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5 April 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:48pm

Sheila Hancock: Why I aspire to be a pacifist

Sheila Hancock recalls her anti-war activism, from Greenham Common to the Iraq march.

By Sheila hancock

As a Quaker, I aspire to be a pacifist. Along with Churchill, I firmly believe that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”. But in the latest type of war, manifesting as terrorism, often – as with the recent attack on Westminster – carried out randomly by individuals justifying their savagery by claiming allegiance to a fanatical religion or cause, it is not clear how this belief in the power of persuasion can be effective. Had I chanced to have a gun in my pocket and to be in Woolwich the day when Lee Rigby was being hacked to death, would I have refrained from using it? I don’t know. I only hope I would have had the courage of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who kept talking to Rigby’s two killers, one with bloody hands holding a knife, until the police arrived, thereby possibly avoiding further carnage.

One answer to the dilemma, as it was for conscientious objectors in the two world wars, would be not to have a gun in the first place. This throws up the question of Britain’s involvement in the arms trade. In July 2016 the Unite union issued a statement to the effect that, although it firmly believed in “beating swords into ploughshares”, the union had to think first and foremost of “the protection and advancement of its members’ interests at work”, which included the renewal of Trident. One is sympathetic with its predicament, but would not the billions spent on this outdated weapon be better expended providing alternative work in the areas affected, and, above all, waging an all-out war, through education and improved opportunities, on the radicalisation that leads to extremism? I am comforted that many protesters against the Trident programme in Scotland and England will continue their mission until, as with Greenham Common, the missiles are deemed irrelevant in our changed world.

My own efforts at peacemaking have been easy – in fact, rather enjoyable: CND marches, demos, protest meetings in Trafalgar and Grosvenor Squares, and visits to the women at Greenham, especially the glorious day in 1983 when thousands of us embraced the base and pinned beautiful pictures and objects to the ugly wire. The march against the Iraq War in 2003 was a deeply felt protest by people from all backgrounds, but there was still room for humour, as revealed in the banners. I particularly liked “Clouseau against the beumb” and “Notts County supporters say make love not war (and a home win against Bristol would be nice)”.

People power does seem to produce creativity. Long before 1914 that arch-pacifist, Jesus, was telling us all to turn our swords and spears into agricultural tools and Aristophanes was writing anti-war plays. Poets and novelists, artists and musicians have spoken to our souls of the horror of war for generations. I got myself into hot water with the press in 2014 by suggesting that the art installation of poppies in the Tower of London moat should be completed by ­being malevolently mown down by a tank, in the way that the service men and women whom the poppies represented had been. I was worried that the reaction to the art had become a complacent veneration of war, rather than a reminder of the grotesque ugliness of the suffering.

Photographic images are particularly potent. Who can forget the Vietnamese child, her body burned by napalm, running away with her terrified friends in the Vietnam War? Or the tiny mite washed up dead on the shore of Lesbos? Film, too, can be affecting – the little boy dug out of a bombed building in Syria, sitting stunned, coated in dust, his face blank even when he looked at the blood from his forehead, smeared on his hand. His childish guilt as he tried to wipe it on the seat of the chair was unbearable. We find these things painful, so we quickly put them out of our minds.

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I was struck during the Brexit debate by how little discussion there was about the origins of the concept of a united Europe. As a child of the Second World War – bombed, evacuated, full of hatred for the Germans, at one time married to an airman involved in bombing Germany – I rejoiced at the idea of joining with our erstwhile enemies to build a better world. It was a flawed project, yes, though in many ways it was a triumph. But there are few of us left to remember.

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A new book, People Power, looking at the anti-war movement in the UK and accompanying an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, recalls many conflicts that I had forgotten. I had forgotten how we were appalled at the idiocy of the missiles at Greenham, which lumbered clumsily around the countryside, easily stopped by a group of women lying in the mud – who were also able to get into the camp with wire-cutters and dance on the silos containing the weapon. The incompetence of the defence system was disturbing.

I had forgotten the all-consuming terror in my youth of The Bomb and the conviction that the much-prized balance of power, which justified the development of nuclear weapons, could easily be blown out of the water by a madman – and God knows we had witnessed several of them during the war and there are plenty still around now. We were told that the appalling destruction of lives and homes in Nagasaki and Hiroshima was to shorten the war. I was moved by the story in People Power of the airman who commented: “I think they have saved our lives at the expense of our children.”

The book reminded me of the scale of the slaughter and mayhem over the years and pushed me close to despair. But it also made me profoundly grateful to everyone who has tried to stop the devastation. Many felt the march against war in Iraq in 2003 was a failure, as we still went to war, despite millions worldwide saying no. The Chilcot inquiry recognised that the UK chose to join the invasion before “the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not the last resort.”

The condemnation was a step in the right direction. Brian Haw’s ten-year vigil in Parliament Square, when he was subject to physical attack and ridicule, was not in vain. Thanks to people like him, gung-ho attitudes to war are changing.

I pay homage to all the people in this book and beyond who have pleaded and prayed for peace. E M Forster in his essay “What I Believe” – first published by the Nation in 1938 and republished in the anthology Two Cheers for Democracy – describes them well:

I believe in aristocracy… Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human condition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.”

“People Power: Fighting for Peace from the First World War to the Present” by Lyn Smith is published by Thames & Hudson. The exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1, runs until 28 August. For more details visit:

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition