By Keith Flett
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The Committee of 100: sparking a new left

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In 1961 Trafalgar Square saw the rebirth of demonstrations
Issue 1933
Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

Trafalgar Square, London, has been the site of demonstrations, and of attempts by the authorities to ban them, since it was constructed in 1842-3.

Nelson’s Column was opened on 3 November 1843. By March 1848 the authorities were already banning Chartist meetings in the square.

The ban stayed in place until the 1880s when the new labour movement, and particularly the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, again held protests there. On Black Monday, 6 February 1886, a protest over unemployment led to a riot in Pall Mall.

This led to further battles around the square and to Bloody Sunday – 20 November 1887 – when a protester, Alfred Linnell, was trampled to death by a police horse as the authorities tried to stop demonstrators gathering.

I want to look at one of the first significant demonstrations of the modern era in the square. It was called by the Committee of 100, for peace and against war and nuclear weapons, on 19 September 1961.

While CND had been holding marches to the atomic weapons base at Aldermaston from 1958, starting out from the square, the Committee of 100 represented something more robust than peaceful demonstrations – direct action and confrontation with the state.

We might still argue today about which forms of direct action work and which don’t, but this protest was in a very serious sense where “we” – the modern left – came into British politics.

The Cold War was still on, the Tories were in their 11th year of office, but a new politics was stirring, and with it new ideas causing new alarm from the authorities. This was not the trade union leadership or the Communist Party, the old certainties of routine protest. This was very much a new left.

Who were they? And what did they want?

It was the year before the Cuban missile crisis. The possibility of a devastating nuclear war was a real one. If that imparted a sense of urgency to the demonstrators, it also dictated the nature of the response of the authorities.

While the leader of CND, Canon Collins, could be embraced by the establishment, the figure most associated with the Committee of 100, the elderly philosopher Bertrand Russell, was seen as an altogether more uncompromising figure. He had to go to jail.

In line with the history of protests in Trafalgar Square, the Ministry of Works banned the proposed Committee of 100 demonstration against nuclear bases and weapons. And it went further.

On Tuesday 12 September, just days before the protest, 50 members of the Committee were summonsed to Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and charged with “being a disturber of the peace”.

Thirty two were imprisoned for periods of between seven days and two months. This only had the effect of publicising and building the demonstration.

The following day the home secretary banned any public procession by the Committee for the 24 hours starting at midnight on Saturday 16 September1961.

On the day itself rain stopped at 4pm and protesters started to gather in the square with a view to marching to Parliament Square at midnight when the ban was supposed to end.

A meeting was started with a succession of speakers, many of whom were arrested as they finished their speech.

The first arrests took place at 5.07pm and continued throughout the evening, often with considerable police violence that was captured by TV news cameras.

At the end of the protest over 1,300 arrests had been made from a demonstration of around 10,000 people. Many of those arrested were not members of the Committee of 100, but sympathisers or simply onlookers.

The Guardian account of the protest, headlined “Victory To The Law”, concluded that there had been a “non-violent” battle, labelled those who booed police arrests as “hooligan elements” and claimed that “many demonstrators, praised the courtesy of the police”.

A report produced by the National Council for Civil Liberties detailed police throwing protesters into the fountains and beating them in a manner familiar from more recent demonstrations.

As at Peterloo and Kennington Common, the state had spotted what it thought was a challenge to its authority and it had to hit back.

That it did. But in doing so it provided the basis for a new generation of radical leaders to come forward. The Guardian report also noted that the average age of those present in Trafalgar Square on 17 September 1961 “appeared to be little over 21”.


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