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.

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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