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.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood