Where Are The Peacemakers?

Craig Dalzell

Rishi Sunak has finally, though sooner than expected, called a General Election and has launched his campaign promising to conscript teenagers into the military (or force them to do unpaid labour instead). Rather than gear up for yet another round of war, where are the promises to promote peace both at home and abroad?

I’m writing this from a position of relative privilege, of course. I’m more than two decades past being an 18 year old potential conscript and chronic injuries likely severely limit my usefulness on the front line these days. I’m also not the target voter for the policy (who is also not an 18 year old potential conscript but a somewhat older core-Conservative voter as this policy is an attempt to segment the population on age groups in precisely the way Bill Johnston and I warned against in our book on ageism in politics).

There are many reasons to object to the policy. Forced labour – especially unpaid, as the “civilian option” will be – is about as far from the ideals of a liberal democracy as it can get. Channelling public money from investment in education, environment and the social security of the nation into the military is, from an economic point of view, objectively one of the worst forms of investment spending possible (even without accounting for…let’s call it the “negative externality costs” of what happens when that military spending results in destruction of someone else’s nation, economy and teenage soldiers). And for many, it simply will not be practical to pause or delay their education by a year to join the military or to sacrifice a quarter of their weekends to work unpaid (when I was 18 I worked 16-20 hours across every weekend to cover my expenses in addition to studying full time. I would not have been able to afford my education if I had to give up two of those shifts a month).

There is a more fundamental problem at play here and it’s not just in the conscription policy itself but in the educational message this and other “defence” policies send throughout our society. We’ve somehow reached a point in British politics where the two largest political parties are promising to spend £5 on war for every £1 they want to spend on foreign aid and development.

Though I came into political activism fairly late in my life, my roots of pacifism and nonviolence have been growing for a lot longer. Bullied quite viciously at school, I faced calls, as young men too often do, to “fight back” but being a large person – even in my youth – I’ve always had an awareness of how much harm I could have caused if I did.
As we’ve seen to our horror in recent months in Gaza, the sliding scale of telling oneself that it’s acceptable to “fight back” in defence too often results in the massacre of others out of the fear that they might “fight back” against you…which leads to them “defending themselves”….which leads to…

And throughout such cycles of violence, pacifism is not only tested but often ignored or outright reviled. In times of peace, we’re ignored even as the signs of future conflict emerge and can yet be dealt with peacefully. In times of war, we’re reviled as “agents of the enemy” or simply accused of seeking futile actions against the threat that could have been prevented had we not been ignored in times of peace.

Peace and violence are both related in that both must be consciously taught though teaching the former is something that we just don’t seem to do well, starting from those early messages to “fight back” in one’s own defence instead of trying to resolve or prevent conflict in another manner. Peacemakers throughout the ages have long called for better education in conflict resolution and it likely starts at the very earliest ages – Dr Maria Montessori is particularly notable in this regard and the Montessori Method of education has been shown to promote empathy, creativity, social cohesion and cooperation over competition better than “traditional” education methods whilst at the very least not harming more “academic” skills.

This attitude of cooperation must extend beyond schooling too (particularly for the adults in the room who haven’t been educated in peace and cooperation from childhood). Consider the “divisive” issues in our politics around us today (pick one. There seems to be plenty of them). Division isn’t necessarily a bad thing – dividing over an issue, debating it, then coming back together after a conclusion is the very essence of politics after all. Except that “fighting back” too often makes that last part difficult, especially if the issue itself hasn’t actually been resolved. The 2014 independence vote didn’t conclude the independence campaign because those who lost “didn’t get over it”…or because their concerns weren’t listened to and resolved by those who won (depending on which side you listen to).

And isn’t that the core of the problem? What are the actual barriers that prevent us from listening to someone on “the other side” of a division? A conflict-based approach would actively dehumanise the opposition as someone not worth listening to. Yoon. Nat. Tory. TERF. Social Justice Warrior. Fundie. Socialist. Extremist. All terms that have been used to label an individual, place them in a group (regardless of their actual level of alignment with that group), and to dismiss the group as a whole, including the individual in question.

If that’s the how though, where is the why? Why seek to dehumanise and dismiss rather than to debate and defeat? It’s not just because it’s easy to the point of being academically lazy. According to this video essay it may come down to an act of self-defence borne from insecurity – thus not dissimilar to conflict at any other scale. Their views conflict with yours after all. The act of listening to them could, in and of itself, become an act of weakness and submission. They might even change your mind.

But why must we seek to defeat? The peacemaker wouldn’t. The peacemaker would seek a solution that works for everyone involved and with the understanding that that solution may not be found in the “centre ground” between the two opposing positions. Certainly, those who tell us in the independence movement to “get over it” cannot be expected to do the same after we “win” or we haven’t really won, we’ve just swapped sides. Those taught to fight the next war to defend their country may too easily find themselves standing in the ruins of someone else’s.

I had a glimpse of how discussion of “divisive issues” could be different back in 2021 when I was an expert witness to the Scottish Climate Assembly, where 100 people represented the full range of Scottish politics yet could come together to discuss, to cooperate and to imagine a future for Scotland that they were much more closely aligned with than any of the futures promised by any of the politicians they supported – as can be seen by the fact that the Scottish Government did its best to almost entirely ignore the Assembly.

UK politics is built on the insecurities and weaknesses of conflict and defeat – especially within the “two sword-lengths apart” realm of Westminster, though Holyrood is far from immune despite the incomplete intentions of its founders – so it’s no wonder that we’re being promised more of it from those have benefited from it. One wonders what this election could have been like had it been based on coalition, cooperation and pacifism. We’ve heard and will hear over the coming weeks much about promoting conflict between groups at home and abroad. Why can’t we see more politicians with the courage to embrace the ideals of pacifism to find a better way. Where are the Peacemakers?

And why can’t they be All of Us?

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