Saturday, 23 September 2017


Here I am, with my dog, on the remnants of what was known as RAF Greenham Common, though, in common with many other nuclear weapons bases in the UK, it was actually the US airforce who lived on the site and operated out of it. It was also the focus of women's protest, and I am proud to have been a very small part of this, as well as protesting against nuclear weapons in other actions and at other places during the 80s.

Below is the badge I'm wearing on the photograph (and as I type this.) If it looks frivolous to you; when you were engaging with the reality of a nuclear war that was apparently considered possible by the governments of the US and Britain, you had to laugh often, or go crazy. At that small, and rather lovely, patch of Berkshire, which is now a nature reserve, DOGS NOT BOMBS has come true, for it's a favourite dog walking area. (Ironically, the residents, some of whom hated the Greenham women for reducing the value of their houses, now have reason to be grateful to those who stayed to the last and fought for the Common to be restored, which must add hundreds of thousands to the value of those houses now.)

The narrative which was given to us then was that with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, nuclear weapons were no longer a problem. Many people asserted that protest had been foolish and pointless, since what had driven the last Soviet Secretary General, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the negotiating table, was the build up of arms which had bankrupted Communist Russia in their attempts to keep up. I have my reasons for disagreeing with this; firstly because (and I may have said this before, but it's worth repeating, I feel) on at least one occasion nuclear war almost broke out due to a false alarm, when the Russians thought they saw Cruise missiles coming at them and were on the point of releasing the SS 20 missiles at Europe when they realised their mistake. I also wonder about the wisdom of bringing another country to its economic knees; and I will say two words in support of this. Vladimir Putin. Finally, I am convinced that our protests did play a role. We made it impossible for anyone to believe that nuclear war could be survived by building the ridiculous shelters the government blueprinted in their Protect and Survive leaflets, and Greenham women told Gorbachev that no progress would be made on arms reduction unless Russia made concessions. There was a great deal of work going on during this period, which went far beyond demonstrations or even direct action at Greenham Common, the tracking of the Cruise missiles when they left the base, and the actions at Salisbury Plain.

Greenham women's action.(
I admit that I was relieved to take a break from campaigning after 1989. I hoped that the narrative of nuclear disarmament would prove trustworthy. Then a new threat emerged, from terrorism, and new wars were proposed and fought. I marched against the war in Iraq, I sent endless emails to our then Labour MP, who was strongly behind Blair. Just colonial warfare seemed bad enough. There were also myriad other causes needing attention. I was part of Reading Refugee Support Group for a while. In addition, I was getting published, but I have never ceased to be a member of CND,

Now there is a new nuclear threat, and once again an American president, one just as amateurishly belligerent as B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, is suggesting that nuclear weapons could be used, even in Europe. It's been largely forgotten due to the situation with North Korea, but Trump has said 'Europe is large.' Meanwhile, the largest Russian manoevres since the end of the Cold War are about to take place in Belarus, on the edge of NATO territory, and the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has said that the situation of the world is more dangerous than it has been for a generation.

 Photo Lt Stuart Antrobus, MOD
The Trident missile system (pictured to the right breaking the surface of the sea, presumably without its payload of nuclear murderousness, is deemed crucial to our country's security, and  Jeremy Corbyn is widely criticised for saying he would hesitate to push the nuclear button.
Most people haven't noticed, but recently the UN voted to outlaw nuclear weapons. The abstainers were the nuclear-armed states, of course, and their argument was that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty made such a measure unnecessary.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ', adopted in 1968, aimed 'to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to foster the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of disarmament. The Treaty establishes a safeguards system under the responsibility of the IAEA, which also plays a central role under the Treaty in areas of technology transfer for peaceful purposes. I have lifted this wording from the International Atomic Energy Agency site'. However, at that period and afterwards, and certainly since 1989, the nuclear armed nations have been updating and 'improving' their weaponry. The last disarmament conference ended fruitlessly in 2015.

The Greenham missile silos, though still fenced off, are empty, but others have been filling up. Also, missile defence systems are being proposed. It may sound like a good idea to shoot down any incoming nuclear weapons, but there are two problems here. One is that it makes first use of nuclear weapons seem feasible to anyone possessing the missile defence systems (which will operate from Fylingdales and Menwith Hill). You can annihilate your enemies and they won't be able to get you in return. Or, in a more charitable scenario; if anyone launches an attack against you, you can prevent this. These systems, however, would not protect Europe, but the US, and anyone desirous of attacking the US would first attack the defence systems in the UK. This is, incidentally, why South Koreans living near the proposed defence system sites have been demonstrating against them. The second problem is that they are not reliable, and nuclear overkill still being a reality, probably enough missiles would get through to fry the entire US and make the planet uninhabitable. Because believe me, there is no such thing as a 'limited' nuclear war. Even a strike on North Korea could release enough dust and debris to cause a nuclear winter, and if you're inclined not to believe me, look up the eruption of Mount Tambora and consider what it did to the world's harvests that year. The fear of a nuclear winter (which might go on for years) is based on sound science.

From the outset, when I was a child (and I am now old enough to count as an antique, being well over 50 years old), anti-nuclear campaigners have been regarded as impractical, woolly-headed (well, we were often woolly-hatted, but that was serious pragmatism if you were doing things in the depth of winter)

Bertrand Russell and others. Photo: Tony French.
I think it's time for us to reassert that there is nothing impractical about wanting life on earth to continue, and that waging nuclear war, either in Europe, or the Korean peninsula, is not feasible if this is to happen. Kim Jong-Un has been building up Korea's nuclear weapons in the name of 'deterrence'. The US (and the UK) menace other states with nuclear weapons, and by doing so, can intervene, often in their own interests and with catastrophic results, as with the Iraq war. I know that Kim is a murderer and a horrifically oppressive dictator, but he is in fact trying to achieve a status which our own country seems to regard as indispensable. And in fact, it's worth remembering that North Korea decided to abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty after Bush's 'Axis of Evil' speech, and partly in response to the illegal Iraq war, which has never delivered the positive results Tony Blair and George Bush promised us. 'Broad sunlit uplands' were part of it, or have I got that wrong? The history of the UK does not, if we look at it in objective terms, show us as shining benefactors of the human race.

The narrative we have been fed about our own nuclear weapons (as opposed to irresponsible 'rogue states' is that we are historically right, democracies who defeated Hitler, and that we therefore have a right to possess them, because we will always use them responsibly, only if there is extreme provocation. Perhaps you have been wondering how far this blog is about history. It is. That narrative is the Mutually Assured Destruction story (MAD), and it does have a certain crazed logic, as long as it's adhered to. The trouble is, once you start talking about pre-emptive strikes on any nation, that's the end of MAD, and perhaps the beginning of terminal madness; the 'end of history,' but not as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama.

A generation ago, we learned about what the Greenham women called 'the links.' Nuclear weapons have never existed on their own. They are part of a system of world domination, which has been played out in trade ever since human beings started to colonise. There's a chain of links between the Roman Empire and Trident, between the British theft of India and destruction of its industry to favour Britain (which began even before India was a colony); between post-colonial exploitation of the developing world (as it's called), and the wars and dictatorships that send refugees to our shores; the impoverishment that sends the much-vilified economic migrants. And the wrecking of the environment in the name of 'business'. There's a powerful link between Japan's rewriting of its history books to play down its crimes in World War 2 (which began way before 1939, really, when Japan invaded China in 1931), and the Korean situation. Now Japan is saying it wants nuclear weapons. I was in Hong Kong when the rewriting of the history books started, in the early 80s, and I saw how worried the Hong Kong Chinese were. Many of them remembered what had happened when the Japanese arrived there. 'People died very easily then,' a minicab driver told me.

So what do we do about that? It all seems out of reach, in the hands of Donald Trump and his advisers, the equally scary hands of Kim Jong Un, of Putin, and the super-rich who control international trade.

Well, for a start - as historians and historical novelists, we can tell it how it was in the light of current research, and many History Girls, past and present, have done just that. We can reimagine the past, without respect for pieties or comfortable national and cultural myths. Tanya Landman's BEYOND THE WALL is a shining example, exposing the Roman Empire as the nightmare it was to many subjugated people. And when we've reimagined the past, which is too often used to justify current oppression (think of those who want to glory in the British Empire), we can reimagine the present and the future.

The CND symbol was devised as a gesture of despair, but I think history hasn't ended yet, and it's too soon to despair. Throughout the twentieth century there were 'crazy' people who dared reimagine the world. We wouldn't have the NHS without them, nor would I be able to vote. I was at the launch of Sally Nicholls's marvellous novel of the Suffragette movement THINGS A BRIGHT GIRL CAN DO, in Oxford this month, and Sally spoke movingly of the things the Suffragettes imagined which seemed crazy pipe-dreams, but have come to pass.

Friends, to use the Quaker form of address, let us reimagine the world. Because the end of history, in any shape, is not what we want.

Kate Hudson on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty


Ms. said...

While Greenham was active so too was The Peace Encampment, Anti Nuclear protest Domonstrations at the United Nations and, in fact, all over the Western world. I was here in NYC, at the Pentagon, and up at the Peace Encampment. Those were fertile, hopeful we got to where we are's beyond me though the most vicious and backward backlash imaginable. Danger never sleeps. Your post is hopeful and I'm throwing all my support behind hope. It's not over until it's over and it Ain't over yet. The naked face of the deepest divisions in our culture is nothing more than the desperate twitching of a power grab that has no conscience and no reason. Okay...ONWARD :-->

Susan Price said...

Homo non sapientum...

Leslie Wilson said...

Building bridges between our divisions, I'll reach out for you if you'll reach out for me, With all of our voices and all of our visions, Together we can make such a sweet harmony..

Ruan Peat said...

Living near to dounreay, the nuclear awareness has never dropped! this goes with the loss of employment as things get decommissioned! no matter what happens someone is against it or someone loses out! these are the times you wish for a magic wand to wave and sort out all the problems!

Leslie Wilson said...

Clearly the employment issue is important. In fact, there has been quite a lot of work done on arms conversion. I think however the problem is not so much about getting rid of Trident as of successive governments letting a situation arise when there are no alternatives to nuclear weapons production. The thing is, you can use employment to justify anything. It was certainly used to justify the slave trade 'grass will grow in the streets of Liverpool.'

Ann Turnbull said...

Kim Jong Un is trying to achieve something that our own country seems to regard as essential. The only hope was, and is still, unilateral disarmament. We can have no moral authority otherwise. Thanks for this post, Leslie.

Janie Hampton said...

Great post, Leslie. If the powers that be carry on as they are, there may be no history, or future, for any of us. I used to go to Greenham camp. The first time I made the mistake of taking a huge pot of beef stew in a hay box - the women were all vegetarian. After that I took big boxes of sanitary pads, which were more gratefully received! My children helped by pushing the campers' belongings in prams to the nearest bus stop whenever the bailiffs arrived. I loved the discussions round the fire, and the wide range of women of all ages with a common purpose.

Leslie Wilson said...

Good on you, Janie!

Miranda Miller said...

What an inspiring blog, Leslie. I used to go to Greenham too, with my baby daughter whose photo and first shoe were tied to the fence. The men in our CND group had to stay in a tent outside the camp, making marmite sandwiches. You and I marched together against the Iraq invasion - and I suspect there are many more mass protests coming soon.