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.


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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times