For Armed Forces Day 2018 VFP UK decided that Blackpool would be an appropriate place to assist in the ‘celebrations’. With many members based in the North West and a private camp site for us to set up a temporary HQ, it was the perfect place.
Initially we registered to be to have an official presence at the event. The MOD registered us as a partner and we set about liaising with Blackpool Council about a stand on the promenade, which is a focus for the day in Blackpool each year. Their insistence that we had public liability insurance meant we made the decision not to have a stand but instead wander around the promenade with leaflets and our own personal testimony.
We started to congregate on the Friday at our camp site. A few arrived quite late – the M6 was a ‘challenge’ that afternoon and evening! Anyway, we made our plans for Armed Forces Day and generally enjoyed an evening of socialising.
On the day itself a few Veterans arrived early and watched the military and council set up the stands. It was good to see that junior ranks still conduct litter sweeps whilst seniors watch on!
The main body of Veterans gathered by the RNLI Station on the promenade at 11:30 hrs where we had our briefing, collected leaflets, and planned our tactics. It was a very hot day so like any preparation phase of a patrol we ensured we had sun screen, insect repellent, and plenty of water.
After the briefing we embarked on our action for the day. The aim was to discuss militarism with the public, engage with military personnel, and challenge the concept of war. To enable this, we all had a number of different leaflets and, most importantly, our own personal testimonies.
The key strength of our message is that all members of VFP UK are Veterans. We all have supplied proof of military service. Our personal testimony is what gives our arguments power and gets us notice.
Our members engaged with multiple people on the promenade, discussing militarism and war. We engaged with the public, andpeople is various uniforms. We also looked at what stands the military were running. Most were aimed at recruitment into a branch of the military, with various exhibits. Most disturbingly was a Royal Marine sponsored stand that had a number of weapons on display, including what looked like a Sterling Sub Machine Gun and a variant of the AK 47. What was disturbing about this stand was the personnel in military fatigues (combat trousers, some sort of unit polo shirt, and a Royal Marines green beret) were allowing children to handle these weapons and encouraging their families and friends to take photos of the handling weapons. This included children aiming weapons at people. Something that I was taught in my basic training was the one NEVER points a weapon at a person unless you are aiming at them to kill them. Bear this in mind when I discuss what occurred in the early afternoon.
After we had been engaging with the public for about two hours a Blackpool Council representative approached one of our members, Michael, and asked us to stop our action. As Michael explained, a member of the military staff had complained about Veterans engaging with members of the public. The rep said we did not have a permit and that should we continue to hand out leaflets on the promenade or even engage people wearing our tee shirts then they would ask the police to intervene. The rep explained that we could carry on our action off the promenade on the public highways but not private property.
We had a quick huddle and decided to have one last phot and withdraw. At this stage the security contractors attempted to herd us off the promenade, as the photos show.
After our last photo we wandered through Blackpool during which time we engaged with more members of the public and ended up in a pub to relax for a couple of hours. We then went back to our temporary RHQ and had a very pleasant evening social with a great barbecue and a couple of World Cup matches!
I was contacted by a couple of journalists about the event, which was widely shared in social media particularly Twitter. The Canary published an article by Mohamed Elmaazi: https://www.thecanary.co/uk/2018/07/05/veterans-threatened-with-arrest-on-armed-forces-day-for-handing-out-leaflets/
For balance I will quote Blackpool Council’s response to journalists: In response to many complaints from people at the event, including veterans, members of the public, cadets and staff, the council representative asked the Vfp to stop handing out leaflets. This was because the content of the leaflet was not deemed appropriate for the event or the audience at the event. Furthermore, the distributers of said material did not have a leafleting licence as needed to distribute printed material.https://www.blackpool.gov.uk/Business/Licensing-and-permits/Business-and-trading-licences/Leaflet-distribution.aspx
The event organiser advised that if they wanted to leaflet at another time how they could obtain a licence. Similarly it was stated that the group could stay if they stopped engaging with the public in the manner that they had been previously.
Unfortunately, the options given to the Vtp was not satisfactory and the group refused to stop leafleting. As such the decision was made to ask the distributers of the materials to leave the site.
No-one at any point was threatened with arrest. The council did not receive instructions from members of the British armed forces. Blackpool council will take decisions what is best for the event based on the safety of all participants, including those distributing the materials. In this case a significant amount of complaints from all attendees at the event led to the above actions being taken.
I would take issue with the statement, which to me was inaccurate and not based on our conversations on the day. We were threatened with arrest, we were told we could face action if we returned to the promenade wearing our tee shirts, we were told one member of the military complained about us and not multiple people. They also were inaccurate in that we did not need permission to leaflet on the promenade. Their guidance, which can be accessed by following the link Blackpool Council provided, clearly states political groups do not need consent to leaflet. In a subsequent statement to a member of VFP they changed their minds about why we could not leaflet and that any leaflets must be vetted by them!
Blackpool Council responded to one member’s letter ‘they think we are being very confrontational and that it was unfair as they tried to help us on the day. Their grief was that we were giving out the ‘Don’t Join the Army’ postcards (https://dontjointhearmy.co.uk) to children, especially those in Cadet uniforms, and especially the reference to sexual abuse. Also, as this AFD was on private land the rules on giving out leaflets do not apply, and they should have been vetted by them beforehand.’
Blackpool Council have decided post event that cadets can be given instruction on weapons and how to kill people but cannot be warned about sexual abuse that occurs in the Armed Forces. Even the MOD accepts that sexual abuse is higher in the military than civvie street and that women of lower ranks are the most likely victims.
As a VFP member said ‘it is a bit ironic Blackpool Council are now playing the victim and trying to come across as though they were being reasonable. They weren’t up for a discussion on Saturday and were instantly confrontational with us, no discussion or other options given! They don’t have a problem with children being exposed to rampant sensationalised militarism.’
I think that it is quite worrying a local council requires that any leaflet handed out in public spaces is vetted by them. That does not allow legitimate discussion and undermines freedom of speech.
This shutting down or attempts to limit an alternative voice to militarism and war was not unique; testimonies are coming in from other towns and cities in the UK of similar issues.
Overall this was an extremely effective action because the response of the authorities helped create a story and photos that have been widely shared on social media. Many thanks to Blackpool Council!
Phillip Clarke served in the British Army and is the Chairman of Veterans For Peace UK