My fight against apartheid began in the 1950s after meeting a South African tourist who tried to persuade me that the South African government’s policies of “separate development”, i.e. apartheid, would be of enormous benefit to all people of colour in that country. I was not persuaded. Like many thousands of others I started in a small way, refusing to buy South African products, always explaining why to anyone who would listen and having to simplify my arguments so that my three-year-old son would understand why he could not have the South African oranges and other good things in the greengrocer’s when we went shopping.
When Anti Apartheid groups were springing up all over the country, Merton was in the forefront. On the initiative of Jenny Dewane, then Secretary of Merton Trades Council (and CND member) we set up the Merton Anti Apartheid Group. One of my first actions on joining Merton NUT in 1972 was to successfully move a resolution to close our union account with Barclays Bank, a notorious supporter of the South African government. Other activities included regular stalls in all parts of the borough, a motorcade through the Broadway led by Christine Bickerstaff, picketing Shell garages and attending the Shell Annual meetings, where a very vocal group including Brian White got the anti-apartheid message across very effectively.
Brian designed leaflets which we delivered to the queues at Wimbledon Tennis, asking them to support the boycott of South African players and all sport until the people of that country were free. Not surprisingly, the tennis crowds were not at all sympathetic to this idea, but our enthusiasm drove us to carry on undaunted.
After participating in all the marches, meetings and pickets of South Africa House it was with much emotion that on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release we flooded to Trafalgar Square. Throngs of people spread out, filling the whole area, everyone jubilant that this place which had seen so many demonstrations against apartheid was now the scene of such joy. My feelings of elation reached bursting point when on the next morning I walked into school to the sound of South African songs played to the class by an enthusiastic young teacher who went on to explain that Mandela’s release was the beginning of a new life for oppressed people throughout the world.
Since the defeat of apartheid, Merton is now part of Outer London Action for Southern Africa under the leadership of another WDC stalwart, Bob Murphy. Mandela continues to inspire us; he was a firm advocate of peace, non-violence and nuclear disarmament. We should remember his speech to the United Nations in 1998, when, calling for a nuclear-free world, he asked the question:
“Nuclear disarmament might sound naïve to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction — why do they need them anyway?”
Mandela can and must inspire us to continue the fight against Trident with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.
It is up to us to get the subject of nuclear weapons back onto the national agenda. A whole generation has grown up since the 1980s completely unaware of nuclear reality. Many people do not even realise that the government is planning to modernise the UK nuclear arsenal (at great expense). Most people will not be prepared to lie down at the gates of Aldermaston but there is much that we can all do. By getting family, friends and neighbours to sign the enclosed petition you will be adding to the total number of signatories, but more importantly you will be starting ten conversations — even if some people decline to sign.Wool against Weapons [see http://www.woolagainstweapons.co.uk and March/September 2013 Newsletters] has grown exponentially from its first tentative beginnings, we in Wimbledon being amongst the earliest enthusiasts. The idea of a 7-mile pink scarf linking atomic weapons establishments Aldermaston and Burghfield has now officially been taken up by national CND, and the date of the ‘roll out’ has been brought forward by a week to Nagasaki Day, August 9th. By knitting a section of pink scarf you are helping to achieve the 7 mile target, but almost as importantly you are spreading a message to anyone curious about what you are knitting. (And people always ask.)
If you need wool and/or needles we have a bank of materials — contact 020 8543 0362 — and Linda Murgatroyd is hosting a ‘knit-in’ on Feb.12th (see Diary).
January 23rd saw the long-awaited debate between local M.P. Stephen Hammond and international disarmament expert Rebecca Johnson. We had booked the Mansel Road Centre’s largest room and it was good to see it packed with a large and diverse audience: we had succeeded, as we had hoped, in attracting the attention of a wider public than usual.
Stephen Hammond presented the standard government case which is essentially that Trident keeps the UK safe (“The primary duty of every government is to defend and protect its citizens”) and that the nuclear deterrent has historically been supported across all the main political parties. He spoke in general terms about a “dangerous and unpredictable world” with constantly changing threats but made no attempt to explain the relevance of Trident (a huge intercontinental ballistic missile system intended to destroy whole cities).
He was at his strongest when dealing with the financial case against Trident, pointing out that its £100bn lifetime cost (Greenpeace figures) is only a small fraction of the total defence budget (“for a deterrent that protects us every minute of every day”). He did not of course question why the UK continues to have the world’s fourth largest defence budget, or examine how this substantial budget is split between personnel and hardware, large-scale high-tech purchases (aircraft carriers, fighter planes, Trident) and day-to-day equipment for troops on active service.
Before we “unilaterally disarm” we need to have evidence that this country will never be attacked by another nuclear nation. To act otherwise would be an act of “weakness not wisdom” and an “act of naïvety”.
I cannot have been the only person who felt that this was an extraordinarily thin case.
Rebecca Johnson had the opposite problem. She is hugely experienced in the field of international disarmament diplomacy and has written a doctoral thesis on the subject. Nobody could call her naïve. The terms of the debate restricted her to fifteen minutes and she had to be called to order by the Rev. Andrew Wakefield, chairing the discussion, for exceeding her allocated time. She simply had too much to say on an enormously complex subject.
The essence of her argument was that the UK should not be upgrading and modernising its nuclear weapons just when most of the rest of the world is getting together to work for global abolition. In fact the UK has been boycotting international talks, as have the other nuclear signatories to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). These nuclear nations undertook to start negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons more than 50 years ago and the great majority of the nations of the UN are getting tired of waiting.
Moves are now afoot to start a process with a focus on humanitarian law independent of the handful of nuclear armed states. This should be seen as an extension of their obligations under Article 6 of the NPT to “work towards disarmament in good faith”, not a rival process. Indeed the 2010 NPT Review Conference specifically endorsed the convening of the 2013 Oslo conference on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear exchange and it is significant that both the International Red Cross and Red Crescent have now come out with formal declarations calling for global abolition.
Rebecca outlined some of the recent research on the environmental consequences of a nuclear exchange, which show that even a limited nuclear war with ‘small’ nuclear weapons (e.g. India and Pakistan) would lead to climate destruction, the failure of agriculture and mass starvation. Nuclear abolition should be seen in the context of a ban on all weapons of mass destruction. In the case of biological and chemical weapons, international legislation preceded total elimination. Similarly an international ban on nuclear weapons would “change the legal framework: the threat to use nuclear weapons and planning to use nuclear weapons would no longer be seen as legitimate actions by nuclear weapons possessing states”. Possessing nuclear weapons would become a “badge of shame” rather than a matter of international prestige.
Rebecca talked a bit about the concept of deterrence, pointing out that it was not the property of any particular weapons system (indeed, the majority of nations in the world rely on non-nuclear deterrence against attack) and history is full of examples of weapons systems that have failed to confer invulnerability. At present Britain’s nuclear weapons are not preventing wars and are not helping us to win wars. There are plenty of much more useful tools for achieving national security and many in the military itself oppose nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons threaten the security of all and Britain should be taking the lead in the UN, working towards multilateral disarmament instead of blindly clinging to “old thinking”.
A questioner who asked Stephen Hammond if Trident was truly independent was assured that its independence was “enshrined in law” but failed to respond to an invitation to suggest a scenario where it might be used independently of the US. He conceded that nuclear weapons were not an appropriate response to today’s terrorism but “in 35 years’ time threats may be different”. Nuclear weapons would only be fired if another country had fired a nuclear weapon at us.
Questioned why the UK was boycotting current international initiatives he simply said that it was “better to concentrate on existing processes”. As we cannot be certain that progress will be made it would be wrong not to “protect our own interests”.
Rebecca stressed the importance of civil society in giving governments confidence when contemplating a major change in policy. The UK Trident debate should be all about security, not international status. There can be no guarantees against nuclear blackmail and risks can never be zero, but Britain is not uniquely vulnerable: nuclear abolition is a global responsibility. We need to join our partners in civil society and talk about humanitarian and environmental realities instead of getting lost in the intellectual arguments reminiscent of ‘game theory’. Discussion of numbers of submarines, numbers of warheads, continuous at sea patrol etc. miss the point. Nuclear weapons were a big mistake. They do not guarantee security and the nations of the world need to work together to eliminate them.
It is important to build on the momentum generated by the Wimbledon debate and continue to challenge our local M.P.s on the subject of Trident. The final ‘main gate’ decision (the signing of government contracts) has been deferred until after the next General Election as the result of public pressure. This decision must not be made by a House of Commons barely aware of the issues at stake. A whipped vote of M.P.s with minimal technical knowledge and little understanding beyond Cold War platitudes is simply not good enough. It is up to us to make them think! (WDC/CND has a host of materials to back up your arguments so if you need help with your letter writing just ask.)
Maisie and I attended the London Region Conference on January 11th, contributing an effective ‘pink knitting’ stall and recruiting many new knitters.
Rebecca Johnson spoke powerfully about how essential it is to get back to the realities of nuclear weapons. We heard more detail about the international scene than was possible in the Wimbledon debate and it does sound very encouraging.
Anne Schulthess of CND outlined the current campaigning position. The public spending cuts campaign goes well (‘NHS not Trident’ placards and T-shirts) and there is increasing concern from high-level military personnel about cuts to the military. Defence Committee chair and Tory M.P. James Arbuthnot surprised many people by suggesting that the UK does not necessarily need Trident, and this may represent an important shift in high-level Tory thinking.
Bruce Kent emphasised that the essential aim of all campaigning is to change public opinion. He will be making a national tour in April highlighting the ‘opportunity costs’ of Trident (poverty and humanitarian) as well as legal and moral issues. (We hope that the faith communities will be interested in hosting one of these events. Please get in touch if you think you can help.)
Historian Neil Faulkner gave an interesting talk entitled ‘Refighting the 1st World War’. Despite the fact that a majority of the public feel that the 1914 centenary should focus on the loss and waste of war, politicians and ‘right wing revisionist historians’ plan otherwise.
They argue that Germany (an expansionist, autocratic militaristic power) started the war. This ignores the fact that Europe was already divided by treaties into blocs with competing nation states all equipped with the latest military technology. Context counted far more than the decisions of individual national politicians.
The ‘German nastiness’ argument, with its undertones of racism, forgets that in 1914 the UK was itself hardly a beacon of democracy, and the war was not in the true interests of the ordinary soldiers of any side. Vested military and industrial interests all over Europe were in direct competition with each other.
If we fail to expose this reality it becomes easier for politicians to start further wars.
Reports by Joanna