Over Twenty Years of the CND in Britain

Richard Taylor and Colin Pritchard, The Protest Makers, Pergamon Press, 1985

By Christopher Ross (reviewer)

The story of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) is as splendid as it is dramatic, In the late 1950s Britain, like North America, seemed frozen in its cold war spirit. Yet overnight it was thawed by events like 100,000 voices in Trafalgar Square, chanting "Ban the Bomb!"

Taylor's and Pritchard's book takes us through the CND's most turbulent five years. They also use a survey of 400 CND members to analyze the groups that made up the movement, their varying ideologies, and what they are doing twenty years later. They provide a sense of the different strategies taken by the British movement, from which the Canadian movement of the 1980s can learn - with the gift of 20/20 hindsight. But first the story.

Immediately after the founding meeting on 17 February 1958 at the Central Hall in London, there was a sit down outside the Prime Minister's house. That Easter, 10,000 people marched from the U.S. Nuclear Research Base at Aldermaston to London. By January of the following year CND had a national network, tens of thousands of active supporters, and an impressive array of public figures united on these three points:

  1. The unconditional renunciation of the use and production of nuclear weapons.
  2. A call for negotiations to end the arms race.
  3. A call to non-nuclear powers to pressure the nuclear stakeholders.

The 1960 Easter rally brought out between 30-100,000 people in London alone, and that autumn the conference of the Labour Party (then in opposition) backed the CND proposals. Soon after, however, a split emerged over tactics. The Committee of 100 broke away from the official CND in favor of mass civil disobedience. With the prospect of war over Berlin looming, the sense of urgency inspired support for civil disobedience. That fall 1300 protestors were arrested in Trafalgar Square and 341 at the U.S. submarine base at Holy Loch.

The movement declined, however, as rapidly as it had grown. The right wing of the Labour Party reversed its party's endorsement of CND proposals at the 1961 convention. Tough prison sentences for civil disobedience had their effect. So did the Cuban missile crisis, which showed that the superpowers could come close to, but also step back from, the nuclear brink.

The world breathed again, but the relief decreased the sense of urgency for Britain to disarm. This was aided by the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, banning above ground nuclear tests. Thereafter, critical attention focused on American intervention in Vietnam, and not until the 1980s would the peace movement again command mass support. This time, through END (European Nuclear Disarmament), the issue was launched in a more international context.

In their analysis, Taylor and Pritchard describe four main elements in the movement:

  1. The CND leadership
  2. The left wing of the Labour Party (Labour Left)
  3. The New Left
  4. Various Direct Action groupings.

The CND leadership comprised well-known intellectuals, including philosopher Bertrand Russell, churchmen Canon Collins and Donald Soper, and playwright J.B. Priestly. The basis of the intellectuals' campaign was moral outrage, combined with personal influence. Caught unprepared for the mass mobilization that they touched off, they had no political program to realize their demands.

The Labour left for its part concentrated on changing the policy of the Labour Party. Defeated at the party convention in 1959, they succeeded in 1960, not through broad rank-and-file support, but by the influence of top union leaders, particularly Frank Cousins, leader of the largest union in the country. The Labour Left, however, failed to take advantage of their coup to promote the policy within the party, and so the right wing reversed the policy in the following year.

The New Left group arose from young people's disillusionment, both with Anglo-American capitalism and Russian communism. Its humanistic message, most eloquently expressed by E.P. Thompson, was of new non-alienating and non-aligned forms of socialism. The New Left, however, remained too academic, organized seriously neither in the workplace nor community. And it failed to talk in ways that the majority of peace activists could understand. Ironically, the New Left failed to devise new political methods and vehicles to express an alternative vision of a restructured society pursuing positive neutralism abroad.

The Direct Action groupings that composed the Committee of 100 are more difficult to describe. Though all agreed on the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience, their underlying philosophies diverged over longer term strategy. There were the radical pacifists who saw Gandhian nonviolence as the way to expose and change the inherent violence of a society willing to use nuclear weapons. By contrast, the group around the American anarchist Ralph Schoeman believed that increased confrontation between the state and mass direct action would eventually bring down the state. When demonstrations failed to grow at an exponential rate (and the state proved resilient) this perspective failed to suggest another strategy.

The third direct action group of libertarian socialists fared somewhat better, especially following the decline of CND. Its ideas inspired the "community politics" of the 1960s and municipal reform socialism of the 1970s.

Finally, the group around Bertrand Russell was different yet again. They saw non-violent civil disobedience mainly as a publicity tactic. When attention shifted away from disarmament to American aggression, Russell used his status and immense intelligence to innovate new forms of public pressure, most notably convening a War Crimes Tribunal to try the United States government for genocide for its conduct in Vietnam and Cambodia.

But this bridges to another era. What did the British movement achieve in its first phase?

Taylor and Pritchard write:

It played an important part in persuading politicians to agree to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (and subsequent disarmament agreements such as the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968). President Eisenhower put it simply, '1'think people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.', Negatively, however, the movement failed to reclaim the Labour Party for the disarmament fold and 25 years later the danger of planetary extinction is more grave than before.

Indirectly, the British movement of 1958-63 was of immense influence. Along with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, CND broke up the Cold War complacency of Western democracies. It demonstrated massive discontent with relative material affluence, and shattered the eerie dream that masked oppression within the West's own borders. Moreover, it brought forth the possibility of a new kind of mass politics that was neither Madison Avenue nor Stalinist. Open political process and the idea of participation were given new meaning.

Furthermore, the movement awakened people to the delicacy of nature's balance on earth and our unintended yet willful violation of it. CND thereby contributed to the formation of the ecological and Green movements.

Its failure is as significant as its success. While gathering a remarkable variety of people around a common moral issue -unconditional renunciation of nuclear defence - it failed to create a framework that could sustain the variety of campaigns needed to secure its ends.

What does this mean for us here and now?

In Canada in the 1980s, we share the same challenge but with more resources and with a sense of heightened risk if we fail. What are these resources?

  1. First, we have linked the moral with the economic. Viable economic conversion programs have been developed between peace activists and trade unionists. The Californian Boeing Project, the British Lucas Aerospace Project, and the Cruise Missile Conversion Project are examples.
  2. Third World underdevelopment and liberation have been linked to nuclear hegemony, resulting in a potentially fruitful relationship among peace, anti-intervention, and development groups.
  3. The wisdom of the feminist movement provides a deep analysis of militarist institutions, including those that reside in the recesses of our own minds.
  4. Our greater sensitivity to the participatory process reduces the likelihood of sectarian splintering due to macho and ego chauvinism.
  5. Not least, in Canada we have a social democratic party, the NDP, that has a good record of anti-arms race policies. The party's active membership has twice demonstrated its power and commitment in blocking opportunism by its leadership when that leadership has indulged in arms race rhetoric and military bloc thinking.

The problems we face, however, are significant:

  1. The difficulty of coordinating a peace movement without elitism across a huge country. The geographical facts make it hard to do justice to regional autonomy in Canada.
  2. Our greater vulnerability to U.S. economic sanctions requires great fortitude if a Canadian government is to implement a truly independent foreign policy.
  3. The NDP is in a weaker position than the Labour Party in Britain.

Effective measures can nevertheless be produced by peace movements when they are wider than political groups but also include political objectives. The presence of peace groups in almost every New Zealand town and a social democratic party in power, together made it possible for a U.S. warship to be barred from a New Zealand port. Clearly the courage and enthusiasm in London's Central Hall in 1958, has some noble heirs all over the world, from Wellington to Halifax. This is a story that is truly worth reading about - and adding to.

Peace Magazine November 1985

Peace Magazine November 1985, page 30. Some rights reserved.

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