Around 250 people crammed into a fantastic fringe meeting on “Britishness, racism and war”. The meeting was chaired by Baljeet Ghale, former President of the NUT, and addressed by Lindsey German from the Stop the War Coalition, Rose Gentle from Military Families Against the War and Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.
At a time when the government has announced £3 billion this year for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when Gordon Brown is discussing instituting a national day to celebrate “Britishness”, the meeting couldn’t have been better timed.
Baljeet Ghale began by reflecting on the fact that her speech at last year’s NUT conference denouncing the concept of “Britishness” led her to be labelled “the lefty boss of the NUT” in the media – something she was quite happy with! She asked exactly which British traditions Gordon Brown wanted to celebrate. “Is he talking about the appropriation of the wealth of other countries as a British tradition to uphold?” she asked.
Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq, said that his death “made me wonder why they were sent to war in the first place”. She told of how the Military Families campaign is fighting to hold Tony Blair to account and said, “We’ll keep fighting until our troops are out of Iraq.”
“A humanitarian catastrophe,” was how Lindsey German described the war and occupation of Iraq. The UN estimates that 4 million refugees have been created as a result of the invasion and there are an estimated 1 million dead. She noted the huge increase in the cost of war and asked “What would £3 billion do for education?”
Lindsey talked about the hypocrisy of the government’s demand for immigrants to “integrate”. She pointed out that it has been society that has not allowed people to integrate and that immigrants are the ones given the worst housing, jobs and education. “British troops have to rely on interpreters in Iraq because they can’t speak the language,” she said. “After five years isn’t it about time they started to learn Arabic?”
She linked the government’s talk of “Britishness” and demonisation of Muslims to the devastating failure of the war. “They’re in a rotten war that they can’t defend and so they attack the people who opposed it.”
Moazzam Begg paid tribute to the anti-war movement. He said that finding out that millions had marched in Britain against the war gave him “a glimmer of hope” while he was incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. He also questioned the nature of the “Britishness” that Gordon Brown speaks of so often.
Discussion in the meeting centred largely around military recruitment in schools and how to campaign against it. Teachers spoke of the “slick propaganda” that the army uses and how it is children with few opportunities that will be drawn to the army. Some teachers in the meeting had previously been in the army and they talked about how they felt they had been misled about they true nature of the army when they joined.
The other side of this, of course, is the fact that school students have been a crucial part of the stop the war movement. Building the Stop the War Coalition among teachers and students, many pointed out, is a key element in keeping the army out of schools.