Back on the road to Aldermaston

Observations on CND

This Easter we are witnessing one very timely resurrection. For the first time in 16 years, a multitude of peace campaigners, from committed Christians to sandalled scientists, are undertaking a four-day march from London's Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire - a pilgrimage that first took place over the Easter weekend of 1958. In a world that is no nearer peace than at the height of the cold war, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has new life.

It all started here in the New Statesman, where an article by J B Priestley prompted the establishment of CND and the first Aldermaston march. On 2 November 1957, Priestley wrote:

Though it is true that independent action by this country to ban nuclear bombs would involve our foreign minister in many difficulties, most of us would rather have a bewildered and overworked Foreign Office than a country about to be turned into a radioactive cemetery . . . The whole proceedings take place in the stifling secrecy of an expensive lunatic asylum. Three glasses too many of vodka or bourbon-on-the-rocks, and the wrong button may be pushed.

The article led to a flood of supportive letters. Spike Milligan highlighted the absurd logic of the nuclear deterrent: "We must arm, arm, arm, arm, arm, arm. For the Russians must be taught that the only way to end war is to have it." "For goodness sake," insisted one reader, "let's do something to make our politicians take notice." Three others invited those intellectuals who had "come out" in the NS - including Priestley and Bertrand Russell - to form an organisation whose principal object was for Britain to abandon the nuclear bomb. "How many are there who think like us?" they asked. A meeting at Westminster Central Hall in February 1958 answered that there were many.

"Some of the English - quite a large number of them, in fact, as our meetings are proving - are waking up," reported Priestley, contradicting "all that melancholy stuff about people-only-wanting-to-watch-their-TV-screens-nowadays". This is not the only respect in which the debate of the late 1950s echoes today's arguments. Then, as now, the British government was accused of being "the humble abettor of American policy" and its ministers of "inviting contempt" on the world stage. Then, as now, many questioned whether the money spent on devices that kill might not be better spent on helping the NHS to keep people alive. And then, too, young people were said to be apathetic. But as one young NS reader wrote in 1958, her generation might respond, in Priestley's words, to "something great and noble in its intention".

Today, says Gawain Little of Youth and Student CND, "it is important that the huge movement against the [Iraq] war now turns its sights to Britain's own weapons of mass destruction". And, observes Kate Hudson, the chair of CND, Britain's attachment to nuclear weapons is more disturbing than ever. "The Def-ence Secretary has stated that if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons, then the government reserves the right to use nuclear weapons."

"Those who march are under no illu-sion that they can set right the world in a day," said an NS editorial on 5 April 1958. Almost half a century on, there is still no such illusion, but probably even greater need for change.

For information, go to www.cnduk.org, www.youthstudentcnd.org.uk and www.aldermaston2004.net