The British War Against the War

"What has struck me since I have started to speak out against the war is that I've been inundated by phone calls, emails and letters from all around the country. Voters are saying 'Thank God there are people who will say in parliament what people like me feel outside,'" says Alan Simpson MP. "I think the public disquiet is far greater than parliament admits."

Last week he launched Labour Against The War, a group of MPs opposed to the bombing of Afghanistan. Dissent inside parliament has been muted since the bombing started, but is now growing. "There are actually far more people expressing unease than in any of the conflicts of the past," the 53 year-old Labour MP for Nottingham South says.

But these views have not gone down well with Labour's hierarchy. One of Simpson's fellow dissenters, Paul Marsden, the MP for Shrewsbury, was told by Labour's chief whip that "war is not a matter of conscience." Simpson disagrees. "War is always a matter of conscience. It never has been the case that there was a party mandate in favour of a war." Marsden and Simpson have been likened by the Government and the whips office to appeasers of Nazi Germany.

"My reaction to that is simple. It's always unhelpful that the language of debate slips into the language of abuse and most of my political life, one way or the other, has been involved in anti-Nazi campaigns. The thing about that kind of language is that it demeans parliament. If we are defending democracy, we also have to be willing to practice it."

He says: "Some of the unease is over whether there is actually a military strategy and some is due to the fact that it may not make any sense at all to think that you can bomb an ideology in the way that you can fight a war with a country."

Others in the Parliamentary Labour Party, he says, are deeply concerned about "the sheer scale of deaths that are going to take place in Afghanistan this winter" through starvation. These "avoidable civilian deaths" would be on a "scale that vastly outstrips the equally innocent civilian lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks in America" and may lead to further violence against the West.

The danger, he argues, "is then that we recruit more terrorists than we have killed, we create regional instabilities across Central Asia and the Middle East which themselves will spawn fundamentalist rather than secular and democratic regimes."

Simpson, a man famous for being a thorn in the Labour leadership's side, applauds Blair for working so closely with America. But he hoped that Blair would act as a restraining voice, putting arguments for a strategy to counter terrorism not be based on gung-ho militarism. Blair has failed to restrain Bush, he says.

"There should be an immediate cessation of the bombing," Simpson argues. "The overriding imperative is to get food into Afghanistan to ensure that over seven million people don't starve this winter."

Simpson admits that he doesn't know whether bin Laden is guilty or not, but says that if he is to be brought to justice, the first step would be "for the so-called incontrovertible evidence to be shown to an independent international panel of judges". The agenda has to be one of justice not vengeance. "Just claiming he is guilty is not sufficient to make him guilty".

He says that the Western allies should have got a UN mandate for the specific pursuit of bin Laden. "At the same time, we should have been making it clear we want bin Laden tried before an international criminal court, preferably before judges of his own faith. Nothing would be a more devastating blow for his own network if they were to be found guilty and condemned in a court by their own faith."

Simpson argues that the current crisis should force us to build a different internationalism. "This may be an important time for re-founding the United Nations on the sort of the terms it was supposed to be based 50 years ago."

He argues that the UN is essentially a puppet for the US government. "It has never had the primacy of place that allowed it to take any significant action other than at America's bidding," he says.

He also believes that the anti-globalisation movement offers answers to the problems of global terrorism. "Many of the regions of poverty, despair and hopelessness that terrorists recruit from are found in precisely those areas stripped of wealth, stripped of influence and stripped of prospects," he says.

"This conflict is part of the consequences that this rapacious global free-for-all has dragged us into -- and it is going to get worse. The big challenge for the international community should not be how we generate a rapid increase in world trade, based on driving wages lower and profits higher and enriching northern corporations at the expense of southern citizens".

"The fundamental question we have to answer is how we set a different agenda in which the development rights of the South can be met by recognising their own needs and at the same time allowing more localised agendas of economics to re-emerge within our own countries".

He says that the world still has to address environmental issues if we want to survive this coming century. "And that is very far away from the agenda set by the USA and UK."

If we don't start putting citizens before corporations, Simpson says bluntly, "we will inevitably be drawn into wars, conflict, large scale population migration and a century of real turmoil".

Labour Against The War: latw@gn.apc.org.

Andy Rowell is a freelance UK-based journalist with ten years experience writing on environmental, political and health issues.

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