The Labour Party was heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) during the 1980s when we were organising huge demonstrations against the Cruise and Trident missile systems.
In fact, I used to laugh about the number of Labour MPs who wanted to hold the main banner at the front of those marches. They used to queue up to get their pictures taken with the banner at the assembly point.
Neil Kinnock, who later became leader of the Labour Party, is the one I remember best of all. He made the most impassioned speech about the immorality of nuclear weapons from the stage at Trafalgar Square.
At a grassroots level it was the same. Although, all the main parties were represented in CND, it was assumed that the Labour Party was going to form a government that would actually deliver nuclear disarmament.
The Labour leaders for their part thought we were going to be a winning campaign and they wanted to be in the forefront of it. Many of them had honourable reasons — they believed nuclear disarmament was the best thing for the world. But just as they had once queued up to support us, later almost all uniformly abandoned us. Most turned their backs after the 1983 election.
It dawned on all of us that, although we did have overwhelming support from the public in our opposition to US missiles being based in Britain, we did not have overwhelming support for British unilateral nuclear disarmament.
But the Labour leadership was simply not prepared to campaign to change public opinion. Of course, you can campaign very effectively against British nuclear weapons by pointing out how useless they are as a method of defending the country.
There is no state with nuclear weapons that we could possibly fire them at without ensuring total devastation for ourselves. But neither the Labour Party, nor the trade unions, went in for that sort of public education.
In 1986 the MP Gerald Kaufman produced a document for the Labour Party that said that Britain should keep its nuclear weapons because they only existed simply for negotiation purposes. Kinnock was by then the leader of the Labour Party and he backed Kaufman. And, of course, there never were any negotiations.
In order to polarise the argument, they characterised CND as only wanting unilateral nuclear disarmament. We never believed that disarmament could only happen unilaterally—we were in favour of all types of disarmament. But we weren’t helped by many of the old Labour MPs and other campaigners who used the word unilateral like it was a tablet of stone.
The Labour Party’s move away from nuclear disarmament didn’t demoralise the leadership of CND, but it did affect our membership. We had about 100,000 members and we have dropped to about 30,000 today. Many people felt that we weren’t going to beat the government on this issue and moved on to something else. I always felt, that as a campaign, we were in for the long haul.
But just as Labour abandoned us, many of us abandoned Labour. Certainly, New Labour is not the party that I once joined — it’s a privatising party, it’s a party of big business. It has slick PR people working for it, but an awful lot of the membership have left. Many people feel disenfranchised and frustrated at how unfair our electorial system is.
Now we are in a ridiculous position where our government is at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York, saying that it believes in the abolition of nuclear weapons, but at the same time talking about arming ourselves with a whole new generation of nuclear weapons.
Tony Blair thinks that nuclear weapons maintain the image of Britain as a great power. But what message does this send out to countries that want to become nuclear powers themselves?
The hypocrisy surrounding nuclear proliferation is as big as a bus. Take a look at Iran. It is doing nothing that it is not entitled to do under international law. It is doing nothing different to the way that Britain moved from nuclear power to producing nuclear weapons.
There are still supporters of a nuclear free world in the Labour Party — Tony Benn, Alan Simpson, Jeremy Corbyn and many others. And perhaps, now that Labour no longer has an enormous majority, it will have to rethink some of its policies.
I hope that some of the Labour MPs will take up the campaign against renewing Trident and for an end to all nuclear weapons. But to create the pressure of such action we need a much more broad based campaign.
We should be united with the
anti-poverty groups and the environmental groups when they say “make poverty history”. We should be with them saying “make nuclear weapons history — and make war history”.
Bruce Kent is vice-president of CND. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference is currently taking place at the United Nations. For more information go to www.cnduk.org