Commentary Magazine


England, the Bomb, the Marchers

“I wouldn’t cross the road to vote for the Labor party, let alone the Conservatives,” said a student friend of mine recently, “but I’d march from here to Timbuctoo for the sake of the CND.” His words would probably be echoed in every university and training college in Britain. Why? What do the magic letters signify? Why can the CND command such enthusiasm?

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to give its full title, was set up a little over two years ago, with Bertrand Russell as its president. It was the heir of a previous campaign to end nuclear tests, and its own aim was confined to nuclear disarmament: though many of its supporters were (and are) pacifists, pacifism as such was not part of its program. It summed up its policy in a manifesto as “Britain must . . . renounce unilaterally the use or production of nuclear weapons, and refuse to allow their use by others in her defense.” The second clause was, in a way, even more crucial than the first: thanks to it, the CND has dug a deep gulf between itself and those who feel that even if Britain herself gives up the nuclear deterrent, she would still need to rely on the Americans. Among the more prominent members of the Campaign were the veteran socialist and pacifist publisher, Victor Gollancz; the novelist and publicist J. B. Priestley; and the historian A. J. P. Taylor. During the last two years the Campaign managed to enlist a galaxy of artistic talent. At one point the two most promising young playwrights in England—John Osborne and Arnold Wesker—were to be seen parading Whitehall with CND sandwich boards. More important, perhaps, it has won the support of the boss of the largest trade union this side of the Iron Curtain, Mr. Frank Cousins of the Transport and General Workers.

Its propaganda methods vary. It sends speakers all over the country in the traditional manner. Its leaders write letters to the press. It organizes mass lobbying expeditions to the House of Commons. But above all, it marches. Two years ago, over Easter weekend 1958, it organized a great demonstration pilgrimage from central London to the atomic research establishment at Aldermaston, in Berkshire. The following year there was a more successful march from Aldermaston to London. This year there has been a third Aldermaston—and before long Aldermaston will have for the English left (though in reverse, so to speak) the sort of significance that Mecca has for the devout Moslem.

For no one can dispute that the CND can command real devotion from its members, that it is probably the only organization in Britain which can inspire mass enthusiasm over anything to do with politics. During the last few years, the Labor party—for a number of reasons, some of which I shall analyze later—has sunk into a state of apathetic schizophrenia, in which the condition of its own split personality matters more to it than the fate of the world. The Conservatives, having won the last two elections chiefly by pretending that nothing was happening, are naturally determined not to let the political temperature rise now. In this flat and arid political landscape, the CND alone has life. Whatever one may think of its policies, one must admit that it—and it alone—can fill Trafalgar Square with twenty-five thousand people; that it can inspire sedate taxpayers to “invade” an RAF rocket site and court imprisonment for the sake of the cause; that it can send thousands of teen-agers to march in protest against The Bomb.

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Yet the Campaign cannot be dismissed as a mob deluded by its leaders. The campaigners may or may not be misguided: they are certainly not being misguided by other people. The student whom I mentioned above was about as contemptuous of the leaders of the CND as of the leaders of the two political parties—-and his contempt is echoed by most of the rank and file supporters of the Campaign. The CND is, of course, the natural home of the crank—especially the sort of crank for whom politics is a substitute for psychoanalysis. There they all are, the people George Orwell once attacked (and caricatured) as “fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, sex-maniacs, Quakers, ‘Nature Cure’ quacks, pacifists and feminists.” Among the marchers to Aldermaston you can find much of the slightly faded political driftwood left behind by the storms of the last thirty years: former members of the ILP, former subscribers to the Left Book Club, former ardent supporters of the Spanish Republic, former opponents of the foreign policy of Ernest Bevin and of the rearmament of Western Germany. But at the same time, and this is what makes the CND what it is, you will find thousands of teen-agers and young people who have hitherto taken no part in any political action. The CND, in fact, is the revolt of the politically virgin.

Its members are in some ways like the school children of Hamelin—except that they have no Pied Piper. Theirs is an army without generals—or, rather, it is an army which gives its generals amused indulgence rather than respect. This is one of the reasons for taking it seriously. Critics of the CND are apt to belittle the campaigners on the grounds that their leaders are of poor quality. Messrs. Gollancz, Priestley and the rest, say the critics, are nothing but irresponsible windbags, ageing prima donnas of the Social Revolution—and for that reason, the critics imply, no one need take notice of the CND. But in fact, one of the best reasons for taking notice of the CND is that the CND takes so little notice of Messrs. Gollancz and Priestley. Many of the younger members would agree that their leaders are of poor quality: they march for the sake of the Cause, not for that of their leaders.

Why does the Cause appeal? Partly because the CND has filled an emotional vacuum. No society can be expected to remain forever immune from political passion. In the end, even Utopia would get boring. Britain is no Utopia—yet for the last ten years her politics have become increasingly dull and increasingly parochial. The decline of a great power, it seems, can take one of two forms. In France, it has led to obvious political neurosis and incurable instability. In Britain—apart from the brief nightmare of Suez—decline has led to a conspiracy of silence, a collective pretense that nothing has really happened after all. This sort of universal hypocrisy has great advantages : Britain is the first country in history which has managed to give up its Empire with less fuss than she acquired it. The British people have had no Massus or Soustelles; and in place of any cult of national grandeur they have turned to the stolid, unromantic figures of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. But common sense has its disadvantages, too. As Britain has lost power, British politics have graduually lost meaning—for the British as well as for everyone else. Moreover, the great issues which convulsed the 30’s have been solved, or simply evaporated. Thirty years ago, politics was conducted in banner headlines: innocence butchered; honor betrayed; evil victorious. Now it is conducted in polite whispers, in the drab, if useful, committee rooms of the Welfare State.

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The effect has been felt, above all, by the left. Twenty-five years ago, the political left was the natural magnet for protest of all kinds. The challenge of the Labor and Communist parties to the existing system, in foreign affairs as well as at home, was passionate, apparently idealistic, and above all beautifully uncomplicated. Now foreign affairs and home affairs are equally complicated, equally technical, and equally divorced from morality. Debate on social policy, to take one example, has moved from the barricades to the sociology seminar. In the 30’s, the solution to the evils of capitalism seemed obvious: common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. Now, one half of the Labor party is beginning to talk as if it does not think that capitalism as such has any major evils; and even the other half would be hard put to tell you what the evils actually are. Home politics, in fact, have succumbed to the managerial revolution. Political differences are rarely over first principles now: they are over the best way to apply agreed principles to particular cases. The same is true of foreign affairs. Who but an expert can hope to follow the intricate negotiations of the nuclear test conference at Geneva? As a result, there seems to be no room for the amateur. Yet he is still there, anxious to take part in the political process.

That explains why a crusade of some sort might have been expected: not why the crusade should have taken this particular form. To explain that, we must dig deeper. The first thing to notice about the CND is that in spite of its contemporary note—the beat clothes, the beards, the skiffle groups, the vague taste of spaghetti and espresso coffee—it is right in the center of an old and hallowed British tradition. The many teen-agers marching to Aldermaston may not know this themselves. Yet they are the lineal descendants of pious, upstanding Victorian pastors who thundered out against Bulgarian atrocities and refused to pay taxes for schools where their children might be contaminated by the wrong sort of religion. One of the hardest things for a foreigner to understand about this country is its strange mixture of genuine righteousness and intelligent self-interest. In some ways, Gladstone was the archetype of the successful British politician: he was as secure in the knowledge that the aces were safely up his sleeve as in the faith that God had put them there. Hence, for example, the strange contrast between British imperialism abroad and British anti-imperialism at home. The fortunes of half of Liverpool and Bristol were made from the slave trade—yet Britain was the first major power to make an effective protest against the slave trade. Britain was the sharpest operator in the history of colonialism—yet every one of her successful depradations evoked howls of honest indignation from a powerful section of the folks back home.

In particular, the British have managed to combine a healthy respect for the realities of military power with a genuine anti-militarism, stronger than that of any other European power. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy ruled the seas. But at the same time—chiefly because of the security given her by the Royal Navy—Britain was the only power in Europe which would have undoubtedly seen a revolt en masse at the suggestion that conscription should be imposed. Even in the First World War, when this country had its back to the wall, two years went by before the government dared to introduce conscription—and then it had to defy bitter protest from the labor unions and many members of the Liberal party. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the Labor party found itself able to vote for resistance to Hitler and against conscription without the least apparent feeling of contradiction. This anti-militarist tradition survives as the residuary legatee of the Victorian nonconformist conscience. The Victorian nonconformist has had a bad press. In matters of sexual morality he was undoubtedly intolerant, sometimes even cruel. In matters of taste he was philistine if not barbarous. But in politics, he was often magnificent—if sometimes magnificently wrong. The basis of his political faith, above all in everything that concerned foreign affairs, was that morality, not force, should be the arbiter between nations. “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

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The CND has inherited that faith. More, it has even inherited some of the methods and propaganda attitudes of its redoubtable Victorian ancestors. British history (and American as well, of course) is no stranger to the CND’s characteristic blend of relentless publicity with other-worldliness. It is only the last of a long line of similar campaigns: the anti-slavery society, the anti-corn law league, the abolitionists of mid-19th century Boston, the anti-saloon league, the suffragettes, the pro-Boers. Like them, the CND is denounced as extremist and irresponsible. Like them, it is asked to produce practicable proposals. Like them, it steadily refuses to do any such thing. For like them, it knows that this is not the function of a moralistic pressure group. Among the banners carried in the latest Aldermaston march was one small banner carried by a solitary girl. It said simply: “Caroline says no.” Caroline is the foundation of the CND’s strength—and the way to rouse the Carolines of this world is to sound a clarion call, not nibble away at practicable proposals. When Garrison, the great abolitionist leader, declared that the United States Constitution was a “covenant with death” he did not expect to convince respectable people. He did expect them to take notice: and before long they did take notice. Admittedly, their first reaction was to put Garrison in jail. But in the end, even the respectable citizens of Boston were converted to the anti-slavery cause.

There are special reasons why the apparently old-fashioned faith of the CND should appeal to Britain today. It would be wrong to claim that Britain had suffered more in the Second World War than any other country: obviously Germany and Russia both suffered far more. Yet, in a very real sense, the war did more harm to Britain than to either of them. Russia was devastated and lost millions of men. But she emerged from her ordeal as the second power in the world, with her western frontier deep in the heart of Central Europe. Even Germany, defeated and divided though she was, has recovered from the war faster than Britain has. West Germany is now the dominant power on the continent of Europe. If the Common Market does solidify into a thoroughgoing federation, Western Germany will be the driving force and the dominant partner. Economically, and politically, the German people have done well out of the war. But Britain, although she won, has never recovered from her victory. For her, war meant the end of Empire, the end of her status as one of the arbiters of world politics, the end of her foreign assets. She came out of the war licking her wounds, and determined never to get into another one.

This is not to say that the whole of Britain is wedded to a policy of appeasement, or that the British people would be ready to sell the pass of the North Atlantic alliance. But it is true that the British are at the moment the most anxious of all the nations of western Europe to reach a modus vivendi with Russia, and the most prone to believe that such a modus vivendi is possible. It is also true that the British are more convinced than anyone else that a nuclear war would destroy them—and indeed that they probably would suffer more certain and more complete destruction than anyone else.

Moreover, Britain is the only one of the nuclear powers which conceivably could make the gesture of unilateral nuclear disarmament. I do not myself believe that she should, but it is at least not obviously insane to argue the case for it. The United States clearly cannot contemplate the luxury of one-sided morality: she bears the world on her back, and if she loses her footing the rest of the world comes crashing down with her. France has only just got her bomb, and there would be little point for her to give it up so soon. But Britain could—conceivably—afford to take the risk. True, it is hard to see what good would come of it. A unilateralist Britain would no doubt be very popular with the non-nuclear nations in the Afro-Asian bloc—but it is not the non-nuclear nations whose bombs we fear. It is difficult to imagine Mr. Khrushchev or President Eisenhower being so moved by Britain’s self-sacrifice that either would follow her example. But although Britain would probably do little good to anyone else by giving up nuclear weapons, it is at least arguable that she would do equally little harm to herself. She might have to change the direction of her foreign policy; to leave NATO; to become neutral in the cold war. For most of the British people, these would be extremely unwelcome consequences. But they would not be obviously and utterly disastrous. They would not mean the end of Britain’s survival as a free country. Britain is the only one of the three largest nuclear powers of which that can be said, with even a slight show of confidence.

Some of the apparently unwelcome consequences, moreover, have a certain furtive attraction. Since the end of the war, anti-Americanism has become the secret vice of the British, denounced in public, but practiced all the more avidly when the curtains are drawn. The reasons are obvious enough. No one likes to feel that he depends on someone else; and a declining power is bound to resent the power which has taken her place. In addition, anti-Americanism has less obvious ideological roots. The right likes American capitalism, but dislikes American social democracy and comparative lack of class barriers. The left would like American social democracy if it were told about it more often; but it dislikes American capitalism. The CND is not overtly anti-American, but it certainly feeds on anti-American emotions. Next to Aldermaston, the favorite destination for protest marches is the U.S.A.F. base at Brize Norton, near Oxford; and one of the most frequent refrains in CND speeches is denunciation of American bombers flying overhead “loaded with hydrogen bombs.”

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But there is more to this submerged side of the CND than simple anti-Americanism. In a curious way, the CND is to the left what the Suez expedition was to the right: the last brave hope of British nationalism. The CND is nationalism standing on its head, but it is nonetheless real for that. Colonel Blimp is apt to denounce the campaigners as unpatriotic, and anti-British. In fact, their conception of Britain’s power and prestige are about as out of date as his own. Hence the fundamental weakness in the CND’s arguments. If Britain gave up her bomb, CND speakers like to argue, then other countries would have to follow suit: the force of Britain’s example would be too great to resist. This is a misconception which could take root only in a great power—or in a country which had not yet realized that it is no longer a great power. Even more than the right, members of the CND cannot imagine a world in which Britain’s moral gestures would in fact count for very little; and if told that that is the world they live in, they refuse to believe you. They have to believe in Britain’s greatness—if only to denounce it.

But at heart they do not want to denounce it: they want to assert it. Nationalism is one of the strongest roots of the British left today. One can see it in the suspicions of the Labor party toward European union. One can hear it echoing through the speeches of (say) Aneurin Bevan, who can hardly make a peroration which does not call—sometimes in nearly Churchillian terms—on the national pride of his countrymen. One can sense it even in the literature of protest which has appeared in this decade. It was no accident that Kingsley Amis, the first of the postwar novelists, should call his latest novel (a satire on foreign travel) I Like It Here. It was no accident, either, that John Osborne’s most moving and most convincing character was an old-timer, a survival from the Edwardian Age when men were gentlemen, women were ladies, and Britain was great. This nationalism has little in common with the traditional nationalism of the governing class, though it is not always easy to keep the distinction clear. In many ways it is more akin to the peasant nationalisms of Eastern Europe or Ireland, for it is stubbornly proletarian or lower middle class—the nationalism of the underdog, of the man who is not sure of himself or his place in society. Appropriate enough for a nation which is not sure of its place in the world. The CND, whose ostensible purpose is to weaken its country militarily, and which talks the language of internationalism, is, in fact, partly motivated by nationalist feelings.

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Given her economic and military weakness, Britain has played a larger part in world politics since the war than one would have expected. But surprisingly few educated people in Britain seem to realize this. (The uneducated ones probably do not realize that Britain is no longer economically or militarily powerful.) For many of the intelligentsia, postwar history has been a long series of rebuffs and humiliations, in which Britain has always been at the receiving end—sometimes, admittedly, because of the cowardice of British governments. The suspicions probably date right back to the beginning of the cold war. In 1945 Labor speakers confidently told their audiences—generally to loud applause—that left would speak to left, that a socialist Britain could act as the bridge between capitalist America and Communist Russia. When nothing of the sort happened, it was easier to blame the bloody-mindedness of the State Department or the pusillanimity of the Foreign Office than to assess the facts. Ever since then, a large section of the British intelligentsia has felt obscurely that if only Britain dared to take the initiative, world peace might after all, in some miraculous way, be restored. Instead, the intellectuals believe, Britain has been content to respond to the initiatives of others. She has tamely and abjectly followed the lead of her great ally—and that for the most contemptible of reasons. America, many people feel, has bought our birthright for a mess of pottage. Washington has paid the piper, and London must play Washington’s tune. Yet London may well have more influence in Washington than its real strength warrants. But its influence has been exerted, on the whole, behind closed doors and expressed in the faceless language of the diplomatic communiqué. Its exercise may have safeguarded British interests: it has not assuaged British emotions. What the British people, or at any rate the British intellectual, yearns for is a noisy, impressive gesture; a foreign secretary with the courage to throw his country’s weight about in public; a policy which would let the British people feel that they were helping to shape the destinies of the world as well as suffer from them. To this yearning the CND owes most of its success.

But how successful has it been? So far, its greatest success has probably been to change the public’s impression of its own activities. In March 1958, during the first Aldermaston march, the press sneered and the public was hostile. Now the press is faintly respectful, and the public is at least polite. The CND is a long way from converting Britain. But it has managed to change the popular reaction from “damned idiots—they ought to be locked up” to “misguided fanatics—but at least they have the guts to say what they think.” No one laughs at the CND now: it would be like laughing in church. The campaign has become a sort of secular Salvation Army. The general public shuffles by on the other side of the street; but it has an uneasy feeling as it shuffles that it may be doing something vaguely immoral. At the same time, the CND’s activities have coincided with a remarkable change in the attitude of “responsible” public opinion. When the CND was started, the government had fairly recently adopted the defense policy of its Defense Minister Duncan Sandys. Britain was to rely increasingly on the nuclear deterrent. The Labor party, in spite of the doubts of its left wing, on the whole supported the British deterrent—which, after all, a Labor government had been the first to build. Now the government has modified its nuclear policy, and may be about to bury it. The Labor party has centered its foreign policy on the non-nuclear club; and a growing number of Labor politicians have started asking whether Britain might not be better off without nuclear weapons.

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There are two obvious reasons for the change in the official and semi-official climate. The British deterrent had originally one great attraction: security at cut rates. H-bombs were cheaper than conscript soldiers, the argument ran—and besides they had no votes. Since then, it has become increasingly clear that the costs of nuclear power are simply too high for this country. Like humbler forms of conspicuous consumption, nuclear weapons trap their owners into a spiral of soaring costs. It is pointless to have nuclear bombs without the planes and missiles to deliver them; it may be dangerous to have them without the anti-missile missiles and early warning systems to deter other people from dropping them on you. Anyone can join the nuclear club. But if membership is to be more than a formality, the annual subscription rises at an astronomical rate. At the same time, the diplomatic arguments against Britain’s deterrent have grown more persuasive. Two years ago, the nuclear club was at least exclusive. Now the hoi polloi are clamoring to be let in. Once they batter down the door, membership will no longer be a guarantee of diplomatic status—and the world will be more dangerous to live in. But it is becoming clear that Britain cannot hope to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries unless she is ready, at some point, to give up her own.

These are the arguments which have begun to influence “responsible” opinion in parliament and the press. Unconvincing or convincing, they are all hard-headed political arguments, not moral ones. They can all be defended or rebutted within the traditional assumptions of power politics. Above all, and this is the crucial difference between those who profess them and the members of the CND, they can be defended without supporting any change in Britain’s membership of NATO. They can even be presented as a way of strengthening NATO. There is, then, a deep gulf between them and the moral certainties of the CND. For the Campaign, nuclear disarmament is not expedient: it is right. Nuclear weapons are not costly or unnecessary: they are wrong. Yet it was the CND which put nuclear disarmament on the agenda. It has persuaded bishops and trade union bosses to speak for disarmament; and above all, it has forced millions of ordinary newspaper readers to talk about it—and perhaps even to think about it. In the end, this is its great justification. Someone like myself, who believes that the CND’s policy would be disastrous if put into practice as it stands, must acknowledge a debt to the CND. In fact, the historic task of the CND—like that of most extremist pressure groups from abolitionism to free silver—is to have its clothes stolen by the moderates, and then see them cut down to size.

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