An armed forces day message to unarmed civil rights protesters
Today the city I call home didn’t feel like home for me. The city centre of Glasgow, like towns and cities all over Scotland, played host to a massive display of weaponry, Union Jacks, and mass recruitment to the British military.
Today is armed forces day, the second time that an annual “celebration” has been held, allegedly to “Show Your Support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community.”
I want to make clear from the outset that I have no problem with charities collecting money to support soldiers and veterans. God knows, the way that people who leave the military are treated by the state, they need it. 20,000 veterans, traumatised and psychologically damaged from their experiences, are in prison, probation or parole. As many as a quarter of those sleeping rough in the UK may have been in the forces, and there are hundreds of veterans on the streets or in hostels. Then there’s the harder to measure damage the wars the British government has engaged in has caused to British troops: the mental health problems, the alcoholism, the divorces, the suicides.
But you wouldn’t have heard much about that today. In Glasgow, although the charities that pick up the pieces of these broken lives were round the fringes of George Square, the heart of the city centre was instead given over to a massive celebration of British imperialism, war and military recruitment.
There were scores of kids encouraged to play in armoured cars, behind faux machine gun emplacements or on an artillery piece, that was aimed at the city chambers. There was face painting and an inflatable assault course. And there were the sickening t shirts, with messages like “Paras Regiment: If you can hear them coming you’re already dead.” A sensitive message to display shortly after the report of the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
Armed forces day had its origins as a project of Gordon Brown’s when he was still the Chancellor back in 2006, and was originally called ‘Veterans Day’ before being rebranded last year. It was the watered down version of what he really wanted, which was a ‘Britain Day,’ a day of celebratory British nationalism that took place under the Union Jack. He said of the flag:
“All the United Kingdom should honour it, not ignore it. We should assert that the Union flag by definition is a flag for tolerance and inclusion.”
Get them young. . .
The problem with the historical narrative that Brown was promoting is that the Union flag isn’t a flag that represents tolerance or fair play. It’s rightly been called the Butcher’s Apron, because it was the flag of colonial oppressors in every region of the world, and today it is the flag that foreign armies of occupation fly as they subdue the peoples of Afghanistan (before that Iraq.) It’s the flag that represents the murderers of Bloody Sunday and the continued occupation of Ireland. It’s not my flag, and I refuse to celebrate it.
Knowing that his beloved day of British Imperial Patriotism would perhaps prove too controversial, Brown sneaked it through under the cover of a day to celebrate veterans. Because veterans are politically sacrosanct. No mainstream political figure would want to be seen as disrespecting British troops, and it opposing Britain day when it’s portrayed as a day for veterans would be much harder.
But socialists have a duty to be tell the truth, however unpopular it may be with some. The truth about the British army is that it has defended the interests of the British ruling class, one of the most ruthless and powerful groups of exploiters the world has ever known, all over the surface of our planet. The great Scots poet and socialist Hamish Henderson once said the British army had been only been progressive at two times in its history, 1640 (at the time of the English revolution) and 1940 (when it fought against German fascism), and both times it changed back to a force of reaction very soon after.
Over recent years SSY has campaigned actively outside army recruitment shops, and in schools, colleges and universities, against military recruitment. We have taken our message directly to the youth of Scotland that the military is not a career you should choose. It’s a job where you can be paid less than the minimum wage for risking your life; where the work you do can scar you mentally and physically for the rest of your life; and where ultimately you will be told to put your life on the line in conflicts that have absolutely nothing to do with defending your family and friends, and everything to protecting the interests of the economic elite that govern the British isles.
Scotland's youth: marching towards the next British war?
Today, I am ashamed to say that, as far as I’m aware, there was no organised challenge to the biggest army recruitment fair we’re likely to see all year. As an activist, I must take my share of the blame for that. I don’t know how many people signed up in Glasgow today, but you can bet that the government gained a lot more willing cannon fodder to send to the killing fields of Afghanistan. At one point in the square, I passed two women, and overheard a comment that chilled me: “He’s away to see how old you need to be to sign up.”
Another bizarre and incongruous feature of the day was the presence of SNP government ministers on the platforms. How a party that claims to be for Scottish independence can feel comfortable presiding over a gigantic celebration of British nationalism is beyond me, but there they were. Nicola Sturgeon was at the parade in Glasgow, and First Minister Alex Salmond at the one in Aberdeen. Presumably, along with keeping the monarchy as the overlord of an “independent” Scotland, the SNP would be happy to see Scottish troops continue to play their historic role as the frontline grunts of the Queen’s army as well.
Last year, a small group of Irish republicans attempted to challenge armed forces day in Glasgow. However, they quickly came under attack from a massive group of loyalists chanting “No Surrender” who’d been there for the parade. If there was anything similar today I wasn’t aware of it.
Next year we must do better. It’s been announced that Edinburgh is to play host to the main parade for the whole of the UK. This will once again be an excuse for a recruiting bonanza for the British military. We can’t allow this to go unchallenged, for the world to think this is completely a good thing and that no one has a problem with it.
But for any kind of counter protest to be effective, and safe for those taking part (not to mention preventing everyone involved from being arrested en masse) it will require mass numbers. We need to start getting organised now. I intend to raise the issue at SSY conference next week, and through the SSP as well. Let’s try and bring together a broad umbrella of everyone who isn’t happy at Scotland’s capital being used as a recruiting ground and a celebration of the British military. Calling all pacifists, anti militarists, anti war campaigners, Irish republicans, Scottish republicans, solidarity campaigners with nations devastated by British imperialism, anarchists, socialists and general dissenters: let’s not let them get away with this.
Scottish, not British!
(Since 1945, the British military has been at war in India, Palestine, Malaya, Korea, Suez, Kenya, Cyprus, Borneo, Vietnam, Yemen, Oman, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost all these wars were about preventing peoples from ruling themselves when it conflicted with British Imperial interests.)