by Matt Sands
Remembering Whitstable campaigning to ban the bomb
In his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller recalled telling a meeting of those protesting against the Vietnam War that:
It was essential to the risk of living to feel the passions they were feeling now. And more: If this movement should end not in some thunderclap of victory but in pale distraction and remorse for wasted time, it should not be the occasion for disillusion, because we must go on groping from one illusion of virtue to another; the fact was man could not act without moral impulse however mistaken its identification with any particular movement might turn out to be.Timebends, Arthur Miller
I took this as a consolation, a requiem for my own political activities when I gave them up at the start of the 1990s. I had been active in Whitstable CND since the early ’80s. I had learnt at some point that, on the day I was born, October 4 1960, the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell had made his famous speech promising a Labour conference that he’d “fight, and fight and, fight again” to save his party.
He was referring to his desire to turn Labour back from what he condemned as its “suicidal” left-wing extremists’ policy of avoiding contributing to nuclear war by getting rid of our nation’s nuclear weapons and instead return to — as he’d have it — the sane, honest policy of predicating “defence of the realm” on retaliatory nuclear genocide.
The stand of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) lobbying for this country to be rid of nuclear weapons, is still commonly framed as left-wing. By implication, calling it left-wing is sufficient to dismiss it as not worthy of consideration.
Conventional thinking was that, although the dozen European countries in Nato at the time got by without massive spending on their own nukes, this country must have its own nuclear weapons to ensure that Soviet Russia could not take us over.
“The Soviet Union, and allied regimes, haven’t attacked us in the west because we had a nuclear deterrent.“
CND’s journal mocked this with a cartoon depicting Margaret Thatcher’s defence secretary Michael Heseltine saying: “Let us face the facts; in the years we’ve had the nuclear deterrent, the Soviet Union never won the Eurovision song contest.”
The reason they didn’t, in both cases, is: they never seriously intended to try.
In the summer of 1982 football fans from communist-ruled Hungary and Poland travelled to support their teams in the World Cup in Spain. In that Cold War era only the most trusted devotees of Eastern European regimes got their permission to travel abroad. Yet, once across the Iron Curtain into Italy, entire coachloads sought political asylum. So if those regimes’ most loyal supporters craved exile, how could it be credible that their armies, largely of unwilling, resentful conscripts, were prepared and able to make war and colonise western Europe for their masters?
To launch a separate Whitstable CND branch in 1982, we leafleted to get an audience for public screenings of the drama-documentary The War Game. Our first meeting of supporters recruited, many of them Labour Party members, set about electing some branch officers. Many officer posts went to people whose appeal for election was not that they had suitable abilities for the role but that “I have been a Labour Party member for (x) years”.
Many among the active Labour membership did and still do adopt the article of faith that Labour must be the sole legitimate custodian of virtue against the Tories; so members should expect that any progressive political pressure group would be not working in partnership — but subordinate to their party.
At Easter 1982 hundreds of CND members from around Kent gathered at Canterbury’s Westgate to walk the main street to a rally at the Dane John Gardens: my first demo. And my first close encounter with the state police. A cluster of men with long-lens cameras hung out of the upstairs window at the Kentish Cricketers pub, and again on the Dane John mound, taking snaps of our faces for their files. To what benefit?
Rally speakers added calls, in vain, for special branch to give up: even in the “free world”, authorities regard dissident protest as bizarre and menacing, so cannot let it go unmolested.
As the 1983 election campaign began, the Whitstable CND branch meeting discussed what contribution to make. My contention, that since we’d find people more receptive to considering the issues, so CND street stalls should be stepped up, was talked out by the Labour contingent, who insisted the local CND members’ activity must be to canvas for Labour in Medway, the nearest marginal seat. So, as my political commitment then focused on disarmament issues alone, I was inactive in the election. Later, following the — lost — election, a party officer told me that though many CND members in the local party pledged to go canvassing, few showed up.
Our CND branch resumed monthly street stalls outside St Alphege Church — until the vicar lobbied us to stop locating there, for the sake of some of his congregation who claimed we offended those who had served in WWII.
Ex-servicemen’s distaste was proven not universal when one autumn morning in 1984 a pensioner came to the stall and thrust three £20 notes into my hand, saying “please get this to the Greenham Common women’s peace camp.”
We asked, why so much? He told us he had been in the crew on the first Royal Navy warship to dock at the port of Nagasaki a few short weeks after the nuclear bomb had been dropped on the city in 1945. The man removed his hat showing a pale bald scalp with just a few irregularly spaced wisps of white hair and thin blue veins showing through.
Pointing at the top of his head he declared: “I got this from my visit to Nagasaki. This is what it did to me: I don’t want my country to do this to anyone again.”
Our campaigning had led to removal of Cruise nuclear missiles in the 1980s.
But North Korea is like a substitute threat for extinct Soviet communism — the primary grounds for keeping the deterrent.
In 2003 the peace movement raised the biggest-ever national demonstration. A reported two million people’s protest on London’s streets failed to inhibit a Labour government from pursuing invasion of Iraq. After that, I gave up even registering to vote until 2016, when new Tory leader Theresa May rallied her MPs by a motion to endorse renewing Trident (against opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s stance).
Western powers haven’t made peace with North Korea: we have a ceasefire in the Korean War since 1953. North Koreans could see themselves as having a need to have the same evil weapon for the same reason: the threat to them from us.
Yet our rulers move from “Trident is needed to deter attack” to “Trident is needed to start a war! “
Defence secretary Michael Fallon said, as if it were common sense: “We must not only have a prime minister with nuclear weapons available but also be prepared to use nuclear weapons FIRST!
Yet Gaitskell’s Labour conference speech on the day that I was born — that having nukes would be the only sane honest and decent approach that would bring success in elections — returns, 60 years on, as new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tells the party in his leadership speech: “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security,” implying that trust was lost by the previous Labour leader Corbyn’s publicised intention never to use nuclear weapons.
Those who could ban the bomb are still compromising with the banality of evil.
Although born in Whitstable, Matt Sands now lives in Canterbury. He has worked in office administration, and for a mental health patient advocacy scheme. In the late eighties he was a candidate for the Green Party three times in local elections whilst he acquired a degree in Politics & Government from the University of Kent, which he has described as “the biggest cul-de-sac on my CV.”
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