The day before the deputy editor of this magazine asked me to write this piece, I coincidentally ran into Bruce Kent, who was the presiding spirit of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during the heady days of the early 1980s. I encountered him while visiting a friend in prison. He too, I hasten to add, was only there for the afternoon. "I don't do much prison visiting," he told me, "but I'm part of a group called Prisoners Protesting Innocence. It's very hard for my man in here, because he says he didn't do it. What about your chap?"
"Mine?" I replied, marvelling at his guilelessness. "Oh, he's guilty as sin."
I'd shaken Kent's hand once before, at one of the Greenham Common rallies, where thousands turned out to prevent the stationing of new, American, strategic nuclear missiles on British soil. In those days the shoulder of people on the left in this country - a broad scrum of socialists, communists, anarchist groupuscules, feminists, unionists - was thrown against the apparently dead weight of the east-west nuclear confrontation.
The doctrine of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, was felt by us to be a knife-edge upon which the destiny of the world had been teetering since the early 1950s. Whenever tensions rose at a geopolitical level, we chewed our nails. Just as my mother had calculated the quickest way to mercifully kill her own children during the Cuban missile crisis, so, as the Soviet tanks rolled into Poland, I calculated my shortest route to the morphine stash in the chemist's down the road. To be a supporter of CND was the accepted way of standing out against the cold war MADness and the puppet theatres of war, performed at by smaller states compelled to be the proxies of the superpowers.
The following day, when I found out about Dan Plesch's astonishing revelations, I thought back to my encounter with the venerable CND chairman. Was it stretching an analogy too far to think of the British government as just another prisoner of US hegemony protesting its innocence? Was the much-vaunted "independence" of Britain's nuclear deterrent perhaps the equivalent of a convicted prisoner's shopworn alibi? And had we not all turned out to be visiting the same Devil's Island of a country, where the inhabitants were deluded as to the duration of their sentence?
So what do we do now that we've discovered British foreign policy is even more circumscribed by the "special relationship" than we ever dared to imagine? I suppose the revanchist response would be to crank up the domestic hand mill and fabricate truly British bombs and delivery systems. Presumably "Dave" Cameron will be making this an article of Tory policy immediately. Meanwhile, the incumbents will have to swathe the whole Gordian knot - outright deception enmeshed with ignorance - in miles of flannelling. The one thing that won't occur, but really should, is a resurgence in CND.
Because CND was a child of its time, requiring the Berlin Wall to make its cries resonate. As a mass movement it depended on an opposition to the crude Manichaeism of the cold war, which was itself dependent on a further, rigid sense of good and evil. Where now can a revitalised CND look for such a shadowy Evil Empire to dispel? To Iran? To the Dr No conspiracy of "global terrorism" and its feared dirty bombs? And where is the cannon fodder for this protest war? The British left is ruptured on the vaulting horse of Iraq, and the youth of this country have been seduced into the consumerism of single-issue campaigning: "Buy this peach-flavoured scrub and make poverty history while cleaning your face."
Yet in the hypocrisy of our own leaders, their dishonesty and their pusillanimousness, there lies something truly worth opposing. Why should we trust the British government to have its finger on the nuclear trigger when it so clearly doesn't trust itself? Why should we allow ourselves to be the recipients of transfers in nuclear weapons technology that clearly breach the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while bleating about the nefarious activities of other nations? And why should we allow our leaders to go on manufacturing enemies to justify the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction?
Looking back on the cold war now, most historians concur that the realistic threat posed by the Soviet Union had passed by the 1970s. In the west, the masses continued to be cowed for another decade by a jinn conjured up with smoke and mirrors. Let's not allow the same thing to happen again: there is no one we can aim our Made in the USA ICBMs at, there is no method in this madness. It's time, once again, for a broad coalition to mobilise and expel foreign warmongers from our soil. Bruce Kent, we need you to get out of jail and not allow the John Reids and Tony Blairs of this world to get away with protesting their innocence - because, quite frankly, this isn't a job for Bob Geldof and his pop concerts.
Buying a bracelet won't do it
I was too young to remember, but I'm told that together we tied ribbons to the metal fences. My mother recalls a lot of questionable singing and dungarees. We visited the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common in the spring of 1982, when I was one. For my mother, the nuclear threat was still very real: as a young girl, she had accompanied her own mother on CND demos.
Twenty years later, however, I feel distanced from the campaign. The family tradition of CND activism has been broken by a life spent free from direct nuclear threat. Different issues such as globalisation, the environment, human rights and fair trade have crept up youth agendas, but somehow nuclear disarmament hasn't quite kept pace. The widespread political apathy of the under-thirties (created by the communications gulf between us and our elected leaders) has spread to active campaigning. Popular protests such as Make Poverty History are top-down and emphasise how to use your wallet rather than yourself to bring about change. What sticks in my mother's mind about the Greenham women was their incredible bravery. The current shift in British policy away from deterrent to first use makes the threat of nuclear conflict much more worrying. Buying a bracelet might not
be enough here. We are going to have to start being very brave, too.