The British Peace Movement and Radical Change

By Richard Taylor | 1987-02-01 12:00:00

Throughout the twentieth century, particularly since the late 1950s, the peace movement has mobilized large numbers of people into predominantly extra-parliamentary political activity. The peace movement in the 1950s was part of the break from consensual politics and the onset of a dynamic, critical, questioning, radical, and innovative spirit which was to characterize the 1960s. Moreover, the resurrected peace movement of the 1980s has been an international mass movement of unprecedented proportions.

But despite its strengths, despite the fact that "everyone wants peace," despite mounting public disquiet over nuclear weapons, the peace movement has failed: It has not prevented the installation of one single cruise missile or the election in Britain and the U.S. of the most hawkish governments for decades. It has even failed to curb reckless, dangerous, and immoral military adventurism, such as the Falklands war and the air attack upon Libya.

The crucial question for the movement is that of agency -- how to translate its support into real political change. Which strategies should the movement adopt? I will focus on the British wing of this transnational movement, though similarities will be apparent to the situation in Canada. Ours is a single issue movement with all the strengths and weaknesses of such movements; and it is a radical movement in an overwhelmingly conservative society.

Single Issue Movements

Single-issue movements are inevitably alliances of incompatible partners. Apart from the issue in question, the various supporting groups may have little in common. Moreover, the issue itself is often defined in different ways, according to the varying ideologies. In the Peace Movement, for example, there are Christian pacifists, Communists, Trotskyists, Labour Party supporters, Anarchists, and Liberals. Such alliances hold up when the movement's fortunes are prospering, but tend to fragment into hostile factions when problems are encountered.

Issue movements tend to be concerned with the direct manifestations of a particular iniquity, such as nuclear weapons, or racial discrimination, rather than with the problem at root. Such an approach can never solve the problem, and repeated failures often result in despair; hence the volatile levels of support for all such movements.

Issue movements have, then, significant problems. They cannot succeed autonomously, but must work with other agencies of change. The question is: which other agencies?

There is a long tradition of radicalism in Britain. The British Labour Movement is the oldest and one of the strongest in the world. British socialism too, though eccentric, has a long record of innovation. Nevertheless, Britain remains a profoundly conservative society. The Conservative Party is one of the longest-lived and most successful political parties ever to have existed. But British conservatism runs far deeper than orthodox party politics. Britain, as an island not invaded by a foreign power since 1066, and without a revolution since the seventeenth century, has a unique continuity and stability. The monarchy, the established church, and the class system are evidence of traditionalism and conservatism. British high culture, with its hierarchical attitudes, predate the modern democratic era and are deeply resistant to change.

To attempt radical change via the Labour Party is to be confronted with its longstanding parliamentarism and timidity. The existing structures include constraints which range from the procedures of Parliament and the position of the monarchy, to the ability of the overwhelmingly conservative mass media to formulate the political agenda.

The obvious alternative -- The revolutionary road, whether communist or anarchist -- has never attracted mass support. Issue movements and radicalism have failed to achieve lasting structural change. This brings us back to the question of agency. How can radical change be achieved in a conservative context? How can the peace movement attain its objectives? There are, in my view, four main strategies for advance in this context, none of which is ideal.

The first strategy is advocated by many peace activists: It is a moral, apolitical, strategy. To rid Britain of nuclear weapons is so obviously a moral objective to which all decent people would subscribe that it seems almost perverse to involve the movement in the political world of corruption, compromise, and half-truths. Yet the movement's objectives are political and the means of attaining them must ultimately be political. Moral outrage will help mobilize public opinion, but cannot by itself achieve the objective.

Working through the Labour Party

A second strategy is political: to work through the Labour Party. This has been the chosen approach of most of the movement's leadership throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1980s. They have argued that the peace movement, while retaining its independence and preserving moral dynamism as a motivating force, should promote the adoption by the Labour Party of peace movement objectives, and then its election. However, such a strategy was based on two unsound assumptions about that party. Until the 1980s, the party has never had a clearly committed peace movement position on defence and foreign policy issues, and the Labour Party has never been elected to power with a series of left-wing policy commitments.

Three objections can be made to the use of the Labour Party as an agent of change. First, the working class, and particularly the trade union movement, have resisted the arguments of the peace movement. The brief period of trade union support in 1959 and 1960 rested on shaky foundations, as was shown by the abrupt reversal in 1961. Second, substantial sections of the peace movement have refused to become involved with Labour politics. Third, the persistent inability of the Labour Party when in power to effect radical structural change must cast doubt on Labour's ability to carry out peace movement objectives, even assuming that the Party were solidly committed to such policies.

One problem for democratic socialists in Britain has been the relative lack of power of the political system per se. One does not have to be a Marxist to see that the ultimate power in society resides largely in socio-economic structures over which governments have no authority. Thus, the election of a left-wing Labour government with a good majority cannot guarantee a restructuring of British society.

The third strategy for achieving radical change is nonviolent direct action. Some espouse radical pacifist, Gandhian-style direct action, not merely as a tactic, but as a philosophy. They consider the choice of means to be an integral part of pursuing the desired end -- -a nonviolent, egalitarian, and decentralized society. While this has been an important catalyst in postwar radical British politics, there are obstacles to its becoming the strategy for change. There is, most obviously, a striking disparity between the objectives of Direct Actionists (D.A.) -- the total transformation of the whole culture to create a nonviolent society -- and its minuscule resources. Not only has D.A. had relatively few supporters and little money; more importantly, the D.A. Movement has lacked any linkage to the Labour Movement or to the wider constituency of the working class. Its ideology comes from in the somewhat esoteric British Pacifist Movement, which is individualist in its assumptions and opposed to collectivist socialism of any description.

The wilder fringes of D.A. activists saw their politics as the first stage on the road to a mass insurrection to destroy the "warfare state." For the majority of D.A, however, politics was seen either as a means of awakening the population's moral consciousness or as part of a movement toward both community and ecology. Once again, the question of agency remains unresolved. D.A. has remained an unsatisfactory vehicle, on its own, for accomplishing radical change.

The fourth strategy for radical change is the path of revolution, whether anarchistic or Marxist. I have already indicated the difficulties in modern British society for such a movement. British Marxists and revolutionary anarchists have been singularly unsuccessful in creating a mass revolutionary movement, let alone the revolution itself! Moreover, as far as the peace movement is concerned, there are obvious ideological problems: Both Marxism and anarchism espouse violence to a greater or lesser degree. Also, Marxism tends to develop rigid authoritarian structures that run counter to the peace movement's alternative culture with its libertarian ethos.

It Helps to Know What We Want

If all these strategies are so flawed, what is the answer to the question of agency? There is no complete answer. It helps, however, to analyze the peace movement's objectives. In the short term, they include the abandonment of the Trident program; the removal of cruise missiles and other nuclear weaponry from British soil; the abandonment of the so-called independent nuclear deterrent; a series of genuine initiatives to advance multilateral nuclear disarmament, and the overall lessening of superpower tensions; and the encouragement of nuclear-free zones in Europe and elsewhere.

In the medium term, there are more politically difficult objectives, such as: the withdrawal of Britain from NATO; the pursuit of positive neutralism; the linkage between the peace movement and the objectives of the Greens, the forging of a decentralized, humanistic, socialism embodying feminist values; and the creation, not merely of a nuclear-free Europe, but of a third force in the world

Most of the medium-term objectives are dependent on fundamental structural and attitudinal change. Still, almost all the objectives in the short term can be achieved without enormous upheavals. Mrs. Thatcher can be deposed electorally, and the next Labour government can be held to most of these demands. There is something to be said for incrementalism. These are worthwhile objectives to achieve. Not only would their attainment be a step toward radical realignments, they would of themselves make the world a safer place.

In some respects the context for such radical change is very favorable now. Western society is in crisis. A minority, but significant, middle class left has increased -- radical and articulate. And the Labour Party as a whole (though not in its leadership) has moved to the left and has produced a more democratic organization which is less concentrated on parliamentarism. This reformed Labour Party is a better agency for radical change than before.

This may paint too rosy a picture, however. In the 1983 Election campaign -- in which Labour's electoral performance was the worst in fifty years -- the defence issue split the Party down the middle; senior leaders dissociated themselves from the Party's official policy. The divisions in the party were gleefully covered in the Tory tabloid press. Even worse was the presentation of defence issues in the media. The Labour Party's policy was always presented as advocating "one-sided disarmament" -- a policy of appeasement held to be masterminded by Marxists who supposedly controlled the Party. In contrast, the Conservatives were presented as defenders of the free world, who would "Keep Britain Strong." The effects of this propaganda are seen in opinion polls of 1983, where there was a big decrease in support for Labour/CND-type policies during the election campaign, and a rapid return to normal in the six months following the election.

In the general election campaign in 1987, defence is again a key issue. Even more than in 1983, Labour's policy is committed to peace movement objectives. The Party proposes: (1) to abandon the Trident program and end the Polaris force, thereby explicitly ending the myth of the British independent nuclear deterrent; (2) to build up Britain's conventional forces to contribute more effectively to NATO; (3) to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from British bases.

Both the Conservative government and the Social Democratic Party leader Dr. David Owen (who left the Labour Party in part because of disagreements over defence policy), have denounced these policies as ending Britain's world power status, as destabilizing the NATO alliance, and as being a step toward "flabby neutralism." The press abounds with stories of internal discord, particularly on defence policy. Enormous international pressure is being used to discredit Labour's policy (e.g. General Rogers's opposition, as NATO's Supreme Commander, to such policies, and the hostility in the U.S. during Mr. Kinnock's recent visit there).

Labour's showing in the opinion polls is cause for concern, though not yet despair. By late December 1986, most polls showed Labour and Conservatives neck and neck (39 to 40 percent), with the Conservatives marginally ahead. The Alliance (Liberals and Social Democrats) trailed badly, around 20 percent. Most analysts attribute this to Labour's defence posture, and the Conservatives think they have an election winner here again. Can Labour's leader, Mr. Kinnock, (who is personally committed to peace movement policies) hold the Party together and convince voters of the viability of these policies? The peace movement must support Labour's campaign. In the longer term, however, the solution must be to combine the Labourist tactic within an eclectic strategy. For a generalized radical change, it is necessary to work on several fronts at once, and to rely exclusively on neither Parliament nor populism. Radical movements will continue to attract mass support. It remains to devise strategies to bring their objectives to fruition.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987, page 10. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Richard Taylor here

Peace Magazine homepage