Sunday, 28 September 2014

ISIS to bomb or not to bomb

So Parliament has voted in support of limited military action against ISIS in Iraq. And it has done so with a thumping majority and general public support. Only 43 MPs opposed the proposal. So it is fair to say that there are few dissenting voices. This is surprising because it appears to be extremely dangerous and poorly considered.

There is no doubt that ISIS is bad. They are a violent, brutal and oppressive group who are intent on removing any opposition without mercy or humanity. It sickens us when we see thousands or ordinary people fleeing for their lives. We reel with horror at the thought of their terrifying videos of the execution of western hostages. Of course ISIS is not only brutal regime that cuts heads off. Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people earlier this year for offences including sorcery and including one ‘criminal’ with mental health issues –

These killings get less exposure because the ones they kill are not so close to us. This doesn’t in any way justify ISIS, but there is no great clamour to bomb Saudi Arabia because are our friends.

Buy my main concern is that there is no clarity at all about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It changes by the day. Not long ago we supported anyone who opposed the Assad regime in Syria, which included ISIS. Now we are bombing the same group. The whole dilemma was brilliantly summed up in a recent letter to the Daily Mail –

There seems to be such a desperate need to do something, to bomb someone that we just have to wade in regardless.

We cannot forget that the West has some responsibility for this whole mess. We invaded Iraq in 2003, in the face of huge opposition, to eradicate weapons of mass destruction which did not exist. However brutal Saddam Hussein was, the outcome of our intervention has been nothing short of a disaster. In fact this seems to have been a feature of western interventions in a region so rich in those resources that we need to maintain our lifestyles.

Many people support this military action because ISIS persecutes Christians. And we should be shocked by the behaviour of any group that kills and oppresses others purely because of their beliefs. There are in fact many groups who are in danger because of this violent group –

Persecution of anyone because of their beliefs is wrong. It is no more wrong just because it is directed at members of our particular group. Would there be the same public support if the horror of ISIS was limited to the Yazidis?

The Christian way should always be one of peace and reconciliation. I cannot think of any example where Jesus advocated military action. I would not go as far as to say that war is never an option. But on this occasion it seems that we are enthusiastically supporting it because ‘something’ has to be done. But the outcome is likely to be massive aggravation, radicalisation of many young Muslims and a never ending spiral of violence in a volatile region.

So for all of these reasons I am well and truly behind the small minority in parliament who voted no.


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pride - a movie not to be missed!

It is fair to say that the 1980s were not easy years for anybody concerned with social justice. This was the decade of riots in Brixton and Liverpool and of the Labour Party being torn apart. It was also the decade of the miners’ strike of 1984 – 1985 as hard pressed communities fought against Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures. For anyone interested in the background of that strike there was an excellent summary in the New Statesman Magazine earlier this year –

Those communities were eventually worn down, most deep mines were closed and almost 150,000 jobs were lost.

This is the back cloth for Pride, a film written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus. It is the true story of an unlikely alliance between a group of Lesbian and Gay activists and a small mining village in the welsh valleys. The L and G group led by Mark Ashton see a synergy between the oppression experienced by them on a daily basis and the way that the striking miners were treated by the establishment. They decide to help and go on to establish Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and adopt the small mining village of Dulais. The group eventually became one of the biggest contributors to the miners’ cause. It was not an easy alliance. A small mining village in the 1980s was certainly not ready to welcome the LGSM. One local bigot contributes to a press story about ‘pits and perverts’. The phrase is brilliantly stolen by the group as they put on the Pits and Perverts Benefit Concert headlined by Bronski Beat, a real event from December 1984.

The drama and the humour of the film develop as two very different communities begin to work together for a common cause. The script is sharp and witty, particularly when the middle aged welsh women grill the LG group about their lifestyles –

‘Is it true that lesbians are….you know…all vegetarians?’

And to two gay men –

‘If you live together as husband and wife which one…..does the shopping?’

There are many sub plots within the groups as they get to know and accept each other. It is a wonderful film and one which should be seen by anyone who wants to understand how oppressed people feel and live; and laugh and sing! There are great performances throughout but particularly from Ben Schnetzer as Mark, Faye Marsay as Steph and also from Bill Night and the ever brilliant Imelda Staunton. 

In one of my earlier blogs I talked of the need to move away from talking of equal rights as an issue. I said that we needed to see the real people behind the discussion. 

How timely therefore that this film comes along and demonstrates the humanity of a group who were marginalised as 'perverts' but showed a humanity way beyond their peers.

Alongside the humour and the great 80s music is the tragic story of Mark Ashton. He is the young gay communist who inspires and leads the group and who sadly died in 1987 from AIDS aged just 26. He is an unsung hero of his age who merits more attention than he has been given. On his death Jimmy Summerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards penned a moving tribute – For a Friend –

If you see no other film this autumn please go and see Pride. It is a great night’s entertainment and will change many people’s ideas of the LGBT community. For many it will also shed a new light on the miners’ struggle in the 80s.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dear Mr Newmark - I cannot knit but I have a voice!

Brooks Newmark is certainly not the first politician to come out with a comment which is so alarmingly of touch with reality, that it belongs in science fiction. He won’t be the last. But his recent comments about the role of charities must justify some award, such as honorary citizenship of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Brooks who? He is the recently appointed Minister for Civil Society. He has been in the news this week for saying that charities should keep out of the realm of politics. In one sentence he has managed to insult the entire voluntary sector by saying that charities should be ‘sticking to their knitting’. The comment come as politicians discuss the Lobbying Act which could restrict the ability of charities to lobby the government.

It is easy to dismiss this as the harmless rant of a patronising idiot. But he has a senior political position and what he says is noticed.

He clearly has no idea at all of what is done by charities and voluntary workers. I am involved in two charities. The one in which I play an active role is the North West Legal Support Trust (NWLST). This Trust raises funds and makes grants to organisations which provide free legal advice to those in need. The fact that this trust exists at all is a political issue. Politicians have taken it upon themselves to virtually wipe out Legal Aid in the UK. At a time when more and more people are needing advice for debt, family breakdown and benefits, they have had the gateway to advice shut firmly in their faces. The government pushed through the cuts in the face of a huge campaign. The story of that struggle can be found in Patrick Torsney’s book Saving Justice –

That was, and still is, a political struggle. Ensuring that the citizens of our country have access to our country’s justice system regardless of wealth is ultimately a matter of politics. Anyone who cares about justice for all has to fight attempts to remove people's rights. But in the meantime, those in need cannot be turned away and so it falls to charities to try and fill the gap. Someone needs to tell Mr. Newmark that these are serious, cutting edge issues.

For me this is also a Christian imperative. Jesus said that as we feed the hungry, welcome outsiders, visit the sick, clothe the naked we are feeding, welcoming, visiting and clothing him. For me, this includes campaigning on behalf of those who have nothing. That means wading into political arguments. It certainly does not involve knitting.

The same goes for food banks. I have written on this before –

In the UK, in 2014 people should not have to rely on charitable hand outs to get a meal on their table. This again is a political issue. The need has come about as a result of the actions of ministers. The need can be resolved by politicians. Those who work tirelessly to meet the ever growing need are the ones who have earned the right to be heard. It is an affront almost beyond words to say that they should stay at home and do the knitting.

In one sense he should be right. Volunteer workers should not have to involve themselves. It should be the role of the state to look after those in greatest need. But until this happens the burden will fall on charities, churches and voluntary groups.

David Cameron has talked about a Big Society in which we all care for those in need –

But he cannot say this and at the same time permit ministers to dismiss the concerns of those charities who are trying to do just that, when nobody else will.

Mr Newman may think that he can silence people by legislation, removing funds and insults. But none of that will take away the need. And while that need exists we will not go away as easily as he hopes!

End of serious rant.