbered and shook and why others boasted of their scars and talked incessantly about the good wars they had had.

Paul Gilroy at Remembrance Day event, London

Certainly, my sense of the value of peace was determined by those experiences. It was enhanced by the fact that my broken great uncle was a survivor of ww1 and above all by the fact that my father had been a conscientious objector—something that even in the 1960s was sometimes a source of embarrassment and hostility.

At that time, the shadows of the 39-45 war were so deep that, knowing nothing about Cyprus, Aden and Malaya to say nothing about Ireland we thought we were at peace. Our idea of peace was an effect—an inversion if you like—of what we understood about the war. It was imagined only as war’s opposite—its negation.

I think that idea of peace isn’t much help these days.

The idea of a clear distinction between being at war and being in peacetime has faded away. War is now endless, apparently permanent.

Peace is found at the grave of your enemies—the export of war to distant unseen places. Indeed, as Orwell feared, war is peace. It becomes peace when it can be justified by the idea that it makes us secure and protects our freedoms even while that very security and the securitocracy that creates it, chip away at those freedoms and a tidal wave of propaganda—PR—is deployed to modify the meaning of being English, being British.

When 30 years ago, I wrote a book called Ain’t no Black in The Union Jack, I put an image of a be-medalled, black ex-serviceman at the Cenotaph on the cover because I thought that drawing attention to the sacrifice of colonial and commonwealth soldiers could be used as a kind of leverage: to make citizenship rights deeper and to compel recognition of our presence, our belonging. The time for that is also passed.

The belligerent excesses of the nationalist PR machine are evident all around. Building up to the commemoration of ww1 which we’re told is going to be a celebration of Britishness and national values. This is what the Americans—who are increasingly influential in our government’s view of how we should relate to what they have started to call “The Military”—would describe as a “Pep Rally”.

This year the most offensive and insidious aspect of this has been the Royal British Legion targeting children, dressing them up in T shirts that say things like “Future soldier”—I say this as somebody who walked proudly in remembrance day parades wearing my scout’s uniform and meditating on the horror and futility of war rather than panting for a chance to join in one.

The grotesquery continues in the idea that the arms trade will lever this country out of recession. Rolls-Royce, Serco, BAE, EADS, Thales, Atkins, Cobham, JCB, Strongfield Technologies, MBDA, Ultra Electronics involved in selling weapons and related technology to new economies like Brazil and India, to the Gulf states and to the important markets for killing and torture equipment in places like Kazakhstan.

In these new circumstances, being for peace requires more than an abstract repugnance towards the futility of war. It requires an active opposition to the ways in which our country is being reconstituted as a warfare rather than a welfare state.

Whichever government functionary has been dispatched to keep an eye on us here today, will no doubt produce a report that says this square was all but empty this morning. They’ll say that there is nothing to worry about here. That the mass movement against the wars of a decade ago is over and perhaps that it is now nothing to be concerned about because it represented a new sort of phenomenon in politics in that it could appear to be enormous and then, a few moments later, disappear entirely.

The PR operation announces “lest we forget” but requires that national History must be clean and the impossible quest for that clean history involves forgetting and filtering—patterned amnesia. We forget Marine A’s crimes of last week or the torture and abuse of prisoners in the Kenyan emergency.
But war and its recurrence—often in the same old colonial places--means that a clean story will never be secured.

The the line between loving our hero soldiers even if we loathe what the government asks them to do, is, in the medium term, unsustainable.

War can never be a friction free, costless, playful activity like the computer game that the propaganda machine requires it to be.

Those discrepancies run deep in Britain. They’re older than the C20 opposition to warfare’s industrialisation.They go back into the ancient stories and songs of impressment and forced military labour.

Like the history of feminist resitance to war that Jane Grant will speak about in a moment, that dissenting seam in England’s national sensibility is inviting us to become reacquainted with it. That is what must not be forgotten.