COMMENT by Maisie Carter

Tony Benn — “He encouraged us”

Members of Wimbledon Disarmament Coalition joined the hundreds of peace campaigners, trade unionists, pensioners and many others who gathered outside St.Margaret’s Church, Westminster, to say a last farewell to Tony Benn, the man who meant so much to so many people; people who would concur with Len McCluskey, of the union Unite, who commented: “He was an extraordinary man who inspired millions, a fighter against injustice, a man of peace who was on the side of the workers. His integrity was unquestionable.”

Always a passionate advocate for peaceful solutions to all conflicts, and a valiant spokesman for CND since its foundation, he resigned from the Labour front bench in 1958, stating that he “could not, under any circumstances support a policy which contemplated the use of atomic weapons in war.”

Since that time Tony Benn has been a familiar presence at all major peace and trade union demonstrations, tirelessly travelling up and down the country even when his health was no longer good; delivering his speeches with a refreshing optimism that were guaranteed to win affectionate support from all audiences. The Durham Miners’ banner, with its picture of Benn, which had pride of place among those paying tribute at the funeral, served as a reminder that he had attended and spoken at twenty of the famous Durham Miners’ Galas through the years.

Merton has welcomed Tony Benn on a number of occasions. I can remember him speaking at an open air meeting in St. Mark’s Place, the site of our current peace vigil, followed by a march through Wimbledon. A much larger event was a public meeting in Merton Hall organised by Merton Trades Union Council, in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike. The hall was packed. As Chair of the meeting, I was intensely nervous about how to introduce this eminent person, but I was immediately put at my ease by Tony’s understanding, charming manner, and of course by the overwhelming reception he was given which almost drowned out my introductory remarks. More recently, in 2006, he came again to speak in Merton, this time to address a large audience of pensioners in Merton Civic Centre.

It is amazing that in such a busy life Tony Benn would be able to make time for small kindnesses such as that shown to a very young supporter who came along to a cultural event for peace where he was to speak. Isha very much wanted to have her photo taken with the great man; he readily agreed, I took the photo and as her birthday was coming up, sent a copy to Tony asking him to sign and return it if he had time. Weeks went by without a response then one day the phone rang and it was Tony Benn apologising profusely for not replying before. He explained that my letter had got “lost” in the mountain of correspondence that he receives every day, but said it was now on the way and hoped it would arrive in time for Isha’s birthday. It did, much to her delight. This experience showed that this man’s great love and compassion was evident not just on public platforms, but in aspects of his everyday life.

I headed this comment with the words that Tony Benn wanted inscribed on his gravestone. Those of us that he did encourage will remember and be guided by what I think is one of his most profound sayings: “From the beginning of time there have been two flames burning in the human heart. The flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world. My job is to go around fanning those flames.”

The peace movement has lost a giant, but hopefully more people will be inspired by his memory to continue fanning those flames.

No One Left Behind

Alison Williams of Merton UNA is offering a repeat of the workshops she led earlier this year: No One Left Behind: towards a global agenda for jobs, security and good governance. “In this year when we begin to mark the centenary of the war that was meant to end all wars, Merton UNA will focus on how to remove many of the most obvious causes of the scourge of war, and not only war but violent conflict in whatever context,” writes Alison. The United Nations is making a huge effort to involve the general public directly in deciding what should follow the Millennium Development Goals.

Alison will repeat her introductory session four times, on Tuesdays 13th and 27th May from 12·30–2·30 (bring packed lunch) or 7·30–9·30. As the venue is small RSVP is essential: 11 Wilberforce House, 119 Worple Road, SW20 8ET, or 020 8944 0574 to reserve a place.

“Islands sue nuclear states for failing to end arms race”

This was an unexpected headline in the Guardian on 25th April; we gather that the Marshall Islands initiative has taken the international anti-nuclear community by surprise. Efforts at the UN are currently concentrated on developing General Assembly support for a resolution condemning nuclear weapons under humanitarian law, thus forcing the nuclear weapons states to make a choice between their perceived ‘great power’ status and their desire to be regarded as law-abiding good guys on the international stage, and after two well-supported international conferences (Oslo and Mexico — boycotted by all five Permanent Members of the Security Council) the prospects are encouraging.

The Marshall Islands has brought separate cases to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague against the nine countries with nuclear weapons, on the grounds that the nuclear weapons states have violated their obligation to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT, which came into force in 1970, is essentially a compact between the non-nuclear states who pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapons states who in return undertook to disarm under Article VI of the treaty. “The long delay in fulfilling the obligations enshrined in Article VI of the NPT constitutes a flagrant denial of human justice” the court documents say, drawing attention to the fact that the weapons states are currently in the process of modernising their nuclear weapons. The case against Britain accuses the UK of taking actions to improve its nuclear weapons system (i.e. the renewal of Trident) and to “maintain it for the indefinite future”.

Of course, the Marshall Islands (which include Bikini Atoll and Enewetak) were the site of 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, and the islanders submit that they have been suffering health and environmental effects ever since. It is noteworthy that the initiative to approach the ICJ for the 1996 Opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons was inspired by a Vanuatu representative who realised that the nuclear weapons states had no veto over the World Health Organisation (WHO), and despite nuclear weapons states’ attempt to argue that nuclear weapons were not a health issue(!) the WHO request for an Advisory Opinion was submitted and history was made.

Bruce Kent in Wandsworth

Bruce Kent was principal speaker at an interfaith meeting on April 26th organised by Wandsworth Quakers. The lovely 18th century meeting house was full and there were contributions from the Buddhist, Ahmadiyya Muslim, Roman Catholic and Quaker speakers.

Bruce had already been on the road with his ‘No Faith in Trident’ tour for nearly four weeks but he spoke as vigorously and passionately as ever, urging us to act “politically, socially and religiously” to try to prevent the government from going ahead with its plans to renew Trident. Trident is immoral under any system of ethics and illegal under humanitarian law: the NPT obligation to negotiate ‘in good faith’ has been shamelessly ignored since 1970.

The current position of the UK is the result of shamefully secret and undemocratic decisions made by power-hungry politicians. During the Cold War it was possible to produce a semi-convincing argument for balance of power — mutually assured destruction (MAD) — but with the collapse of Communism all this is ancient history. How can we continue to tell non-nuclear countries that they can’t have nuclear weapons if we are planning to remain a nuclear weapons state for the indefinite future? How can we justify spending up to £100 billion on what is essentially a vanity project in a time of austerity?

Politicians will vote according to the party whip and very few of these MPs have a fraction of the specialist knowledge that we have. Remember that in comparison with the average MP you are an expert on the realities of nuclear weapons, the dangers of accident and the prospects for global disarmament.

Politicians rely on apathy and ignorance amongst the electorate, and we can only counter this by raising public opinion against Trident renewal as widely as possible, pointing out that nuclear weapons are not only expensive, illegal and immoral, they are useless against any of the real threats to our security (terrorism, disease, climate change).

I myself have already been inspired to write to the Guardian and to the magazine of the U3A in the 48 hours since Saturday. We must all refuse to let any opportunity slip to bring the debate back into the media and re-educate the public.


Fête of the Earth, May 17th

The Fête should have been in your diaries for months now; it is our most important social and fund-raising event of the year, and we hope to see as many of you as possible at St Mark’s Church Hall on May 17th. We need PUBLICITY, GOODS and HELP and everybody can contribute in some way, even if it is just passing on a leaflet or putting up a poster.

The plant stall has a reputation to keep up. Can you help with house plants, vegetable seedlings or bits from your garden? Tomato plants are especially needed.

We are again having a bottle tombola and we need lots of ‘wooden spoon’ prizes as well as a few top treats, so bring us your orange squash, ketchup and washing-up liquid as well as bottles of whisky. We need raffle prizes — an ideal destination for unwanted presents... The cake stall can sell as much as you can make — bread, biscuits, sweets, jams and other home produce as well as cakes. The book stall needs updating and refreshing every year, so please have yet another clear-out.

The team on the bric-à-brac stall claim to be able to sell almost anything, so long as it is not too big or potentially dangerous. (It felt wiser to turn down the offer of an electric hedge trimmer that “made a funny smell” except when it was used slowly.) There is a jumble sale element to bric-à-brac that is half the fun, so your rejects may be somebody else’s treasure.

We will need lots of helpers on the day, both to man stalls and to help with the setting up and clearing up. We shall again be hiring a van to cover transport, but this van will have to be both loaded and unloaded and physically able helpers will be required at 43 Wilton Grove from 8am and at the hall from 8·45am so we can start setting up at 9am on the dot. (Time will be tight before we open at 11 o’clock.)

Above all we need CUSTOMERS. Flyers are included with your Newsletter for distribution to friends and neighbours, and please get in touch if you can use more. (Can you deliver 100 or so flyers in your road for example?) Leafletting outside Centre Court will take place every day at 11am during the week before the Fête and again we need more volunteers: phone 020 8543 0362 if you can spare an hour or so.

Looking forward to seeing you at St Mark’s!


Pink Knitting in Regent Street

Our Wool Against Weapons [see and Newsletters since 2013] knit-in and display in Wimbledon’s Lush inspired Ruth to explore further afield, and she has managed to arrange for a group of pink-knitters to publicise the Aldermaston–Burghfield seven mile scarf in London’s main Lush store, in Regent Street. We have been invited to knit there between 12–5pm on May 3rd and to bring leaflets and a selection of finished scarf sections. This is a wonderful opportunity and all knitters are invited to join us.

(It would be helpful if you can let Ruth know in advance if you can come: 020 8788 1916)

No Glory in War: Poetry, Music and Pink Knitting

Reserve the date June 28th — the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which indirectly precipitated the First World War. We have chosen this symbolic occasion for an evening of poetry and music in aid of peace at the William Morris Halls (267 The Broadway, 7·30pm), and on that same day we shall be rolling out Wimbledon’s section of the Aldermaston–Burghfield pink scarf down the Broadway with maximum publicity.

There will be more details at the Fête and in the next Newsletter but mark your diaries now and if you are knitting, aim to hand in your contribution in time for it to be included in the June 28th parade. (But of course you can keep on adding scarf sections right up until we all go to Aldermaston for the great Roll Out on Nagasaki Day, August 9th.)

Two more knitting dates: joining-up days at 43 Wilton Grove on May 24th and May 31st 2–6pm. Tea and cakes provided.

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