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He may seem a bundle of contradictions – a pacifist who respects the military, a man without a TV who won a prime-time gameshow – but, finds Sam Phipps, Alastair McIntosh simply has unusual ways of making his point
AS peace activists go, Alastair McIntosh has quite a lot of time for the military. It’s a paradoxical respect born of close contact and free exchange of views; he is finding, somewhat to his own surprise, more and more common ground with senior officers and strategists. Politicians are another matter. For the past five or six years McIntosh, an author, campaigner, academic and Quaker pacifist, has addressed 400 top brass at the Joint Services Command and Staff College – Britain’s foremost school of war – at Shrivenham near London. He has not been haranguing them through a megaphone across barbed wire, though that would not be his style anyway. No, McIntosh speaks as an invited guest with direct access to the lion’s den. A respected campaigner on non-violence and environmental issues, he is there “to make us think”, according to the course director. It seems to be working.
“I’m finding that some of the most exciting thinking about alternatives to war is coming out of military people themselves,” McIntosh says at his home in Kinghorn, Fife. “For one thing, they’re actually adopting the language of the peace movement, expressions like the ‘spiral of violence’ and so on. Lecturing at the college and elsewhere has taught me that many in the military have thought far more deeply about war than most people have. Many of them have seen it face to face, of course, and know how horrific it is.”
He shows me an e-mail from a lieutenant-colonel in the US army, who jokes about getting a war games exercise over and done with as quickly as possible to leave more time for golf. Then the officer makes a serious philosophical point about perceptions of “them” versus “us”. McIntosh laughs at the Pentagon disclaimer at the end that the e-mail is not necessarily virus free. “Ha! They can drop atom bombs but they can’t guarantee their e-mails are clean.”
McIntosh, a fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology, spent much of the last year adding his efforts to the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to prevent the bombing and invasion of Iraq. He has been both dismayed and encouraged by some of the aftershocks. “One of the consequences is that it’s making a lot of people think very hard about alternatives. But it was strange; in the lead-up to it, I had very senior military people saying to me, ‘Why aren’t you people being more successful in stopping the politicians? Because we’re not comfortable with what we’re being pushed towards.’
“And it’s been made clear to me since, by people right up in the chain of command, that many of them are profoundly unhappy with what the politicians have asked them to do in this war. They fear they have been made to do something that is possibly illegal. They take very seriously the possibility that they might be war criminals. This is where Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and Jack Straw have been so corrupt.
“So I don’t think there’s a black and white distinction between the military and the peace movement. There’s a sense in which we are both working for peace. The very important distinction is that, whereas we are all prepared to die for our beliefs, those of us committed to non-violence are not prepared to kill. That’s the only absolute I try to hold on to. I say try, because were you to jump on me and suddenly attempt to stick a knife into me, I can’t honestly say what my instinctual responses would be. What I can say is that it means you don’t prepare to fight.”
McIntosh, who is 47 and grew up on Lewis, gives two examples of the power of non-violence from his own experience. When he was working in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s intruders broke into his home and held a young woman guest, who was sleeping downstairs with the children, at knifepoint. They ransacked the house. “Had we kept a gun, like many expats, and fired it, she may well have got her throat cut. As it was, we lost our stuff but nobody was killed.”
In another incident, the 17-year-old daughter of an Australian history professor, a colleague of McIntosh’s, was abducted and gang-raped by 14 young men from a nearby squatter camp. Normally the police would have trashed the camp and beaten people up at random. But the daughter asked her father to find a way that would “touch their hearts”.
Her family, fellow Quakers, asked the police not to retaliate. “Her father and I went into the settlement and asked to meet with the leaders. They said they were very sorry about what had happened and very grateful we had asked the police not to cause any violence against them. We said, ‘We want you to do whatever would be an appropriate traditional ceremony of confession and reconciliation.’ On the appointed day the entire squatter community came out and with much beating of drums and bearing of token gifts, apologised, headed by the 14 men. Many had tears in their eyes.”
While McIntosh admits the reoffending rate might not have been zero, he believes it would be much lower than if they had been treated in kind. The case also shows an important contrast between violence and non-violence. “They operate on different timescales. The logic of violence only makes any sense in the short run. Non-violence, however, is a long-term and big-picture approach.” Sometimes officers come up to him after a talk, wondering whether they ought to stay in the military. He replies with what George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, told William Penn in the 17th century when Penn was vexed about wearing a sword: “Wear it as long as thou canst.”
He points to Mahatma Gandhi’s India, the relatively peaceful ousting of regimes in the Philippines and eastern Europe, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, even to some extent Northern Ireland, as vindications of the rationale of non- violence in recent times.
But pacifism is only one thread of McIntosh’s beliefs and outlook. Earlier this year he was invited to be a contestant on the TV game show Without Prejudice. Recruited by a TV researcher who had seen his website http://www.alastairmcintosh.com,/ he was told that Channel Four were looking for “strongly opinionated people” to debate topical social issues such as Iraq, gay adoption, fox-hunting, and capital punishment.
Despite not owning a television, McIntosh not only made it through the auditions to the programme itself, he scooped the £50,000 prize. The cheque was equivalent to 10 years’ pay for McIntosh, but he has mixed feelings about competing on the show. Not only were the views he expressed during filming heavily edited, he now believes the objective of the show was to allow the panellists to express their opinions rather than the contestants. Moreover, he was criticised afterwards for being “hypocritical” and “narcissistic”. On balance, he says, it was a worthwhile experience. “I’ve had loads of people come up to me in the street and say it really made them think about the spirtual underpinning of things, and it’s not the sort of thing they expect in prime-time TV. I do have feelings of ambiguity. If I had known at the outset what type of programme it was going to be I wouldn’t have gone on, but given the way it worked out, I am glad I did.”
He’s also something of an eco-warrior. In Soil And Soul, his fascinating and highly acclaimed book, published two years ago, he starts with his own Hebridean background, before delving into the full complexity of Scottish history, British empire, global economics, philosophy and poetry.
As well as recounting two major triumphs of the 1990s – he helped defeat plans to turn a majestic Hebridean mountain into a superquarry (after persuading a native American chief to testify at the government inquiry) and was a key figure behind the islanders’ buyout of Eigg – he explores notions of community and calls for nothing less than a “right relationship” with one another, with the earth’s resources and with spirituality.
He traces many of the world’s problems back to the 18th century Enlightenment, with its excess emphasis on rationality and material profit at the expense of humanity and co-operation. “The Enlightenment developed in response to the abuses of power in a society where power was mythologically validated – divine right and so on. Now the trouble is that movement has overshot; it has become stuck in its own head; it has cut off feeling, cut off value judgements.”
This has led, he says, to a heinous cornering of the earth’s resources – most damagingly oil and water – by huge multinational conglomerates. Incredulously, he holds up a Scottish Water bill for £769 charged to the GalGael Trust. He is treasurer of the voluntary organisation, which builds traditional boats with some of the most marginalised people in Glasgow’s deprived Govan area. It’s a one-person office: the sum is for one toilet and one sink for a year. “This is the kind of thing that makes me a campaigner,” he says.
So far, so liberal. Yet there is nothing woolly or ill-defined in McIntosh’s approach. “It’s about each of us taking responsibility for how f***ed up the world is, and I use that expression in its theological sense; Jeremiah 20 says words to that effect. We must recognise our complicity in it and confess that to ourselves. The problem now is we are in denial.”
Self-examination, an emphasis on personal integrity, is therefore a key tenet in McIntosh’s “spiritual activism”. “The management of natural resources is primarily a question about managing ourselves. We’ve got to ask: why are we so addicted to this oil economy? What have we done to let the multinational water corporations loose on the fundamental source of life? So it’s a question of looking at ourselves in a psychological and spiritual sense.”
On a personal level, for him this means he should eat less meat, for example. He considers himself “addicted” to meat, a state of affairs that is “dysfunctional” given the ecological impact and cost. But does he not risk getting stuck on an endless guilt trip?
“I’ve no problem with guilt. I think it’s there for a reason, to give us a nudge into looking at who we are and what we’re becoming.”
Championed by green thinkers and pop stars alike, Alastair McIntosh’s eco-philosophy is straight from the Western Isles, writes Adrian Turpin
“JCB Song, JCB Song!” comes a shout from the crowd. But instead a 50-year-old man in a crumpled Harris Tweed jacket takes the stage. He has the eyes and beard of an Old Testament prophet, while the impression that this gangling figure has blundered into the wrong place is compounded by the fact that he is wearing not one, but two, hearing aids. In a soft Hebridean accent, he begins to recite a poem about a man in a boat, enduring various trials before reaching the open sea. It is rap but not quite as anyone knows it.
“I’m not sure I’ll be making a career of it,” says Alastair McIntosh. He hardly needs another job, being variously described as a theologian, historian, writer, ecologist and activist. But he must be getting used to his brushes with pop music by now.
Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, has taken to raving about McIntosh’s book Soil and Soul during concerts, urging his fans to buy it. It is, he says, “very inspiring — a desire for ecological change with no ego or malignance and no messianic tendencies”.
He is not alone. McIntosh has a growing fan club. One critic memorably described the book as Naomi Klein’s No Logo “in a Fair Isle jumper”. The environmentalist George Monbiot calls it “world-changing . . . an adventure in theology, economics, ecology, history and politics which seeks to guide us towards a new means of defeating the powerful. One day it’ll be recognised as a classic.”
It is certainly beautifully written, unlike so many idea-packed tomes. McIntosh has the eye of a poet, not a policy wonk. The first half of Soil and Soul weaves an account of his growing up on the Isle of Lewis around an exploration of the relationship between nature, community and God. His polemic is occasionally outraging. (When was the last time you heard anybody declaim against usury?) But it is also dizzyingly exhilarating, an assault on materialism that is fresh as well as funny.
The book’s second half is an account of two campaigns that McIntosh has helped fight — the successful battle against a “super quarry” on Harris and the community buyout of Eigg — both hugely involved sagas which McIntosh manages to humanise in a way few writers can.
Celebrity endorsement is unlikely to impress McIntosh. “I didn’t know who Thom Yorke was until my son told me,” he says. But it spreads the message, and it is a message that is creeping into the mainstream.
David Cameron’s greening of the Conservative party and the acceptance of climate change as a reality rather than a possibility have happened since Soil and Soul was first published in 2001. New Labour’s “respect” agenda makes its ideas about the nature of community seem as important as ever. The war on terror and the war in Iraq have given McIntosh’s reflections on spirals of conflict new resonance.
So it is not just the “beard and sandals” brigade that seek out McIntosh’s views. At the joint military command college in Shrivenham, he has lectured about pacifism. Later this year, he will speak at the INSEAD business school near Paris.
“There’s a wonderful saying that when the centre collapses, the peripheral becomes essential,” he says. “You can overplay that, but there is the sense that we need to take lessons from the periphery about how to build communities that work, how we relate to one another, how sustainable we want our society to be.”
In Glasgow’s Govan, where McIntosh lives and works, you feel on the periphery in more ways than one. Near the Ibrox stadium a pre-pubescent truant plays keepy-uppy with a football. “F*** the BNP” reads graffiti on a crumbling tenement. On this depressing street is the home of GalGael, a charity whose projects include helping the long-term unemployed develop skills and confidence by building boats. McIntosh is one of the directors.
“I’m looking for Alastair,” I say, when I arrive. “He’s through that door having his photo taken,” says a fierce man in a white T-shirt in the lobby. “But you can’t go in.”
"Why not?” I ask.
“You’ll have to wait for him to put his clothes back on,” says T-shirt bloke, cracking a smile.
Which is, it turns out, a pretty good introduction to the place. There’s a cheery bustle. Through a glass panel in the workshop another man is doing something unfathomable with a lathe, wrapped in concentration. You can’t move without being asked whether you’re all right, or want a cup of tea.
When McIntosh emerges we retreat to an office littered with children’s crayons and beaten-up furniture. Outside there’s a ferocious hailstorm. The room is half dark. When McIntosh debates for a minute about turning the light on and decides against, he is only half-joking. The writer lives nearby in Govan with his French wife Vérène.
“The postcode where we have our house is in the bottom 10% for deprivation in Scotland,” he says.
So why did he choose to move there? “People said it’s great what you’ve done on Eigg and on Harris but it’s easy for you to talk about community because you’re from the Western Isles. Following that challenge is what brings me to Govan.”
Yet it’s impossible begin to understand him without starting in Lewis. Born the son of a doctor in the village of Leurbost, he seems to have had an idyllic upbringing. Summers were spent playing outside, and at the age of five he decided he wanted to be a farmer, a notion his father quickly persuaded him against.
He learnt to fish from a coracle and worked as a ghillie on one of the estates. But his father’s status meant he had “one foot in crafting culture, the other was in the world of the laird’s lodge . . . My parents taught me to treat power, especially old-money landed power, with the utmost respect”.
When he went to Aberdeen University to study, among other things, geology, it seemed only natural to canvas for the Conservative party. A period working for Voluntary Service Overseas in Papua New Guinea opened his eyes to poverty, and he went on to do a postgraduate in business studies so that he could work effectively in the charity. He later became a fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology.
Some of the lessons he draws from the island of his birth are home-spun. When he talks of a need for co-operation rather than simply competition, he gives the example of cars allowing each other to pass on single-track roads. One of the themes of his work is the need for people to be grounded in a place and its history. Only by knowing about the past can we make informed decisions about the future, an act he calls “cultural psychotherapy”.
Much of this seems like common sense. In some ways his message (which is inspired by Christian theology) can be reduced to the simplest terms: put less faith in money, and more in relationships. Try to feel as well as think. But the brilliance of Soil and Soul is the way he builds his argument, so that each small detail echoes through the book amplifying everything else around it.
Does he think of himself as of the left or the right? “I’ve often described my work as squaring the circle, the apparent contradictions between both ends of the political spectrum. Because of the land reform, I often get called a communist. But I would argue that it has more in common with an understanding of life. Unless people are in control of their little patch, they can’t set up business. You can see that as a kind of capitalist agenda. I would call it communitarian.”
What bits of his life does Mc- Intosh feels uneasy about? “Well, there’s the car. And I’ve tried to become a vegetarian on ecological grounds but I grew up hunting and fishing. It’s in the blood, I love meat. We’re having venison casserole tonight. I acknowledge the hypocrisy of the fact. I think it’s necessary for people to be able to forgive themselves otherwise we’ll never be able to move forward. As William Blake says, ‘the cut worm forgives the plough ’.” Or should that be JCB?
Ps. Just for a bit of counterpoint to the above, here's a different perspective from Sunday Times gossip columnist, Allan Brown (12 June 2005).
Soul Searching - HERO: Higher Education Research Opportunities - 27 June 2006