On December 5th Scottish Parliament debated a motion lodged by Alison Johnstone MSP on Remberbering Conscientious Objectors. The Motion expressed support for our efforts to create a memorial to COs. The Motion was signed by 22 MSPs. Eight MSPs spoke in support of the Motion.
On behalf of the Scottish Governement Ben McPherson, Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development welcomed the Motion and congratulated the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre on “all that it does—and has done over many years—to encourage peace and promote social justice in Scotland and around the world.” He added: “In that spirit, I pay tribute to all involved in the centre and wish those involved in this campaign—Alison Johnstone, other members and people in wider society—well in raising money for a memorial to all those who were peacemakers and who stood up so bravely and strongly in their endeavours to promote non-violence.”
The text of the Motion, and the full text of the debate is below.
Alison Johnstone MSP met with members of the Steering Group of the Memorial Committee just before the debate.
That the Parliament notes the proposal by the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre for a memorial to conscientious objectors and all who oppose war; further notes that the Transport and Environment Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council has approved the proposal for this memorial, which would be located in Princes St Gardens; believes that such a memorial would provide an important opportunity for people to reflect on the value of peacemakers around the world, as well as on the bravery of conscientious objectors during the First World War and what it considers their inhumane treatment by the government; congratulates the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre on its work on this project, and wishes it well with its crowdfunder to raise money to create the memorial.
Just over 100 years on from the end of the first world war, there have been many events to mark what was then known as the war to end all wars. In communities across Scotland and far beyond, people have been reflecting on the first industrialised war, in which as many as 19 million people died. It is important that we remember, each in our own way and perhaps for different reasons, the millions of people who have died in conflicts in the past and that we recognise the devastating loss caused by the conflicts that continue to rage across the globe today.
It is also important that we pay our respects to those who object to war on moral, political or religious grounds, because they have made—and are still making—their own sacrifice.
When it became apparent, by the end of 1915, that the first world war would be prolonged and that more soldiers were needed, the Military Service Act 1916, which came into force in March of that year, introduced conscription to the United Kingdom. For those whose views, beliefs and conscience demanded that they did not fight, the conflict with the expectations of Government and society was extremely challenging. Those who appealed against military service faced military tribunals, which decided between conscience and cowardice. Within the first six months of the act, more than 750,000 cases were heard by tribunals, of which only a small number were recognised as legitimate. From March 1916 until the end of the war, only 16,000 men were registered as conscientious objectors and given alternative service of national importance.
Conscientious objectors endured ostracism and risked their livelihoods and reputations. In 1914, the order of the white feather tried to shame men who were not in uniform into signing up by branding them as cowards and presenting them with a white feather. In some cases, their own families could not understand their stance and shunned them, too. Conscientious objectors were forced into highly dangerous jobs. They were used as forced labour and broke rocks for months on end. They endured brutal conditions in prison, where they suffered terrible treatment from wardens and other prisoners. Seventy-three first world war objectors died in prison.
There were also many tens of thousands of people, including women, who were not eligible for military service at the time but who objected to war and campaigned for peace. The women’s peace crusade was founded in Glasgow in 1916, and it campaigned for an end to war and for a just peace. In particular, it campaigned against a punitive peace settlement. Chrystal Macmillan—a great Edinburgh figure and a pioneer in many fields—travelled to the Hague in 1915 to participate in a conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which called on the warring countries of Europe to stop fighting. She went on to become a delegate to the Paris peace conference in 1919.
The principled struggle against war, and for peace, continues today. Britain was one of the first countries to scrap military conscription, but more than 40 countries around the world still conscript their citizens into military service. Some countries that had previously scrapped the practice have reintroduced it. It remains the case today that many people are forced to make a decision between performing a role to which they object on sincerely held religious, political or moral grounds and being punished, sometimes with imprisonment.
With 50 wars going on around the world right now, tens of millions of people remain active in peace movements. That is why I whole-heartedly welcome the work of the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre and others to place in Princes Street gardens a memorial to conscientious objectors and to all those who oppose war. There are 37 war memorials in Edinburgh—eight of them are in the gardens, from the Royal Scots Greys monument to the stone that commemorates the volunteers from Lothian and Fife who fought in the Spanish civil war.
We rightly remember those who have died in war, but there is no memorial to those who have objected to war and struggled for peace. Several such memorials exist in London and there is one in Cardiff, but there is none in Edinburgh or, indeed, in Scotland. From conscientious objection in the first and second world wars, through protests against the Vietnam war to Scotland’s resistance to the Iraq war, our country has a long and proud history of principled objection to war. It is long past time that that is recognised in Scotland’s capital city.
The Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre has been working very hard to find the right design for the memorial, to win permission for it to be built and to fundraise to meet the cost of design and construction. I am particularly pleased that a design by award-winning Edinburgh artist Kate Ive has been chosen. Kate has designed a beautiful bronze tree sculpture, which will become the first piece of art by a woman to be on permanent display in Princes Street gardens. The tree’s bronze flowers are based on those of the dove tree, and the dove tree’s flowers are said to look like handkerchiefs.
Kate was inspired by the story of a No-Conscription Fellowship meeting in support of conscientious objectors and war resisters in London in 1916. An aggressive crowd was gathered outside, threatening to break in, and the chair asked the 2,000 attendees to wave their handkerchiefs instead of clapping, to avoid further angering the crowd. Handkerchiefs were also a common item sent by families to their loved ones who were fighting on the front lines during the two world wars.
A small granite stone will be at the heart of each flower. The bench that will be built alongside the memorial will also be made from Aberdeen granite, to commemorate the death of Walter Roberts, a 20-year-old Scottish conscientious objector who died at the Dyce work camp, where inmates were forced to quarry granite in dangerous conditions.
The sculpture is intended to be in place by August 2019, which is the centenary of the end of the imprisonment of first world war objectors. I thank City of Edinburgh Council for its willingness to place the memorial at the heart of our world heritage site, in the heart of our capital city. It is right that local people and visitors alike are afforded an opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of peace building and conflict resolution, and on the traditions of individual liberty and internationalism.
We obviously hope to get the widest possible support for the proposal, but it is important say that it is not just pacifists who support the erection of a memorial. Many people who, in certain circumstances, agree with the taking up of arms and conflict should be welcome to support it, too.
I agree whole-heartedly with Mr Findlay’s point. Indeed, I would welcome that support.
I thank City of Edinburgh Council for its willingness to adopt the proposal, because it is right that this opportunity to reflect is available in the city.
I want to live in a Scotland that is globally recognised as a beacon of peace and inclusion. I wrote to the council last year, in support of the proposal. I warmly welcome the progress that has been made, but there is more to do.
I thank the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre for leading the effort, and I thank the many other groups that have been involved, including the Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh, Edinburgh stop the war coalition, Edinburgh Campaign for Nuclear Disarnament, St Thomas of Aquin’s secondary school and the Quakers. Representatives of some of those organisations are with us in the public gallery.
We rightly remember those who have died in conflicts; so, too, must we remember those who have worked for peace and those who continue to work for peace. Sometimes, they sacrifice their own lives in doing so, too. They all deserve to be remembered, and we all deserve a space in which to reflect on their contribution.
Mr Findlay, some of your fellow members found it difficult to hear you, which is fairly unusual. Could you pull your microphone a wee bit closer, please? Thank you very much.
We move to the open debate and speeches of four minutes, please. We are quite tight for time.
I thank Alison Johnstone for bringing forward the topic of conscientious objectors for debate. I also thank the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre and others for their proposals for the memorial.
Since the early 20th century, we have seen the contribution of conscientious objectors take many forms during periods of conscription. The Military Service Act of 1916, which brought in conscription for 18 to 41-year-old unmarried men, stipulated that individuals could appeal to civil courts on the ground of conscientious objection. Before that act, pacifists—many of whom would become conscientious objectors—protested against the escalating arms race and then against the outbreak of war. According to the opposing war memorial project, many thousands marched on Glasgow green in opposition to the outbreak of what some called the great war. That instinct—to stand up for what a person believes to be right—is essential for our democracy.
In the context of remembering the first world war, how do we recognise conscientious objectors? How do we recognise those individuals who faced shame and many difficulties in the pursuit of peace?
Through the tribunal courts, as Alison Johnstone has mentioned, around 16,000 men appealed as conscientious objectors from 1916 to 1918. Many of those men joined the Army in non-combatant roles and many others went to prison and labour camps.
The opposing war memorial project’s goal of creating a memorial in Princes Street gardens is an excellent way of recognising such a wide-ranging group of people. It brings to our attention another side of history from the first world war that is not taught widely or in the public eye. For example, it echoes the feeling of the 200,000 people who demonstrated in Trafalgar Square following the extension of conscription to married men.
Aside from the opposing war memorial, collections of primary sources and personal testimonies of conscientious objectors are important in helping us to understand a person’s decision to object to the objectionable. In October, the BBC ran an illuminating article that detailed the plight of conscientious objectors, and it highlighted a letter that had recently been gifted to Glasgow Caledonian University. Its author, Robert Climie from Kilmarnock, wrote to his baby daughter, Cathy, in November 1917. He was originally granted exemption from service on the ground of conscientious objection. However, that ruling was overturned at a later point. Robert was arrested, court-martialled and sent to prison. In the spring of 1917, he was sent to a labour camp at Cruachan, near Loch Awe in Argyll, to work in forestry. In his moving letter, he tried to explain to his daughter why he had been imprisoned, and that caught the attention of many Scots who were otherwise unaware of stories such as his.
Other primary sources tell the stories of those who contributed to the first world war in non-combatant military service, including running stretchers to wounded soldiers on the front in an effort to save lives—many lost their own lives in doing so. Others volunteered to help civilians who were caught in the conflict on the continent. Websites such as that of the white feather diaries project and other online sources provide examples of doctors who travelled to France and remote parts of Russia to help civilians, with scant medical resources and no trained medics, in the throes of war.
The telling of history through sources, stories and memorials can recognise those whose hearts were turned towards peace. That noble end is the common denominator among the wide-ranging testimonies of conscientious objectors, who deserve to be remembered.
I thank Alison Johnstone for lodging the motion for this members’ business debate.
I am pleased to speak on the subject of remembering conscientious objectors. Even though we may have our differences of opinion on the need for war, I entirely believe that the memory of conscientious objectors should be honoured and respected. Accordingly, I welcome the forthcoming memorial in Princes Street gardens, which has been proposed by the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre. It will create a space in which conscientious objectors and the value of international peacemakers should be remembered and reflected on.
Let me be clear: conscientious objectors have—and should always have—the right not to participate in war. Conscientious objection is now a human right that is recognised by the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights, and it is supported by many countries.
In the first world war, as in any war, conscientious objectors acted from conviction, which might have been founded on religious belief or political activism. Some disagreed with Government intervention, while others believed that it was wrong to kill in any instance. They should always have had the freedom to do so and to follow their consciences regarding peace. Their resistance was not harmful or cowardly; it was principled. That is what the proposed memorial in Princes Street gardens seeks to represent. Every person should have the right to offer alternatives to war, such as conflict resolution or peace building, although sometimes that may be incredibly difficult.
In Scotland as well as internationally, conscription placed heavy burdens on conscientious objectors. In the first world war, there were nearly 20,000 conscientious objectors, with 235 men from Edinburgh refusing conscription. That figure tripled in the second world war. As has been referred to by previous speakers, the unfair treatment of objectors by authorities, and indeed by their own communities, should never have happened. Tribunals were often unfair in their decision making and failed to take conscientious objectors’ personal stances seriously. In many cases, conscientious objectors were still forced into a war of which they did not want to be part. Some were wrongly treated as deserters, which resulted in prison sentences. In total, 6,000 were sent to prison during the first world war. There they faced harsh and degrading treatment, with a minimal diet, and some endured solitary confinement. Those who went on hunger strike risked the possibility of being force fed. However, psychological damage seems to have had the most impact on conscientious objectors. They risked a backlash of social isolation and accusations of betrayal from their own communities.
That could foster feelings of shame and doubt in the face of suspicion and pressure. Conscientious objectors should have been treated not as lesser individuals but as valued members of society who served the nation in other ways, based on their principles.
It is a relief to know that conscientious objection is treated more respectfully now, as it should be. I am glad that it is no longer the case that there is that ill feeling in our nation. I know that conscientious objectors here are now treated with the thought and care that they deserved years ago. The fact that armed forces recruitment is entirely voluntary, for example, ensures that every individual in them is not forced to be there and is free to make that choice.
We should be respectful of the motivations and beliefs of those who choose to join our armed forces and those who do not. As I said, conscientious objectors should have been treated not as lesser individuals but as valued members of society who could serve the nation in other ways. Rather than ignoring the stance of conscientious objection, the memorial will publicly represent their commitment and principles for peace. It is definitely fitting that the memorial will, I hope, be installed by August 2019, which is the centenary of the end of imprisonment for conscientious objectors during the first world war. I hope that the fundraising efforts will help the project to raise awareness of those individuals. Amid the multiple memorials across the capital that remember those who fought in the war, it is right that a space should be created to remember international peacemakers as well as conscientious objectors, who faced risks based on their principles.
To conclude, it is just as important to remember those who died in war as it is to remember those who suffered for opposing war. I say as a veteran that, despite their differences, the two should go hand in hand. Both were sacrifices that point towards the hope for peace. That is what I believe the memorial will represent.
When a country goes to war, it is often on the back of a great deal of propaganda, pressure, media coverage and state influencing of public opinion. That is the nature of the build-up to any war. The might of the Government machine and persuasive forces that are allied to it are rolled out to bang the drum and build public support for conflict.
The first world war, which Alison Johnstone referred to, is a prime example of that. Conscientious objectors came to the public’s consciousness then. Against a backdrop of impending war, those people took a brave and principled stance opposing the conflict on the ground of their moral, religious or political views. They were not cowards, deserters or unpatriotic; they were people of great integrity, humanity and deeply held conviction. As a result of their stance, many of them lost their liberty. Some were driven by strongly held Christian, Jewish or Islamic faith. For groups such as the Quakers, the literal interpretation of “Thou shalt not kill” informed their stance.
Others were driven by deeply held political principles. The Independent Labour Party, which was one of the founding organisations of the modern Labour Party, was at their forefront. Keir Hardie was, of course, one of the greatest critics of the march to war, and he played a prominent role in the anti-war movement. The general secretary of the ILP at that time, Albert Inkpin, said:
“As a socialist and internationalist I am strongly opposed to the war, which I regard as arising from the conflict of capitalist interests and as inimical to the welfare of the working class.”
Given the deaths of so many young working-class men and women, those words were indeed prophetic. The ILP newspaper, the Labour Leader, led opposition to the war and promoted the No-Conscription Fellowship. A number of leading Labour movement activists ended up in prison as a result of their anti-war activity. Some—Fenner Brockway, Emrys Hughes and James Maxton, for example—went on to become ILP MPs. They were driven by a class analysis of the conflict: a belief that the war was about economics, resources and power, and that it was always the wealth-owning capitalist class that declared wars, but the working class was sent to fight them.
Does Neil Findlay recognise that Roland Muirhead, who was one of the founder members of the Scottish National Party, was involved in that effort along with the people whom he mentioned?
I am delighted to have been informed of that by Gillian Martin. Every day is a school day.
The actions of those people were supported by the likes of Mary Barbour in leading the rent strikes in Glasgow, and John Maclean and Willie Gallacher, who were leading opponents of the war. Indeed, this week is the 100th anniversary of Maclean’s release from Peterhead prison. He was initially arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914. His oration from the dock is now famous or infamous—however we look at it. He stated:
“No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”
The role of conscientious objectors is a very important part of our social, economic and political history. They should be remembered and acknowledged. The memorial in Princes Street gardens would join many others there, as Alison Johnstone mentioned, including the international brigades memorial. That is why I made the point that it is not just pacifists who support the memorial. It is right that we acknowledge our history and the people who have gone before us. Having a memorial to those who stood by their principles and honourably opposed the war that was supposed to end all wars is the right thing to do.
I am grateful to have the chance to participate in this debate that my colleague Alison Johnstone has brought to the chamber. The debate gives us the opportunity, as I hope the memorial will, to reflect on some difficult and complicated issues. I have felt conflicted in recent months as we have marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice. It is important to reflect on some of the complexities around that rather than have a simplistic commemoration that almost becomes an unthinking ritual.
It is always problematic to judge historical events in today’s moral context, because that context changes. However, when we remember those historical events, it is important that we discuss how the context has changed. The first world war took place in a time before the development of human rights law and before the development of much international law. It was a time in which racist, imperialist Governments were the norm throughout Europe and whose racism and imperialism were almost unchallengeable. They felt entitled to perpetrate state violence on their own citizens and others around the world. Governments felt that they had, and were regarded as having, the right to round up their own citizens, march them to war and see them sent to their deaths. I accept that we are judging those historical events from a modern perspective, but we have to reflect, especially in moments of shared remembrance, on what has changed as well.
One of the big political events just before I was elected to the Scottish Parliament was the protest against the Iraq war. I had the opportunity to speak in front of a crowd of 100,000 people who took to the streets in Glasgow to march against that war. It was a generation that felt that it had an inalienable right to express its opposition to war and weapons of mass destruction, which many of us still campaign against. People have a right to regard the Government, as we did, as their servant and not their master on those issues.
I know that it was easy for me to do that, and it felt safe and easy. However, if I had been born and raised in the years before the first world war, I do not know whether I would have had the courage of what I regard as my convictions. I do not know whether I would have had the insight to recognise that the first world war was not a war between countries but a war that was being perpetrated by Governments against their citizens; a war perpetrated by Governments on both sides against the citizens of both sides. I hope that I would have had that insight and that courage, but I cannot know. I can only empathise with those around the world now who still face being subject to war and state violence perpetrated by those who are being armed by our country and others.
Those issues are always in my mind when we think about the roles of the red poppy and the white poppy. I will continue to argue that there has to be a place for both in our acts of shared remembrance. Remembrance has to include a recognition of, and a reflection on, the value of the lives of those who fought and who lost their lives, whether they regarded themselves as making a sacrifice or whether we regard them as having had their lives sacrificed by their own Governments.
I regret to say that Neil Findlay is probably right. We see the rise of fascism in north and south America and parts of Europe at the moment, and there may again be times when people are forced into feeling that they have no other option but to take up arms against that kind of Government. However, recognising the bravery, courage, conviction, sacrifice and principle of those who oppose war is an essential part of our shared acts of remembrance, just recognising those who participated in war is.
I commend the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre and all their colleagues, including the University of Edinburgh, the Iona Community, the Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh and many others, for their work. When it is in place, the memorial will offer everyone in Scotland the space to do what we are doing here now: reflecting on difficult and contested issues in relation to our attitudes to war and to the value of those people around the world who work for peace.
I congratulate Alison Johnstone on securing the debate. I signed her motion and fully support the campaign.
On 18 November this year, a play entitled “This evil thing” was performed at Dyce parish church in my constituency. It was a solo play, written and performed by the award-winning actor Michael Mears, telling the story of Britain’s first world war conscientious objectors. The play includes a scene that is set at the work camp that was established in Dyce by the Government in 1916. Alison Johnstone alluded to it in her speech, and I want to focus my contribution on the Dyce work camp.
The camp was established on 23 August 1916 and involved 250 men who were transported to Dyce to be put to work in the quarries, breaking up granite stones to be used in road-building endeavours. The local authority was not informed about what was happening and the press did not find out about the camp’s existence until 9 September.
Alison Johnstone mentioned Walter Roberts, who died at the Dyce camp. Like most of the workers, he developed a cold upon arrival, and on 6 September he dictated a letter to his mother from the camp. I quote from that letter.
“As I anticipated, it has only been a matter of time for the camp conditions to get the better of me. Bartle Wild is now writing to my dictation because I am now too weak to handle a pen myself. I don’t want you to worry yourself because the doctor says I have only got a severe chill but it has reduced me very much. All these fellows here are exceedingly kind and are looking after me like bricks so there is no reason why I should not be strong in a day of two when I will write more personally and more fully.”
He died on the Friday of pneumonia. During his illness, he had fallen from his bed and spent two hours on the cold floor of his tent. He was not seen by a medical professional and was not given medical attention that could have saved his life.
The Aberdeen Daily Journal reported his death on 12 September 1916, but it also published an editorial on the next page about the conscientious objectors. Its headline was “Dyce humbugs” and it contained the following passage:
“The conscientious objector in war-time is a degenerate, or worse, who is out of harmony with the people of the nation which protects him in peace-time, and safeguards him in war-time, and the No-Conscription Fellowship which champions these shirkers of their duty is under so deep a cloud of suspicion that no fewer than twenty-seven raids by the police have been made within the past week or so on the houses of secretaries and members in the London area.”
It is interesting to note that, rather than focusing on the conditions that those men were being forced to endure at the camp, it focused on why those men were deserving of the conditions in which they found themselves. That was the focus that the press chose to take.
The future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald visited the camp and he reported in Parliament on 19 October 1916 on what he had seen. He said:
“Then take the men at work. You go up to the end, and you see twenty or thirty men—the most extraordinary creatures you ever saw. First of all, they looked as if every one of them had been twenty years on the road, and yet behind it all you saw the intellectual class of the men. It is a strange sort of combination of the intellectual life and the tramp. The men felt it very keenly. One man I talked to about it almost broke down when I tried to joke about his personal appearance.”
He later said:
“There were these men, about a hundred, doing work they were not trained to do, doing work they could not do, doing work they could not be trained to do, going on under the impression that this is national service.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 19 October 1916; Vol 86, c 807, 808.]
The point is that it was dressed as national service but in reality it was punishment of conscientious objectors. The camp closed on 25 October 1916. It had been open for only two months.
I raise that in the chamber tonight alongside Alison Johnstone’s motion because I grew up in Dyce but, until I was an adult, I knew nothing of that part of our community’s history. It was not talked about and it was not something that we learned about. We learned about the Royal Air Force being stationed in Dyce during the second world war, but it was almost as if we could talk only about the aspects of war that were considered to be glorious parts of our history, and not about those that ought to give us pause for thought, reflection and—rightly, I think—a sense of shame about what those men had to endure.
I support the campaign that Alison Johnstone has discussed and I hope that it will encourage greater awareness of what happened at the work camp at Dyce and in the conscientious objectors movement more widely.
I thank Alison Johnstone for bringing this important debate to the chamber and giving us an opportunity to recognise some of the people who were conscientious objectors.
Pacifist movements can change the course of political action. The conscientious objectors of the great war were the genesis of the peace movement as we know it today—a peace movement that is the bulwark against overzealous Governments and is the national conscience when ill-advised decisions are taken on aggressive interventions in wars that we have no business being involved in. Alison Johnstone outlined some examples of the types of war that I allude to.
It is only right that there is a memorial to those who stood up for peace at a time when that meant being attacked and ridiculed by members of the public, being taken away from family, being imprisoned, being put in labour camps, in some cases being tortured and abused, and in some cases—where people were forced into conscription—being shot and killed by their own Government for refusing to follow orders or for suffering trauma.
When we talk of bravery, we must not ignore the bravery of the conscientious objectors of the so-called great war. They were brave too. They stood up for what they believed in: peace. Heroism takes many forms, and alongside the heroes who fought in the trenches must stand the heroes who fought to stop the senseless war in which so many young men died in the name of something that we still cannot really put our finger on. To see that, we just have to look at the propaganda images and letters to the newspapers of the day that portray these men. The characterisation of them is appalling and offensive. How brave to stand up for one’s beliefs and face being punished and ostracised from society and having one’s family ridiculed as a result. A lot of people forget about the impact on the whole family.
Mark McDonald mentioned the Dyce camp, which was just a mile beyond the border of my constituency. Hundreds of English conscientious objectors were sent there from prisons to live in horrific conditions. They spent their days breaking granite in a nearby quarry and slept on cold, wet ground in ragged, damaged tents that had been used in the Boer war. We have already heard about the 20-year-old Walter Roberts. Whenever I read about the first world war, the ages of the men really get to me, because my son is 20 years old; that is the thing that really sticks in my craw. The letter that Walter wrote to his mother nearly had me in tears, because I imagined her opening it and then finding out that her son had died days later.
Walter died because of his religious beliefs. He was a Christian, and that is why he objected to war. He should have been exempted from conscription for that reason, but he was not.
I will close by quoting from a letter from Robert Climie, whom Bill Kidd mentioned. He had long-held pacifist beliefs and he was exempted initially, but an ex-Army officer took against the decision so badly that he campaigned to have the exemption overturned. Robert Climie was sent to Wormwood Scrubs. He wrote to his baby daughter as she turned one. He had missed the first year of his life because of his imprisonment. In his letter to his daughter, which he assumed she would read later in her life, he wrote:
“The first year of your life … will in later years be known as one of the worst years in the History of the World … A most fearful war is raging … The World is just now divided into nations and the people of each nation believe themselves to be fighting on behalf of their own particular country … However, there are men and women who believe that all men and women are brothers and sisters. These people are known as Pacifists.”
I urge everyone to listen to Robert Climie’s full letter as read by the actor Gary Lewis, which can be found online. It is heartbreaking, but it is heroic.
I thank the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre for all its hard work and campaigning to give those heroes for peace the recognition that they deserve, and for enabling us to go some small way towards making amends for the heartbreak that they and their families endured, along with the people who went to war.
I thank Alison Johnstone for securing the debate, which is important for all the reasons that members have given. It is important to remember not just those who died bearing arms for our country but those who fought for the principle of peace.
I am very conscious that I am of a generation that has had no immediate or even indirect contact with the mass mobilisation that 20th century wars brought. No one in my immediate family—not my parents or my grandparents—fought.
As we reflect on the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war, many of the comments and memorials have focused on the truly unimaginable experience of that war. Patrick Harvie described very well the industrial nature of the conflict, which was horrifying.
Equally confounding is the rationale for that war. It is not just because I was a bad history student that I do not understand how the war came about. The idea that it hinges on the assassination of an aristocrat in a far-off place, and that that somehow explains how the complicated and interwoven interests of imperial powers and treaties brought about the horrifying slaughter of millions of people, is something that I do not understand. Such a situation should never justify war.
That is why we must remember. The first world war did not end all wars, but it certainly brought into being a different world order, under which we live today. We have not had to experience mass mobilisation. Conflict might not have ended, but I hope that that sort of global conflict is unthinkable.
That is why we must thank conscientious objectors. My politics are based on the fundamental principle of internationalism. I fundamentally believe in a global system of institutions, which I hope makes war on the scale that we saw in the 20th century far less likely, if not impossible. It is thanks to the individuals who had the courage to stand up for principles of peace that we have such institutions.
Like Neil Findlay, I want to reflect on the contribution that was made by a member of my party. Arthur Woodburn, who became Secretary of State for Scotland from 1947 to 1950, in the Clement Attlee Government, and who stood in Edinburgh South in 1929, was exempt from serving. He had a kidney condition, and his occupation meant that he did not need to serve. Nonetheless, he registered with the authorities as a conscientious objector. He was imprisoned from 1916, and in the latter months of the war he went on hunger strike. To put oneself in such a position is to show true courage and conviction.
That demonstrates the importance of the memorial that we have been hearing about. There are twin objectives to having such a memorial: to remember the people who showed such courage and who suffered for their convictions; and to honour the ideal of world peace, which is something for which we must all strive. I thank the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre for its work, and I hope that the memorial takes its place in Princes Street gardens before long, because it is important.
I thank Alison Johnstone for lodging the motion and enabling us to have this important debate. The debate has been interesting and illuminating and I appreciated the quality, sensitivity and depth of members’ speeches, as well as members’ personal reflections.
It is fitting that we have this debate a week after St Andrew’s day, given that, as Alastair McIntosh said in the St Andrew’s day lecture on Friday, our patron saint was an advocate of non-violence.
I will respond to the debate in a moment, but first I will reflect on some of the contributions from a personal perspective. I was there when Patrick Harvie addressed the protests against the Iraq war in 2003, and remember how powerful that was. I also think of my own family’s journey within the peace-building and peace-making movements and some of my relatives’ engagement in the Quaker movement. Also, my great-great-grandfather, Dr Walter Walsh, was an anti-war campaigner who campaigned against the Boer war with a certain James Keir Hardie in the nineteenth century. Like others, I am feeling very connected to this debate from a personal perspective.
I am also heartened that there is consensus around the chamber, with a shared appreciation for the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre and others involved in this project. I would like to pay my respects and express my appreciation for the work that it has done, not just on this project, but also on what it does more generally. I have often been inspired at St John’s, and when walking past the very powerful messages that are portrayed on the outside of the building.
The last four years have seen a nationwide programme of commemorations to mark the centenary of world war one, with hundreds of community groups and organisations involved in events over the length and breadth of Scotland to pay tribute to all those who were involved in the conflict.
The Scottish Government commemorations panel, chaired by Professor Norman Drummond, has recommended and produced commemorations to mark events and battles of world war one with a particular significance for Scotland. Through the commemorations programme, the people of Scotland have learned about the effects of the war and its lasting impact on life in Scotland today. It is right that we recognise the impact that this and other wars had on the whole of Scottish society and the great sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of military personnel and their families.
However, there were also many other individuals and groups in society who were deeply affected by the great war and other wars, as we are appreciating today. The sheer scale of those impacted is very hard for us to comprehend. Many of those injured suffered psychologically in a time which often did not fully recognise or support those with mental health needs. Some, who suffered from shell shock and other mental health issues, were subjected to inhumane treatment and were condemned by society on their return.
We also recognise, as we are doing today, the deeply held views of those who chose not to fight for a range of reasons—on religious, political and humanist grounds. Indeed, they also faced similar, unfair condemnation by society. Although records are reportedly incomplete, it is estimated that around 16,000 people in the UK were conscientious objectors in world war one, and many thousands more in world war two and until national service ended in the 1960s.
The Scottish Government’s world war one commemorative programme is remembering the broad impact that the great war had on all parts of Scotland and beyond. Indeed, the Scottish commemorations panel has run several education days, each focusing on a different aspect of war. To accompany the events, the panel produced booklets on the subject being covered. The first of those, in November 2015, covered recruitment, conscription, tribunals and conscientious objectors. For example, it told the story of John McTaggart from Dundee, who claimed exemption from military service because he was politically opposed to the war. He ended up being sentenced to prison and went on to serve two years and seven months in prison before being released in April 1919.
Many different events or groups of people may be commemorated on a memorial. Memorials can commemorate war, conflict, victory, peace, groups and individuals.
It is clear that this memorial would aid reflection on many issues. An engagement programme is envisaged for local schools and so on. I would be interested to learn how the Government might assist with the realisation of the memorial. Crowdfunding is going well, but more could be done. I would be grateful if the minister could respond to that.
With regard to support for the opposing war memorial that is planned for Princes Street gardens, I am pleased to hear that, as has been said, there is already widespread support for the initiative at local government level, in Edinburgh society and beyond. However, it is a long-standing policy of the UK and Scottish Governments that the cost of maintaining memorials and associated projects cannot be met from public funds, so I am reassured that measures are already in place to raise funds for its creation. If Alison Johnstone wants to make any suggestions to me and the Government after the debate, I will be very happy to receive them in writing and consider them in due course.
Will the minister take an intervention to clarify that point?
I listened carefully to the minister, and he said that there was no finance for maintaining memorials. Does that include erecting them?
The point is well made, but as I said, the UK and Scottish Governments have a long-standing policy with regard to such costs. I cannot commit today to the Scottish Government providing funding for such a memorial, but if, after the debate, Alison Johnstone wants to write to me in detail on these matters, those points can be considered in due course and I will be happy to respond to her.
In closing, I thank all members for their contribution. The Scottish Government believes that people of all faiths and none must be supported to follow their way of life without fear of discrimination or mistreatment.
For many years now, mobilisation has applied to reservists, who, technically, still live in our communities. Do not get me wrong, regular service personnel come from our communities, too, but reservists who get called up are very close to them. We now have a fairly permanent call-up programme in support of various armed forces operations overseas, a lot of which are for peacekeeping purposes. Does the minister agree that it is very good that, nowadays, reservists are actually asked to volunteer before they allow their names to go forward for the call-up, as it gives them an opportunity to express any reservations that they might have?
I acknowledge those well-made points, and I am sure that, now that they are on the record, they will be relayed to the relevant minister, Graeme Dey, for consideration. I want to stick with the issue of the memorial and the contents of Alison Johnstone’s motion.
At this point, I should clarify my earlier point by saying that the policy that I mentioned covers both the erection and maintenance of memorials. In other words, the UK and Scottish Governments have a long-held policy of not meeting the costs of erecting such memorials from public funds.
That said, it is important that, as members have pointed out, people of all faiths and none are supported to follow their way of life without fear of discrimination and that we value and respect people’s freedoms in important matters of conscience, including peace. I am going to try to get there as quickly as I can to join many others at St John’s for a multilingual European Christmas carol service in solidarity with European friends and partners and in remembrance of, amongst other things, the European Union as a very positive force for peace.
This evening, I will reflect, as we have in this debate, on the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre and all that it does—and has done over many years—to encourage peace and promote social justice in Scotland and around the world. In that spirit, I pay tribute to all involved in the centre and wish those involved in this campaign—Alison Johnstone, other members and people in wider society—well in raising money for a memorial to all those who were peacemakers and who stood up so bravely and strongly in their endeavours to promote non-violence. I look forward to hearing more about the progress of this very important cause.