If I'd had any doubts about the real nature of Armed Forces Day, they would have been dispelled yesterday morning as I watched Sky News while eating breakfast. The Prime Minister had said that he wants the public to back the armed forces “more loudly and more proudly”, and Sky News certainly fell into line. Repeated pictures of marching troops were interspersed with interviews with politicians and generals telling us what a great job they do. Unlike last year, when Sky News briefly interviewed me about my objections to Armed Forces Day, there was not even a pretence of balance in yesterday's coverage. No dissenting voices were heard.
One of the few advantages of this blatant display was that the real purpose of the Day became clearer and at one point, was stated explicitly. A military spokesperson flashed onto the screen to tell us that one of the purposes of the Day was to help the British public to understand why British troops are in Afghanistan.
I recognise, of course, that there are arguments in favour of keeping UK armed forces in Afghanistan. Those in favour of the war have every right to argue their position in the media, which should also give coverage to those opposed to it. But what we had yesterday was a whole day of publicly funded events that – by the army's own admission – was geared to justifying a particular political position. David Cameron himself added to this aim by choosing the eve of Armed Forces Day to say that he wants the troops out of Afghanistan within five years. This was presumably intended to increase support for the war, although I suspect that five years seems an alarmingly long time to a good many voters.
Yet it is those of us who criticise Armed Forces Day who are accused of trying to “politicise” it. The Day's aims are already clearly political. Of course, most of the rhetoric is political in a fairly subtle way. Cameron's claim that the armed forces are at the “centre” of British life implies a belief that armed forces is not only necessary but honourable – and that it is a central plank of the way Britain approaches the world.
In reality, it does not seem to be central to the views of the most of the British public. Recent polls show three-quarters of UK adults supporting military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the majority opposing the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. But the leadership of all three leading political parties disagrees with the majority of the public on both these issues. Both this government and the one before it have chosen to put vastly more money into warfare and preparation for warfare than they have into nonviolent forms of conflict resolution.
If politicians think that the armed forces do not receive enough public recognition, they should think about how little attention is given to the unarmed forces, who go into situations of violent conflict without carrying weapons. They include aid workers, human rights monitors and representatives of such excellent organisations as Responding to Conflict (RTC), who train people around the world in skills such as mediation and conflict transformation.
I have several friends who have worked as Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) in Palestine and Israel. Under a scheme operated by the World Council of Churches, they spend several months at a time living in the Middle East, providing a protective presence to local communities and monitoring both the maintenance and abuse of human rights. Some accompany Palestinian children to school when they have been threatened with violence by colonial settlers. Others observe checkpoints to try to counter some of the worst excesses of occupation. These people risk their own lives and health in the service of peace and justice, yet they do not return to homecoming parades or national days. As with those who do similar work for organisations such as Peace Brigades International and Christian Peacemaker Teams, their service goes largely unrecognised by British society.
Investment in the unarmed forces would not only be more ethical and more effective than investment in violence – it would also be cheaper. Last week, George Osborne told us that we must all cope with swingeing cuts to pubic services, benefit reductions and a large tax rise. He then told us that he had not raised tax – as if the Chancellor had forgotten what the “T” stands for in “VAT”. He presumably means income tax, an increase in which would at least have preferable to a VAT rise, which will hit the poorest the hardest, as it is not paid in proportion to income.
Only a few hours after Osborne introduced his budget, Defence Minister Nick Harvey stood in the Commons to tell MPs that the government would not be considering any alternatives to Trident renewal – only examining details of the existing scheme to ensure “value for money”. Early estimates of the cost of Trident renewal put the price at around £15bn or £20bn. More recent estimates place it closer to £100bn.
When he was the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesperson last year, Harvey described Trident as a “cold war relic” with no relevance to the “security threats of today or tomorrow”. Now he will vote in favour of spending billions on Trident renewal while increasing VAT and freezing child benefit.
It is a satirical accident of timing that allowed the budget to fall in the same week as Armed Forces Day. On neither day did any minister mention that the war in Afghanistan is costing around £4bn per year. Cameron and his allies may hope that Armed Forces Day has increased support for the war, but many people are likely to see through this, given that it came only days after repeated comments from ministers about the need for massive cuts. What sort of British democracy does Cameron think armed forces are fighting for, when a government can attack pensions and benefits while spending billions on military adventures that the public opposes?