By Isobel Lindsay
Radical political action tends to develop in waves. The content and experience is never identical but there are often similar patterns of development, and similar problems. It can be useful to look back as well as outwards to other contemporary examples.
I was always a likely candidate for any anti-nuclear movement. My father was one of those in the British forces who went into Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped. I still have a melted beer bottle picked up on the outskirts of the city. I knew about the terrible power of nuclear weapons from an early age. The UK tested its first atomic bomb in 1952 and then more powerful bombs in the Christmas Island tests in 1956-8. Critical voices were not widespread or coordinated until after 1958. Before looking at the emergence of CND and the Committee of 100, I’d like to look at some of the lessons which I think emerged from these campaigns and which have some contemporary relevance.
1. A small number of people can start a process that makes a break-through in public perceptions of major issues.
2. Innovative types of action can be important in attracting participation as well as gaining a public identity.
3. It is very difficult to sustain high levels of participation in activities, especially if there are not some ‘wins’.
4. It is even more difficult to sustain high levels of participation in action that involves real sacrifices, especially increasing sacrifices as with repeat illegal action.
5. It should be recognised that support often comes in waves and even if it goes down, new factors can result in a stronger upturn so it is important top keep a core organisation going even in times of low activity.
6. The relationship with political parties presents a difficult problem for campaigns. On the one hand it is important to get them on board to deliver change; on the other you can’t necessarily trust them (even people you thought were strongly supportive). When in power they operate in the context of strong vested interests. You have to think seriously about how you create countervailing powers.
The First Wave
The emergence of the anti-nuclear movement as a significant force has its roots in small initiatives which ‘took-off’. In 1957 Harold Steels, a Quaker, attempted to sail into the Christmas Island blast area in protest against the atmospheric tests. While he was stopped from reaching the zone, supporters formed the Direct Action Committee and organised a march in 1958 to the nuclear weapons development establishment at Aldermaston. Meanwhile a committee – which became CND – had been established by another group of better-known political, religious and literary figures which supported the Easter Aldermaston march and opposed nuclear testing. In the course of the following two years CND and the Aldermaston marches broke through to wider public awareness. It had become a live political issue. Alongside legal marches, political lobbying and public meetings, a new civil disobedience strand was developed in late 1960s. The Direct Action Committee had already used techniques like blocking entrances to military-related sites in an attempt to challenge and persuade workers involved to withdraw their labour, but these were numerically very small actions. With the announcement that Holy Loch in Argyll was to become a US Polaris base, the DAC had organised a London to Holy Loch march culminating in a sit-down to block the pier. Just before this started, some of those in the DAC and some high-profile figures like Bertrand Russell and many from the arts had launched the Committee of 100 with the aim of organising mass non-violent civil disobedience in opposition to nuclear weapons. One of the leading figures, the Rev Michael Scott, had been expelled from South Africa after years of anti-apartheid campaigning. The Gandhi campaigns in India were also within living memory of most involved. The theory behind C100 was that there would be collective responsibility for all actions with no office-bearers. The first demonstration was in February 1961 with 4000 sitting down outside the Defence Ministry. At the Holy Loch, police allowed demonstrators to block the pier for 24 hours making no arrests, and in London the fines were very low – but this was not to last. With the prospects of more civil disobedience demos, the tactics of the authorities hardened. In England they started to use a 14th century ‘binding over’ law which meant that if you refused to agree not to break the law in the future, you would be imprisoned. In Scotland the 350 who were arrested in September 1961 were charged with breach of the peace and received what were at that time significant fines. Prosecutors in England imprisoned 32 C100 members including the very elderly Bertrand Russell. This rather backfired because many were public figures, so they then used a different tactic. In advance of the next demo, which was at the Wethersfield air base, they avoided the well-known names and arrested six office staff and charged them with ‘conspiracy and incitement’. They received 18 month sentences, with the authorities ignoring the written claim of collective responsibility by the 100 signatories. It was a disgraceful abuse of the legal system – don’t expect fair play. In Scotland the courts started giving prison sentences to men (women were allowed to pay fines) who were second offenders.
Anti-nuclear activism went into decline after 1964 and did not return as a major force until the 1980s. It was likely to have happened anyway but the decline was accelerated by the election of the Wilson Labour Government in 1964. This seriously undermined the movement. Many of the CND leaders and activists had close Labour connections (although this was much less true of the C100). While Labour certainly did not go into the election with a unilateralist position, they had said they were opposed to proceeding with the British Polaris programme at Faslane. When in power they quickly reversed this on the grounds that ‘too much work had already started’. Many in the Labour Party from senior ministers to local activists melted away from CND. Anti-war activism did continue but in the late 1960s it focussed on anti-Vietnam war protests.
What did the 1958-64 years achieve?
1. While they never won majority public support, they did get a fairly solid 30% support for unilateralism, and they did create public awareness of the nature and risks of nuclear weapons. I can remember at the start of the period regularly having to argue with people about the existence of radioactivity. Nuclear weapons were seen by many as ‘just like other bombs but a bit bigger’. There were the notorious civil defence instructions in the event of a blast to put paper bags on the windows, etc.
2. This was a model for new single-issue social movements that were not just lobbying groups related to political parties but trying to reach the wider public by going onto the streets, using dramatic action to get a media presence including non-violent direct action and civil disobedience, challenging the moral authority of the state and its secrecy, and engaging a younger generation in political action.
3. Accompanying the campaigns were cultural changes. Some may have happened anyway but there was definitely an interaction. There were new developments in political satire, folk music, greater social liberalism, critiques of ‘the establishment’. One side effect was that there were articulate, ‘respectable’ people seeing the inside of prisons and the operation of police for the first time which helped to promote reform.
The Second Wave
The second big wave of activity started in the early 1980s. The trigger was the US proposal to site Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, and the agreement to sell the Trident system to the UK to replace Polaris at Faslane. Activity this time was much wider and deeper, and many local CND groups were formed. There was support from Labour, many Liberals and in Scotland, the SNP. There was a new feminist strand at Greenham Common. There were also strong movements on the continent, especially in Germany. The context was a widespread feeling that the arms race was accelerating, with greater technological sophistication increasing the scope and accuracy of targeting, and that this was happening in the political context of growing intensity of the Cold War with Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK. There were large demonstrations and lots of media coverage. The Thatcher Government started to worry about the extent of opposition and so they put a lot of effort into counter-propaganda. In Scotland anti-Trident opposition enjoyed majority support, but support for CND was still in a minority in England. By the late 1980s the Soviet Union was disintegrating and with it the Warsaw Pact. It seemed that the threat of conflict was retreating and that took much of the drive away. Another factor, as in 1964, was the role of the Labour Party. Labour MPs and local members had played an active role in CND until Neil Kinnock had their conference reverse their anti-nuclear policy,and agree that a Labour Government would keep Trident. His speech was almost exactly the same as Kenny McAskill’s at the SNP conference in support of Nato – ‘I have been marching for years – now we need to compromise to get power’. Overnight MPs who had been active CND supporters changed their position. I can think of several Scottish MPs who within a few weeks of the policy change were attacking CND in the press. But although the extent of activity receded in the 90s, it was still at a higher level than after the first wave in the 60s. This was more so in Scotland since we by then had all of the UK’s nuclear delivery capacity.
What were the lessons from the 1980s?
1. Public understanding of nuclear weapons was substantially greater than in the early sixties. All the campaigning work over the intervening 20 years had filtered through.
2. Any developments that look like acceleration or events that look like increasing risk predispose more people to action. People become complacent or resigned about the status quo but they can be stimulated into action if they feel things are getting worse.
3. When there appears to be even a slender chance of preventing something happening or making it happen, it is so much easier to mobilise than when it is a fait accompli.
4. The 80s showed an increasing Scottish/English divide. While there was a good activist base in England, there was still a much larger level of support for the Tories and their policies. The institutional positions were diverging. The Church of Scotland moved to an anti-nuclear position but not the Church of England. The Scottish Catholic Bishops declared the possession of nuclear weapons morally unacceptable but not the English Bishops. The role of the STUC in Scotland was more actively anti-nuclear than the TUC.
The anti-nuclear movement intensified again, especially in Scotland, with the decision of the Blair/Brown Government to proceed with commissioning a new generation of the Trident weapons system, which would have a lifespan well into the middle of the century. Both non-violent direct action and more conventional action have been used without the tensions between the two approaches that were there in the earlier period. The election of a Scottish Government which was anti-nuclear was also a milestone in Scotland. Much of the action from 9/ll onwards was anti-war activity but largely involving the same activists.
Other recent radical actions have shown some of the problems that we saw in the anti-nuclear movement. The Occupy campaigns made an impact and caught the public imagination, but they found it very difficult to sustain the amount of dedication needed. They were also not always clear about specific policy objectives which could have been pursued and presented as ‘wins’. The Uncut movement has more potential staying power because it has specific demands, some of which are achievable by its ability to damage commercial reputations. The demands it makes on activists don’t include substantial personal sacrifices, which are difficult to sustain.
The Referendum campaign is a fairly unique situation for activists. There is a huge amount at stake, it is time-limited, and it is a clear-cut choice, win or lose. It should be an ideal situation in which to maximise effort, and Scottish CND has taken the decision to back a Yes vote as the best chance of disarming Trident. A big change from the 1960s.