It is less than a month since the General Election and the pre-election debate is already beginning to feel very remote. We have a flawed electoral system but in my opinion it is simplistic to blame this for Labour’s defeat. For those of us who are campaigning activitsts, it is a shock to hear (or overhear) remarks that show how little attention is paid to manifesto detail by the majority of voters. We have a conservative (with a small ‘c’) population frightened of change (which is seen as threatening) and which votes on a mixture of gut feeling and emotion. Images and stories stick (bacon sandwiches...) and primitive fears are easily whipped up (overwhelming immigration, benefit scroungers, wily and manipulative Scots).
One encouraging thing is that the defeat of the Labour Party does not constitute a rejection of progressive ideas: separate polls have shown that there is a popular majority in favour of renationalising the railways for example, and a popular majority against the renewal of Trident. It is difficult to see how and why there has been rapid media consensus that Labour lost because it was insufficiently friendly towards legitimate aspiration and success or that it was too ‘left-wing’.
In fact a TUC poll (4,000 people 8–12 May) found that the most important reason for rejecting Labour was the perception that Labour couldn’t be trusted with the economy (40%). It is also worth noting that Labour increased its share of the vote by 1·4% from 2010 while the Tories only increased their share by 0·8%, but because the Tory gains were in exactly the right constituencies they were able to take 24 more seats (and Labour 26 fewer seats) than in 2010. The SNP wipeout of Labour in Scotland was on the back of an anti-austerity anti-nuclear manifesto far to the left of Labour, with the one remaining Scottish Labour MP on record as opposing Trident, and Caroline Lucas in Brighton (Green) returned with a massively increased majority.
On 13th May I attended a London Region meeting at which CND General Secretary Kate Hudson gave her reaction to the election, suggesting that Labour may now start to feel differently about our traditional ‘first past the post’. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and CND have all experienced a membership upsurge as activists vow to continue campaigning.
There will probably be a vote on replacing Trident next year (raising its profile in the media) and the efforts of CND and other anti-nuclear groups must be focused on getting a delayed decision. There is an unknown number of Labour MPs opposed to Trident replacement (and perhaps also some of the remaining Lib Dems).
CND will be working with supporters in Parliament in an attempt to change parliamentary opinion, not only pursuing the ‘anti-cuts’ arguments but also reaching out to Tory MPs such as Crispin Blunt who are opposed to spending on Trident while other areas of the military are starved of funds. It is important that this should be a cross-party campaign, and this argument appeals to many with military connections.
MPs need to increase their understanding of the significance of the ‘Austrian Pledge’ of last December (calling on all states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”). The 70th Anniversary of Hiroshima in August will generate more media interest and provide us with the opportunity to raise awareness. To counter the received wisdom of a ‘deterrent’ essential for UK security CND will be preparing a new briefing detailing why nuclear weapons do not keep us safe: real security lies elsewhere. We need to ‘internationalise’ the issue and work with colleagues abroad for whom Trident is only one part of the global anti-nuclear campaign.
Kate did not pretend that the election result was a good outcome for the anti-Trident campaign but emphasised that there are still opportunities for us to insert our arguments into the debate, with the smallest delay constituting victory. There is no reason why a campaign against nuclear weapons should become a party political issue. The case against Trident has been made very eloquently by Michael Portillo (once a Tory leadership candidate) while James Arbuthnot (former chair of the Defence Select Committee) perceptibly shifted his attitudes during his period of office, even if he has not gone as far as Mr Portillo.
Those with long memories will recall that there was a major thaw in relations between the US and Soviet Union during the US presidency of Ronald Reagan and it has been suggested that it is easier for right-wing than left-wing governments to make moves towards disarmament without losing face. We can but hope (and keep campaigning!)
Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) “critically assesses new UK and Western military initiatives and how engineers and scientists can be involved in challenging the cycle of violence” in this thoughtful article in the Winter 2015 SGR Newsletter (Issue 43): it can also be found on the SGR website http://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/challenging-mindset-war).
After pointing out that since the outbreak of World War I British forces have been at war somewhere in the world every year since, the article draws on peace studies research to try to understand how past activities by the UK and other Western countries have contributed to current problems and what could be done differently in future. It traces the rise of Islamic State and other militias in the Middle East, and comes to the gloomy conclusion that the West’s military response is likely to prolong rather than shorten the wars in Iraq and Syria and fuel violence further afield — not least because it is being used by IS and other extremists for propaganda purposes.
Examining the current crisis in Ukraine, Dr Parkinson points out that “while many have been quick to blame Russia solely for the conflict, it is important to bear in mind NATO’s rôle in fuelling Russia’s security fears”. The continued supply of military equipment to Arab countries in the Middle East fuels regional rivalry and the rise of ‘remote control warfare’ (drones, special forces, private military contractors, cyber warfare) allows covert Western military intervention without the public embarrassment of ‘boots on the ground’.
Key themes identified by Dr Parkinson are
It cannot be right that scientific expertise and government money is devoted to increasing the destructive capability of modern weaponry while we fail to apply sufficient scientific and technical effort to tackling global environmental problems which threaten the security of all.
The final Merton UNA discussion meeting (organised by Alison Williams in conjunction with the Interactive Debates at the General Assembly) takes place on June 30th and the subject will be Climate Change. It is interesting that climate change is given status as one of the major “transformative aspects” of “ending poverty, transforming all lives and protecting the planet”. The aim of these General Assembly debates is to “inform and encourage” the contributions of civil society (us!) and provide a rare opportunity to examine issues through non-Eurocentric eyes.
At the meeting on 26th May a rather dry title (“Strengthening Co-operation between UN & regions/subregions”) gave us the chance to hear African delegates plead for greater opportunities to manage their own affairs and to be given support to set up their own trade and security organisations: “ultimately the implementation of the new agenda will be done on the ground — in our regions, countries and communities”. Conflict prevention and mediation requires co-operation between parties with real understanding of local dynamics, the environmental challenges and the root causes of conflict. (“Last minute high-handed interventions without a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the situation are wrong and injurious to the hapless populations of the concerned areas.”)
We must be grateful to Alison for distilling many hours of debate into digestible form. Contact Alison on email@example.com or 020 8944 0574 for a place on June 30th.
Following the whistle-blowing disclosures of Able Seaman McNeilly, the SNP succeeded in getting a debate in Parliament on the safety issues raised. Alex Salmond described the 500-word statement that had been issued by the MoD as of the “suffocating bland complacency that typifies so much of the MoD’s reaction to serious concerns”. He also pressed the government to give further information about problems with the onshore testing of submarine nuclear reactor prototypes at Dounreay (breaches in fuel cell cladding).
Jeremy Corbyn asked whether any assessment had been made of the effects of a nuclear accident in the Clyde (it has not) and Julian Lewis reproved Alex Salmond for “conflating two separate issues”: “one is very real concerns about faulty operating practices leading to potential accidents and the other is the wider issue about whether or not we should have a nuclear deterrent.” To which Alex Salmond retorted that “unfortunately one of the consequences of having such a nuclear deterrent is having these systems in a situation which causes inherent danger”.
Penny Mordaunt (Minister for the Armed Forces) said that she could assure the House that neither the operational effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent nor the safety of our submariners or members of the public had been compromised. “The Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to carry out its nuclear activities worldwide in a safe and secure manner.” So that is all right then.
The 2015 NPT review Conference passed almost unnoticed because of the General Election: it was a failure, with no consensus on a final document (blocked by the US, UK and Canada). We are constantly told that the NPT is the cornerstone of government policy towards step-by-step multilateral nuclear disarmament and yet “hundreds of hours spent by the world’s leading diplomats could not yield progress on the treaty’s core commitments: ridding the world of nuclear weapons and ensuring that sharing peaceful nuclear technology does not lead to further proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons”.
Nuclear weapons states proceed as though the 1995 indefinite extension of the NPT was equivalent to indefinite possession — frustrating the vast majority of the world’s nations who seek the elimination of nuclear weapons as promised in Article VI of the 1965 Treaty. “All paths towards a nuclear-weapons-free world can and should all be explored... confronting the dangers of continued possession of nuclear weapons demands greater political will than was shown at the United Nations during the past month.” (Statement on the 2015 NPT Review Conference by Pugwash: https://pugwashconferences.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/2015_npt_statement_jd_pcr_fin.pdf)
UK government, take note! (How about writing to your MP asking why the UK sided with the US and Canada in blocking a final document?)
On May 21st several WDC/CND members watched a live relay of the premiere of this impressive film, followed by panel discussion chaired by Jon Snow. The film takes as its starting point the destruction of the World Trade Center and the build-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It documents the efforts of the peace movement to prevent the catastrophes of Iraq and vividly captures the scale and extent of the worldwide demonstrations during the months preceding.
Archive film footage is interspersed with more recent interviews with such figures as Hans Blix (the UN weapons inspector) and Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff (who said he wished he had resigned), the leaders of protests plus ordinary people “who were there” all over the world. Seeing figures such as G.W.Bush and Tony Blair in full oratorical flow is a vivid and horrible reminder of how many were duped, and one wonders yet again how such a mangling of the truth could have gone unchallenged by their colleagues. It was the ordinary people who saw things differently and although the heroic efforts to stop the war were unsuccessful this film makes a powerful case for the future balance of power between people and politicians having been changed for ever.
Check http://wearemany.com/cinemas for your nearest local showing. It is at the Hyde Park Picturehouse (and other Picturehouse cinemas) from June 3rd and currently at the Brixton Ritzy. If there is no showing in your area try asking — because this is a film that deserves the widest possible distribution.