Remembering Greenham Common

Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND, recalls her first trip to Greenham Common.

Twenty five years ago this week, on 12th December 1982, I got up very early, and went by coach with other bleary-eyed women, from Islington to Greenham Common. Our intention was to surround the nine mile perimeter fence of the US air force base, where 96 US cruise missiles were to be delivered a year later.

Thirty thousand of us made it there that morning, and we did link arms and embrace the base. I remember it as a chaotic day, much of it seemed spent in darkness, not knowing where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. Above all I remember that enormous fence, decorated with all manner of things – often symbols of life, children’s toys and pictures.

But we all knew why we were there. The US was planning to put a new generation of missiles in Europe. These would be a massive escalation of the arms race, because they would greatly reduce the time it took to hit Soviet cities such as Moscow from bases in western Europe, without also putting state-of-the-art missiles closer to the population centres of the US.

The siting of Soviet SS-20s was used as a justification for introducing the new missiles, but the SS-20s did not have the capacity to strike the US. This raised the spectre of a "limited nuclear war" in Europe, with western and eastern Europe, and the European parts of the Soviet Union in the battleground. US territory would not be involved. This produced a reaction of extreme alarm, not only from the inhabitants of the countries where the war was likely to take place, but also where the missiles were to be deployed. They would be obvious targets.

Outrage at these plans led to the largest mass protests since the second world war, anti-missiles groups grew up all over the country, and CND, which grew exponentially, organised massive demonstrations.

Other forms of protest developed too. In August 1981, a group of 36 women, called Women for Life on Earth, together with a few men, walked from Cardiff to the base at Greenham Common. When they arrived, they demanded a discussion about nuclear weapons with the government. But it wasn’t forthcoming, so they decided to set up a peace camp at the base.

In 1982, the camp became women only, with a strong feminist emphasis. In the following months and years, thousands of women settled at Greenham at various times, blocked the gates, pulled down parts of the fence, danced on the missile silos, and creatively expressed our opposition to the missiles.

That creativity often left the authorities nonplussed. In February 1983, the first major trial of the women took place at Newbury, and Sarah Benton reported it in the New Statesman at the time:

The magistrates had left the court to consider their decision. Inside, 44 women were on trial; at the back of the room sat a score of women supporters. As the magistrates walked out, 30 police officers unexpectedly filed in and, standing shoulder to shoulder, lined up in front of the supporters, preventing them from seeing the defendants and, presumably, from engaging in one of those wilful and anarchic gestures against authority which have been the women’s hallmark so far. Reacting in unspoken accord, defendants and supporters rose, stood on their chairs and, leaning over the police officers’ heads, held hands. Then they began to sing, and continued to sing after the magistrates had returned, banged their gavels and cried in exasperation "Ladies, please".

Such was the spirit of the Greenham women, which continues to inspire peace activists around the world. The missiles were finally removed in 1991, under the terms of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major disarmament treaty signed in 1987, by Reagan and Gorbachev.

There can be little doubt that the extent of popular opposition to the new missiles helped shape their decision to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. As we remember those struggles and celebrate them, now is the time to make that popular opposition overwhelming once again.

10 December 2007.

Dexter Dalwood's "Greenham Common", shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2010. Photo: Getty.
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt