Half a century of CND

Bruce Kent, one Britain's most prominent peace campaigners, writes to mark the 50th anniversary of C

When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament launched with a mass meeting in Central Hall Westminster on the 17th February 1958 it was with the backing of some prominent British figures.

In fact CND grew out of discussions within the pages of the New Statesman magazine. Among early supporters were novelist JB Priestley, politician and journalist Michael Foot, historian AJP Taylor and Canon Collins - then Dean of Paul’s Cathedral.

The first of the Aldermaston marches took place at Easter 1958. In subsequent years those marches went not to Aldermaston but from the nuclear bomb factory to central London, until they came to ended in the late 1970s.

The new movement touched a national chord and rapidly grew, with branches all around the country. The campaign was largely was focused on the Labour Party. That was because CND's leadership and many of its supporters believed if Labour could be persuaded to give up aspirations for a British nuclear bomb, then this example would set in motion a worldwide shift in attitude about nuclear weapons. Global abolition was the goal with a unilateral British example showing the way to the two superpowers.

CND’s hope in the Labour Party was misplaced. Though at one conference a unilateralist policy was agreed, there was a strong fight back by right-wingers. Aneurin Bevan, no right-winger, struck the final blow when he said that CND type polices would send a British Foreign Secretary ‘naked into he conference chamber’.

The first era of CND mass activity came to an end in 1964. Harold Wilson had been elected on a promise that he would not continue with the Polaris nuclear weapon programme, but when he came into government he announced the Polaris programme was further ahead than he had thought. It was, he said, too late to cancel it.

CND numbers then went down steadily and many activists became involved in anti- Vietnam war actions. Meanwhile Polaris was built and deployed. CND did not give up but for a while its activity gained little public notice. However at the end of the 1970s it revived in dramatic force. The neutron bomb deployment project created new campaigning opportunities. The First UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978 brought to peace groups worldwide a global programme and vision previously lacking.

Major new CND expansion began in 1980. The country was then told that it would host American cruise missiles, that Polaris would be replaced by a system with a much longer range - Trident - and that a Government plan for civilian protection in the case of nuclear war was to be launched.

This last was a clear suggestion that nuclear deterrence, on which the country was supposed to rely for protection, was not as certainly safe as had been suggested. Worse, the ideas for protection were so ludicrous as to be entirely unconvincing. Within a few years CND’s national membership numbers went from a few thousand to more than a hundred thousand and groups grew mushroom-like all over the country.

CND was accused of ensuring the defeat of the Labour in the 1983 elections even though it had itself split into two separate parties by that time. CND had become a strong political force with support in the churches, the trade unions and civil rights groups.

During the days of the Soviet Union, CND members were often vilified, subjected to bitter unfounded criticism. The organisation was even accused of receiving Soviet funding and of wanting to see Britain undefended. Similar accusations were made about the women of Greenham Common, who made great personal sacrifices to highlight the dangers and costs of cruise missiles.

Many links were built with peace groups around the world - and on both sides of the Iron Curtain. CND supported the European-wide movement END which focused both on weapons and on human rights.

With the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War, interest again subsided only to surge once more as a response to the wars especially of Iraq and the Middle East and amid renewed fears about nuclear proliferation.

The current focus of CND is on the 2010 review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is perhaps fair to say the campaign today is less focused on whatever example Britain might give the world than on the opportunities offered globally for nuclear weapon abolition.

However in Britain there is now a majority opinion opposed to the spending of vast sums of money on the replacement for Trident which would do nothing to meet the real threats that we, and the rest of the world, face together.

A final report on 50 years? Initial aims not achieved but full marks for persistence. New opportunities on the way.

Bruce Kent is a peace activist and long-time campaigner for CND. More details about his "Scrap Trident Tour" can be found here.

 

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496