Leeds hears Tony Benn call for peace

Despite working at Leeds Civil Hall for five years of my career, last night was the first time I can recall being in the wonderful Council Chamber. I was there to hear Tony Benn address around a hundred supporters of the Stop the War Coalition movement. Tony Benn in familiar pose outside Leeds Civic HallI was lucky enough to attend a talk by Benn at Leeds University in the early 1990s, and as a long time admirer of his, I was looking forward to hearing him speak in person again. The main purpose of the meeting was to rally support for a demonstration in Manchester on Saturday to coincide with the Labour Party Conference. However it was also a chance for key speakers to reaffirm the coalition’s beliefs and make a strong case for opposing war and aggression.

The first speaker was co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition, John Rees who commenced with an analysis of the current situation in Georgia, finishing with a rousing call to join either the Coalition or CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and follow that up with attendance at Saturday’s demonstration. Within his speech Rees suggested that American support of Georgia was unsurprising given Georgia had the third largest number of troops in Iraq, mainly guarding the Green Zone in Baghdad. Rees attacked what he called America’s belief that it has the right to carry out a pre-emptive first strike, including invasion, and called on the British Government to break its alliance with George W Bush and the Neo-Cons, indeed stating what might follow Bush had the potential to be even worse. It was frightening and a disgrace that a man like McCain could sing a song “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” and might be the next President of the USA. McCain should not be allowed to run a local council let alone one of the most powerful countries in the world, he added.

The second speaker was CND’s National Chair Kate Hudson. Her main point was the worrying expansion of NATO and how it has contributed to destabilising many regions across the world, ultimately increasing the likelihood of conflict. Hudson argued that over the past decade the USA have been pushing forward both economically and militarily into a wider area across the world, with oil and energy being common strands in this expansion. She added that NATO was set up as a defensive organisation during the Cold War and should have been disbanded along with the Warsaw Pact in 1991. However instead it has expanded over the last 15 years and changed its mission statement from being defensive to an actively involved organisation (with many thousands of troops in Afghanistan), and is worryingly a nuclear armed alliance with a first strike policy. In March 1999, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were all admitted to full membership. Ten days later they found themselves at war with their neighbour Yugoslavia, as part of NATO’s illegal bombing campaign. Stop the War Coalition meeeting Leeds Civic Hall 15th Sept 08But the change at that time was not limited to NATO expansion. At NATO’s fiftieth anniversary conference in Washington in April 1999, a new ‘Strategic Concept’, was adopted. This moved beyond NATO’s previous defensive role to include ‘out of area’, in other words offensive operations. The geographical area for action was now defined as the entire Eurasian landmass. In March 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to NATO, not only former Warsaw Pact members, but also former Soviet republics. This has contributed to international tension as Russia sees itself being surrounded by US and NATO bases, including in the Balkans, the Middle East and central Asia. It was little wonder Russia feels threatened. NATO’s ongoing expansion into former Soviet republics, and its ‘out of area operations’, particularly in Afghanistan, are helping make the world a more dangerous place.

Hudson went on to put forward that as a member of NATO Britain finds it is dictated to when it comes to defence policy. The USA have pressed on with the Missile Defence System and bases like Fylingdales and Menwith Hill in Yorkshire are part of that system. This gives the USA first strike capacity without fear of retaliation, and increases the likelihood of Britain being a target. Hudson finished with a summary of CND’s campaigns, opposing further NATO expansion, and missile defence. The organisation was campaigning hard in the Czech Republic and Poland where the public were strongly against these weapons being based in their countries. The recent agreement to place US Missile Defence interceptor missiles in Poland is a destabilising move that will have profound effects for years to come. The positioning of US missiles less than 120 miles from the nearest Russian territory has brought a strong response from Moscow, which feels itself to be the target of the US system. Despite strong opposition amongst the Czech public, their government has agreed to host a US radar station, but hopefully public pressure may still scupper the deal. The treaty must be ratified by the Czech Parliament which is evenly split on the issue. The opposition of 70% of the public may yet prevent its passage in October, but if it goes ahead the destabilisation and damage to international relations will be enormous. Hudson’s final words were: “Say no to warmongering policies, yes to peace”, and she urged us all take that message to the Government at the demonstration in Manchester.

Four minutes of Tony Benn’s speech at Leeds Civic Hall 15/09/08

The final speaker was the main draw Tony Benn. His initial thrust was about the dangers of justifying aggression and war on the grounds of religious belief systems and the lies of government. Benn argued that the basic tenet of all the world’s religions was peace, and loving thy neighbour was a worthy starting point. Self defence was acceptable Benn claimed, which is why he joined the Home Guard in his teens to fight the threat of Nazi Germany, but outward aggression was not. Benn said we needed to understand the nature of empires, essentially they have been the forceful action of strong nations to take the resources of the weak. Tony Benn addresses Leeds Council Chamber crowdHe went on to say that if we can understand what is going on, potentially difficult when a largely right wing media fails to report it, then we are in a stronger position to counter moves of aggression. The Stop the War Coalition was therefore an educational movement as much as anything else, to inform the public of the truth and mobilise people to protest against undemocratic actions of the political elite. Benn feared the potential election of McCain as US President, particularly as his running mate Sarah Palin has stated she would be ready to go to war with Russia, something that might have catastrophic results. He added that we must remember that 135 million people died as a result of two world wars in the last century.

Benn went on to criticise the use of nuclear weapons. He said that even the British military do not like them, in the main wars are fought on the ground, and personnel lack the basic equipment in conflict and decent living conditions back home because military expenditure was tipped towards hardware. In recent conflicts it has been the guerilla who has had the upper hand, not the nuclear force as the weapons are too horrific to consider using. Indeed the Royal Navy go around in their nuclear submarines with weapons they cannot deploy because America has to switch them on before use.

Benn won loud applause when he said he said the United Kingdom should be non-aligned with any Tony Benn makes his pointparticular force like the USA but have a strong relationship with the United Nations. He went on to say we must recognise that empires in decline are very dangerous, and he had serious fears of the future bombing of Iran and Pakistan. There had to be a peaceful means of settling international disputes and Benn claimed we were the first generation with the know how, technology, and money to end conflict. Benn ended his speech saying that the moral purpose was behind the Stop the War movement because across the world there were people in need of shelter, food, aid and yet billions had been wasted on war in Iraq.

An open floor session commenced after the speeches allowing the audience to make observations, comments and pose questions to the speakers. One audience member requested an update on CND’s opposition to the Trident replacement, given the UK Government planned to spend £76 billion on it money that could be better use on housing, jobs, hospitals and public services. Kate Hudson replied that the proposal would be back in Parliament in 2009 for debate and it was vital for us all to keep the pressure on leading up to and during that time. There was considerable discussion about the current recruitment drive in the British armed forces, and the tactics used to attract not only university students, but younger children. Fifty percent of officers were recruited on university campuses, one person claimed, while another added that the Army were offering grants to students to pay for courses. More worrying was the military’s involvement in “outward bound” school trips, and school visits to offer “hope” to working class kids with little prospect of employment. A teacher spoke of her investigations into companies wishing to take over the trust school she worked for. One company, Bearing Point, had been involved in rebuilding programmes wherever the USA had bombed, while another Jacobs Engineering, had the contract to maintain Aldermaston, the headquarters of the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Tony Benn commented that recent figures show 1 in 8 people incarcerated in Britain’s prisons are former military personnel. There was a clear worry that experiencing conflict, seeing people blown up, and witnessing horrific civilian casualties, were sure to leave a permanent scar, and we had to show there was hope and alternatives for young people considering joining the armed forces. Benn also said it was worth remembering that until the USA entered World War Two, the UK’s main allies were Russia and Serbia, and 25 million Russians died fighting fascism as a result. He added we have seen that global economic crises have led to racism and war in the past, and we needed to offer hope from the Left of politics to counter the rise of the extreme Right which always looked to gain popularity by building on people’s fears and disillusionment. He urged us to write to our Member of Parliament to ask them to oppose war. Unfortunately Parliament had become part of the establishment rather than being the representative of the people, and as the elected part of the state is much smaller than the unelected part, people had little say over who controlled the things that affect their lives.

Tony Benn gives his views on Barack Obama during questions

The meeting closed with the evocative use of a large banner unravelled to show the huge sums of money spent on the war in Iraq, running into trillions. It is often argued by governments that there is not enough money to solve the world’s problems. However a sobering thought is that the world’s annual arms expenditure is seventeen times the amount needed to feed every hungry person in the world. As Tony Benn has said, if we can find money to kill people surely we can find money to help people.

Other Links
CND briefing on NATO
Tony Benn in excellent form in Michael Moore’s “Sicko”

1 Response to “Leeds hears Tony Benn call for peace”

  1. 1 Feyther

    All good stuff son !!!!

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