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If the government puts soldiers on the streets in a hard Brexit, we must refuse to obey them

The UK defence secretary has said the army is on stand by in case of a no deal Brexit. But the armed forces have no business on the streets of Britain.

Symon Hill
19 December 2018
Soldiers of the British Army (United Kingdom) march for a .jpeg

British soldiers in Khazakstan, by SSGT Jeffrey Allen, USAF

Just when you thought that Brexit couldn’t get any more chaotic, up popped Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to assure that he has things under control. He told the Commons that he has 3,500 troops on stand-by to deal with “contingencies” in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Williamson’s comments were welcomed by the sort of people who think that the ultimate solution to any problem is to send in people with guns.

Gavin Williamson was in the Commons to set out the latest stage of the euphemistically named “Modernising Defence” review, which consists largely of clinging to a militaristic model of security while demanding more money for the armed forces and the arms industry.

But then he was asked a question by Will Quince, the Tory MP for Colchester. Could the armed forces help out in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Williamson said, “What we are doing is putting contingency plans in place, and what we will do is have 3,500 service personnel held at readiness, including regulars and reserves, in order to support any government department on any contingencies they may need.”

So we have confirmation of thousands of troops being lined up for potential deployment within the UK, and we’re told about it with extreme brevity in a casual answer to a backbencher’s question. In reality, Williamson was probably prepared in advance. Quince was his Parliamentary Private Secretary until he resigned over Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

Nonetheless, it shows the government’s contempt for the British public that they will announce something so major while giving no details. Downing Street later responded to enquiries with a vague statement about the MoD’s “long-standing and important function in relation to sensible planning for contingencies”.

For some people, armed forces are the ultimate solution. Needing them implies things are bad, but keeping them on hand suggests things will be OK. Such a mindset seems to involve not only a simplistic trust in violence and coercion, but a staggeringly naive belief that the institutions of the state exist to serve and protect the British people.

I will never feel safer because of the presence of an organisation whose members are required to obey orders, including orders to kill, without reference to their own conscience. Any such organisation makes me feel considerably less safe.

The Peace Pledge Union has already called on the Defence Secretary to clarify his statement. Could these 3,500 troops be used for social control in the event of civil unrest?

Both leavers and remainers emphasise their belief in democracy. Democracy is not about controlling people through the barrel of a gun. Sending troops onto the streets is no alternative to listening to people's grievances.

Under British law, troops have no authority over civilians unless martial law is declared

Under British law, troops have no authority over civilians unless martial law is declared, including no power to carry out arrests.

So if they appear on the street, let’s assert our freedom from military authority.

Soldiers who (for example) stand in a road telling us not to walk down it have no legal right to arrest us if we fail to comply. They are not police officers. Their power would rest on our willingness to go along with them. If we value our freedom and our rights, we must not allow the armed forces to have control over civilian society.

At this point, some will say that I’m exaggerating the threat. Perhaps Williamson is thinking that the troops will be used to deliver food and medicine in the event of a supply crisis? If this is what he means, he needs to say so.

Why, however, do we need troops to carry out such emergency services? The UK has more armed forces personnel than firefighters and paramedics combined. As we need people with the courage and skills to deal well with chaotic and dangerous situations, we should be funding and recruiting for civilian emergency services, not allowing the armed forces to present themselves as our saviours in a crisis.

In the Commons this week, Williamson called for an extra £340m for the armed forces. This is in addition to the extra £1bn that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, promised in the recent budget. Even before that was announced, the UK government had the seventh highest military spending in the world.

In the last ten years or so, Britain has become more militarised, with a sharp rise in cadet forces, an increase in military visits to schools and the introduction of events such as Armed Forces Day. Now we’re expected to treat the deployment of troops within the UK as a minor detail of government plans.

We must not allow this. We can have a militarised society, or we can have a democratic society. We cannot have both.

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