Face of death: the prospect of nuclear Armageddon in an early CND poster
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The magazine, the missile crisis and the movement

As tensions rise between Russia and the west, we recall the role played by the New Statesman in the creation of CND and how the Cuban missile crisis led to the decline of the anti-nuclear movement.

The most influential article in the history of the New Statesman was written by J B Priestley and published on 2 November 1957. Goaded by Aneurin Bevan’s crushing of unilateralism at the recent Labour party conference (“And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm”) and using the father-of-the-nation style that had served him so well in his 1940 Postscripts for the BBC Home Service, Priestley ended:

 

The British of these times, so frequently hiding their decent, kind faces behind masks of sullen apathy or sour, cheap cynicism, often seem to be waiting for something . . . great and noble . . . that would make them feel good again. And this might well be a declaration to the world that after a certain date one power able to engage in nuclear warfare will reject the evil thing for ever.

 

After this, the birth of the Campaign for Nu­clear Disarmament was just a matter of time.

Later that month, a meeting of opinion-shapers was held at the flat of the NS editor, Kingsley Martin. Bertrand Russell was there. So, too, were Priestley and his wife, Jacquetta Hawkes; the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, whose concurrent Reith Lecture series, “Russia, the Atom and the West”, had begun to stoke anxiety about nuclear warfare; and the Labour MP Denis Healey, a specialist in defence. The young NS leader writer Paul Johnson watched it get off to a bad start:

 

Someone spoke advocating a unilateralist line and Healey replied, “Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but what we’ve got to do
is to be responsible about this.” Priestley exploded: “Responsible. Responsible! How many times have I heard that dreadful word!? It has led to two world wars and the prospect of a third.” I noticed that Bertie Russell was cackling . . . because if anybody knew how to be irresponsible then he did! I knew then that this was going to be a lot of trouble.

 

Over the next few months the NS became a forum in which global leaders protested their commitment to world peace. Russell began the exchange on 23 November by publishing his “Open letter to Eisenhower and Khrushchev”. It came down to the exhortation “to agree to disagree” (this being the mantra first coined in the NS by Richard Crossman): “It is not necessary that either side should abandon belief in its own creed. It is only necessary that it should abandon the attempt to spread its own creed by force of arms.”

Nikita Khrushchev replied to Russell’s article a month later, in an article written in Russian and accompanied by a personal letter to the editor. When the package arrived from the Soviet embassy, Kingsley Martin suspected it was a hoax. The Soviet leader endorsed Russell’s hopes for a sunlit future for mankind and condemned “the criminal policy of militarism”. With that scoop, sales of the Statesman went up by 2,000 to well over 70,000, an all-time high.

The uplifting tone was distorted by the eventual reply of the implicit villain of the piece, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, whose public aphorisms of cold war principles were adding to the state of anxiety – “neutrality is an immoral and short-sighted concept”, “brinkmanship is the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war”, and so on. Dulles pointed out in the NS of 8 February 1958 that the Soviet Union had never renounced the use of force to resolve international tensions, as its invasion of Hungary in 1956 had proved.hese “open letters” read somewhat platitudinously today, but at a time when the Gallup Poll was consistently finding that 65 per cent of adults were worried “a lot” and 25 per cent “a little” by “all this talk about H-bombs, rockets, satellites and guided missiles”, they must have had the effect of a good sermon without God in it.

It was left to Spike Milligan, appropriately, to poke fun at the Dr Strangelove concept of mutually assured destruction (Mad). He was one of hundreds who joined in the New Statesman debate:

 

Let me be the first to say it. Mr Khrushchev’s letter in reply to Bertrand Russell is all a fiendish plot. [It] is a deliberate attempt to rob us of the promised American rocket bases on our soil. We must arm, arm, arm, arm, arm. For the Russians must be taught that the only way to end war is to have it.

 

Kingsley Martin’s own attitude to nuclear weapons was surprisingly equivocal. Then again, he was notoriously indecisive. Indeed, when he finally left the editorship in December 1960, the historian A J P Taylor sent a message: “The end of an era! It is most distressing to think that the New Statesman may now follow a consistent line two weeks running.”

Martin’s dilemma was that although he was a pacifist at heart he did not want to put the NS in the hands of a pressure group; he was an enthusiastic member of the national executive of CND but a lukewarm supporter in the office of the NS. This infuriated Priestley. “He is always dodging in and out on this,” he said of Martin.

But according to Johnson, Martin’s hands were tied anyway: “Barbara [Castle], John Freeman [who succeeded Martin as editor] and I would not let him take what we considered a pacifist line. He referred to us as the ‘Red-Headed League’ [all three had red hair] and thought we were ganging up on him.”

In October 1962 the world came as close as it ever has done to nuclear war. The NS was once again an important forum for national debate; again it was showing its own confused thinking. And behind the scenes there was an emotional rift, which has not been exposed before. The occasion, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis.

US spy planes obtained photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles recently moved to Cuba in retaliation for similar missiles the Americans had placed in Turkey and Italy. The US considered attacking Cuba by sea and air but decided instead to blockade the island, imposing a military and legal “quarantine” to prevent the delivery of more offensive weapons and strengthen its demand for the removal of those already in place.

As the NS went to press on 25 October these facts were not clear and the Soviet response was unknown. It was a fearful time. The previous day, Premier Khrushchev had written a public letter to President John F Kennedy, accusing him of “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war”. Soviet ships attempted to run the blockade and two days later a Soviet missile crew shot down a US U-2 spy plane.

That week John Freeman was in Paris and the NS leading article was written by Paul Johnson. Contrary to readers’ expectations, particularly to those who remembered his anti-American leaders of the late 1950s, Johnson positioned the NS dogmatically behind the United States:

 

. . . the Russians stand accused of an act of provocation unprecedented since the onset of the Cold War [carried out] in haste, in secrecy and behind a curtain of falsehood . . . In the event, Kennedy chose what seemed to him the least of three

evils [the other two being diplomacy and invasion] . . . The initial Russian response suggests that Khrushchev will not allow the operation of the quarantine to degenerate into conflict . . . [and will accept] humiliation over Cuba . . .

 

His prediction proved correct. On 28 October the Russians withdrew from Cuba, taking their missiles with them, and subjected to UN verification. The NS leader had been courageous. Even the Daily Telegraph had hedged its bets by calling for the US to act through the United Nations.

At the NS office on Great Turnstile Street in London, however, there was dismay. Anti-American feelings over nuclear esca­lation could not be eradicated that easily. That early nickname of the New Statesman, “the Staggers and Naggers”, was proving all too accurate, in the sense of staggering from one view to another.

Norman MacKenzie, the assistant editor, had left the NS the previous week after nearly 20 years on the staff to return to academia. Now he wrote a long and anguished letter to Freeman blaming Johnson’s leaders for taking away “the conscience of the paper”:

 

Paul cannot bear those aspects of English radicalism for which the paper has traditionally stood – scepticism, uncertainty, the small battalions, even emotional responses if you like. The paper’s job is not to be bedevilled by taking sides, but to have the courage to stand alone, to rise above the sterilities of Cold War polemics and to offer a view that may not be “practicable” but is desirable as an alternative to cynicism and stupidity.

 

The significance of the Cuban missile crisis for CND was that it led to a decline from serious influence for the anti-nuclear movement. In May 1963 the Gallup Poll asked for the eighth time in six years, “Does all this talk about H-bombs, rockets, satellites and guided missiles worry you a lot, a little or not at all?” The answers showed that, for the first time, anxiety had fallen back below the level of May 1957: 12 per cent “a lot” and 31 per cent “a little”. Senior members of CND admitted that they had read the Cuban crisis wrongly, underestimating American restraint as well as the Russian rashness and subsequent willingness to accept a humiliating reverse.

As for the NS, its coverage of the nuclear bomb issue over these years showed that it was seminal enough to give birth to a leading disarmament pressure group, powerful enough to be a forum for debate by world leaders and human enough to wear its left-wing conscience on its sleeve.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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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

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