Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: After 50 Years, Alive and Kicking





Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, co-edited with Glen H. Stassen, is Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm Publishers).

How is Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) doing these days?  The answer is that it is doing very well, indeed.

In July 2008, at the invitation of CND, I traveled to London to address the national council of this venerable peace and disarmament group.  The assumption in CND circles was that, thanks to my authorship of a scholarly trilogy on the history of the worldwide antinuclear movement (i.e.  The Struggle Against the Bomb, published by Stanford University Press), I might be able to provide activists with some useful information.  While meeting in London with CND leaders, however, I decided to gather some information myself about CND's recent ventures.

CND was founded in February 1958 by Bertrand Russell, A.J.P. Taylor, J.B. Priestley, Michael Foot, and other British luminaries who were appalled by the nuclear arms race and the drift toward nuclear war.  Determined to "ban the Bomb," CND organized annual antinuclear marches from Aldermaston (the site of the British government's nuclear weapons research facility) to London, where thousands of antinuclear activists rallied in Trafalgar Square.  The emblem designed for these first Aldermaston marches—a circle encompassing a stick figure with arms outstretched in the semaphore signals for N and D (i.e. nuclear disarmament)—grew immensely popular and soon became a worldwide peace symbol.  Meanwhile, CND churned out vast quantities of antinuclear literature, held public meetings throughout the British Isles, converted politicians to its position, and emerged as Britain's largest, most influential peace and disarmament organization.

Of course, CND activists did not succeed in banning the Bomb.  But they did have the satisfaction of turning British public opinion against the nuclear arms race, thereby pushing Britain and other nuclear-armed nations toward nuclear arms control and disarmament measures and helping to prevent nuclear war.

Today, although CND's membership is far from the heights that it reached during the heady 1980s, it is also well above the depths to which it sank during past periods of decline.  Indeed, having grown by roughly 10 percent in the last three years, CND now has a very respectable 35,000 members, with branches all over the country.  It draws on older, long-time stalwarts like Bruce Kent, as well as on younger, newer activists, such as its current chair, Kate Hudson.

As in past decades, CND's primary goal is abolition of nuclear weapons.  Last year, it led a tumultuous campaign against the British government's plan to replace the country's aging Trident nuclear missile-carrying submarines with an upgraded nuclear weapons force.  The largest of the numerous demonstrations organized against Trident replacement drew up to 100,000 participants, and polls found that 72 percent of the British public opposed the nation's acquisition of new nuclear weapons.  Although the government managed to carry a key Trident replacement vote in parliament, it was shaken by the extraordinary level of opposition.  As a result, officials promised to bring the issue back to parliament for further consideration.

This concession to antinuclear sentiment might actually mean something, for there is growing pressure to move Britain's defense policy away from its decades-old reliance upon nuclear weapons.  Recently, for example, a number of former top British government officials spoke out in favor of the Shultz-Kissinger-Perry-Nunn call for nuclear abolition.  Furthermore, the European parliament has voted to make Europe a nuclear weapons-free zone.  In addition, Barack Obama—who might well become the next U.S. President—has pledged to make the building of a nuclear-free world a top priority.  In these circumstances, CND's efforts to block the development of a new British nuclear striking force might yet bear fruit.

Despite the centrality of nuclear issues to CND, it does grapple with other foreign and defense policy issues.  As a participant in Britain's Stop the War Coalition, it works to end the war in Iraq.  Also, like its U.S. counterparts, CND is attempting to head off the possibility of a U.S. military attack upon Iran.  Moreover, CND seeks to block the deployment of a controversial U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, Poland, and Lithuania.  There is substantial resistance to this revised "Star Wars" system in the host countries, and especially in the Czech Republic.  In addition, the Russian government—which, despite its decline in the international power hierarchy, possesses more nuclear weapons than any other—views the deployment of this system as a highly provocative act.

CND also faces some significant problems at home, including a largely hostile press, an escapist television and mass culture, and a poverty of public discussion and debate on defense issues.  Perhaps most worrisome are the rising political fortunes of the Tories, who seem poised to sweep into power in the next nationwide elections.  Conservative-dominated local governments have begun denying tabling rights to CND, while the newly-elected Conservative mayor of London has pulled his city out of the Mayors for Peace campaign, a nuclear abolition venture comprised of 2,317 member cities in 130 countries, headed by the mayor of Hiroshima.

Even so, CND has managed to emerge from fifty years of antinuclear agitation as a sprightly and effective force on the British political landscape.  It might even live to see that bright day when, thanks in part to its efforts, nuclear weapons are banned forever.       



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