Paul Anderson, review of Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1965 by Richard Taylor (Oxford, £32.50), Tribune, 26 August 1988
Insofar as it did not achieve any of the goals it set itself, the British peace movement of the late fifties and early sixties was a failure. Its rise and fall was, meteoric; it did not persuade or force the British state to give up its nuclear weapons; it did not even manage to keep Labour Party conference to a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Yet it effected some of the most profound changes in British political life of the post-war era. As Richard Taylor puts it in the conclusion to Against the Bomb:
"The movement was a part of the process that broke the post-war consensus and took politics and political concerns outside the exclusive confines of Westminster and the professional politicians. For the first time since the thirties a mass extra-parliamentary movement emerged on to the political scene. And the rapidity of that growth, the size of the movement and the intensity of feeling on the issues involved was something quite new. This whole ethos of involvement and concern - and of ordinary people's right to be heard – has been a continuing theme in British politics ever since. In particular, the concepts and practices of non-violent direct action have become almost commonplace techniques of protest."
The movement, he continues, "was centrally important in creating a 'culture of protest' which grew and flourished from the late sixties onwards". It was the direct precursor of the anti-Vietnam and student movements (and the subsequent growth of far-Left groups, both Leninist and libertarian); and its echoes can still be heard, particularly in the women's movement and in the revived peace movement of the eighties.
The central theme of Taylor's history is the tension between the "respectable" leadership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (which was primarily concerned with putting pressure on the Labour Party) and more radical elements – the direct actionists of the Direct Action Committee and Committee of 100; the far-left political parties; and the New Left that emerged from the wreckage of the Communist Party after 1956.
Taylor's sympathies lie with the New Left: he believes it came closest of all the tendencies in the fifties and sixties peace movement to developing a political strategy that was neither "Labourist" – Taylor's politics are very much of the Ralph Miliband school – nor hopelessly Utopian. Yet even the New Left sank eventually into the "Labourist" swamp. In the final analysis, Taylor argues, "the various political strategies of the movement were all inadequate. The apolitical moralism of a large section was unrealistic because it side-stepped the essentially political issues; the direct actionists had neither ultimate political coherence nor sufficient human and material resources for their ambitious objectives; and the extra-parliamentary left in all its guises proved too weak to harness the movement to its politics."
Has the eighties peace movement done much better in developing a political strategy? It has certainly been larger and lasted much longer, and so far Labour has not abandoned the non-nuclear defence policy it adopted when the movement was on the rise. The eighties movement has also proved itself much more able to contain disagreements among activists. Although there have been disputes throughout the eighties, notably over the Soviet Union, there has been nothing like the sixties split over direct action. On the whole, CND in the eighties has managed dissent within its ranks effectively enough to remain an umbrella organisation for almost all peace movement opinion – the wire-cutters as well as the lobbyists – although at the cost, occasionally, of adopting bland lowest-common-denominator political positions in the interests of unity.
Whether all this adds up to a solution to the problem of how a social movement with essentially non-negotiable demands should relate to a political party whose primary goal is the achievement of office is, however, a moot point. I hope it does – but we shall see over the next year or so. Meanwhile, Taylor's book deserves a wide peace movement and left readership.