This article has been written both as a response to the ideas set out in an article posted in the comment section of The Badger last week (“Attack on Freedom of Assembly”, comment – 6/10/2008), and is an attempt to put to death the misleading information being bandied about surrounding who the University Royal Navy Unit (URNU) actually are.
Firstly, however, we wish to respond to some of the accusations made in last week’s Badger article on the clown raid at the Freshers Fair. It has been claimed that the clowns “attacked a group of students” (“Attack on Freedom of Assembly“ – 06/10/2008) during their raid on the stall. However, there is no evidence that, apart from egos, anybody was physically assaulted at all; as can be seen from the picture and testimonies of witnesses. The clowns clearly avoided physical confrontation with any member of the URNU. Moreover, the accusation that it was a violent action is completely unfounded. Not a single person was injured and it is clearly impossible to be violent towards an inanimate object e.g. a table or a flyer.
The clowns have also expressed dismay at the use of the term “anarchist students’” (“Navy stall a vandalised at Freshers’ Fair” – 6/10/08) to identify and pigeonhole those involved. Many of those involved do not identify as being anarchists and others have taken objection to the use of the term in an inherently negative sense conjuring images of chaos and disorder, rather than the abolition of hierarchy and self-fulfilment towards which anarchists actually strive.
So, on to the URNU. It is an institution established by the Royal Navy to be an outpost of training and recruitment for students on 14 campuses across the UK. Let’s look at the hard facts: a student who joins the URNU becomes a navy reservist at the level of a Midshipman. The student is paid (with taxpayers’ money) by the Royal Navy at the standard rate for a Midshipman whilst attending any URNU meeting, be it a weekend at sea on their boat (property of the Ministry of Defence – why is Judith so surprised that “people associate them with the army and the general military”?), the HMS Ranger or a drunken social at the Trafalgar Night Dinner. The student also has the opportunity to receive a ‘bounty’ at the end of each successfully completed year of training (source: URNU flyer). Note that no other society on campus gets state funding to ‘train’ its members.
‘We believe that the notions of freedom of speech/assembly are not neutral. They play a vital role in maintaining the political status quo in society’
The writer claims that the URNU are a-political and its web site “mentions nothing of recruitment, war or military intentions”. This is simply not true. The self-professed role of the URNU is to “better inform them [its members] of the need and role of the Royal Navy”. This suggests that actually the role of the URNU is to ensure the preservation of the Royal Navy in years to come. Furthermore, a brief scan of Sussex URNU’s website reveals pictures of members posing during war games exercises on land and sea. Not to mention the fact that the enrolment of people from URNU into the Royal Navy is 80 %, according to URNU members on the stall at the Freshers Fair.
There are various political reasons as to why we chose to carry out our action the way we did, and why we chose to reject those principles, freedom of speech/assembly, in the case of the URNU.
Basically, although we believe that anyone should be allowed to voice their personal opinion, and rally around a particular political programme, we believe that the notions of freedom of speech/assembly are not neutral. They play a vital role in maintaining the political status quo in society, and serve to police those who rebel against it – as is the case in this debate. We believe that the liberal ‘freedoms’ that Judith’s argument hinges on do not necessarily have a basis in reality, but stem from an idealistic view of society as essentially harmonious, with an equal share of power for all, and a view of politics as merely a matter of ideas and debate.
The links between the URNU and the UK military, as well as the links between the UK military and the imperialist wars in the Middle East, are clear. Therefore, calling the URNU “essentially apolitical” is like calling the Pope an atheist. And with a Freshers Fair attended by the URNU, does the notion of “a wide arena for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech” still mean anything? May we ask those who hold the idea of freedom of speech so dear, where are the voices of the Iraqi people for instance? Did they vote in favour of an invasion? Did they vote in favour of recruiting more people into the UK military? This crucial point is unfortunately not part of Judith’s analysis. And by the way, how does the notion of freedom of speech sit with an institution that is funded by the state, regardless of what party is in power?! Look, these people don’t NEED freedom of speech, since they are an integral part of the single most authoritative body in this country – the government!
Our globalised world is a whole in which all parts influence each other – our lives are entangled with the lives of those in the Middle East. Remember that it is our government that has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. So when will we take full note of the fact that we are really not that different from the Iraqi people and that our lived realities are inextricably linked? Because when we realise this common ground, it becomes impossible to separate “us” from “them”, and we have to abandon the comfortable distance of external observers watching war reports on Newsnight, and we are forced to admit that we too are living in a fiction of peace. It is for this reason that we decided to act in solidarity with the Iraqi people resisting foreign occupation, by preventing the URNU from signing up more people, and by raising the level of political consciousness around the issue of the war on our campus.
What the writer is doing is upholding the liberal fantasy. The fantasy that the world at large is harmonious,
peaceful, democratic in nature and respectful of human beings, the fantasy that relies on the separation
between our state of affairs (the absence of armed conflict) and that which is happening in the Middle East. The fantasy that draws a line between the good guys (those who respect an abstract idea like freedom of speech/assembly), and the bad guys, the ones that the writer labels as “extremist students”, those who are physically preventing an oppressive institution from recruiting more people into their workforce.
The URNU has no legitimate right to be here on campus, if we are serious about doing away with oppression in all its forms. We think it is time for some open and honest debate about who the URNU really are rather than hiding between half-truths and lies, and we call for a serious questioning of ourselves and our society, of how we are a part of the misery of our brothers and sisters all over the world. Bring on the AGM!