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11 February 2008

Half a century of CND

Bruce Kent, one Britain's most prominent peace campaigners, writes to mark the 50th anniversary of C

By Bruce Kent

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’.

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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.

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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.