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May 2015

Seventy years on

August 6 and 9 2015 saw the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Japan in 1945 and the introduction of the nuclear age; an introduction that killed more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians.

At a ceremony in Hiroshima the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe renewed a longstanding Japanese pledge to seek worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. Groups of demonstrators were on hand to protest at Abe’s moves to trim post-war constraints on the Japanese military and to restart the nuclear power stations that were shut down after Fukushima meltdown in 2011, but that said, there was no doubt as to the continuing deep opposition to nuclear weapons in Japan.

Now that we are in the throes of a Labour Party leadership battle it’s perhaps germane to have a very brief look at some early opposition to nuclear weapons here in the UK.

In 1943, Bob Edwards, subsequently a Labour MP, can be credited with initiating opposition to nuclear weaponry when he wrote a pamphlet perceptively warning of the possible development of an atomic bomb.

In March 1946 the PPU led other pacifist groups in organising a rally at Central Hall, Westminster, under the slogan “No Atomic War”. Leading the opposition to nuclear weapons, in 1949, the Peace Pledge Union set up a Nonviolence Commission to explore the possibility of direct action to achieve a number of objectives including the cessation of the production of Atomic Bombs in Britain. The resulting Operation Gandhi entailed a sit down when eleven people were arrested at the War Office in January 1952. It also led to what was probably the first demonstration at Aldermaston. Despite only 30 people taking part it did set the basis for the Direct Action Committee that was to come later. (A more detailed description of the leadership undertaken by the PPU in the establishment of the anti-nuclear weapons’ movement is contained in the updated edition of Swimming Against the Tide, The Peace Pledge Union Story 1934-2014 available from the PPU for £6.50)

In April1954 six labour MPs took the lead in establishing the Hydrogen Bomb National Campaign (effectively an anti-nuclear weapons movement), which was later wound up. The Labour Party did not capitalise on this development and when the Tory government of the time officially confirmed plans to make a British H Bomb the Labour Party subsequently adopted an approach that did not reject outright a British H Bomb.

In the summer of 1957 thirty Labour MPs joined a new Labour H Bomb Campaign Committee but when at the Labour Party’s annual conference a motion proposing British unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons was proposed, Aneurin Bevan, in his now legendary speech, helped to crush the resolution. By the time the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched in 1958 the official opposition of the Labour Party was now wedded to what can only be described as a rather pusillanimous approach, an approach that, apart from occasional flirtations with unilateralism such as in the early 1980s, has characterised the official Labour Opposition and Labour Governments’ position pretty much since 1955.

So where is the Labour Party now in 2015 following the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the moment three of the potential candidates to be the next leader of the Labour Party have confirmed that they would spend billions renewing the Trident nuclear systems in full. On 18 August Andy Burnham said rather mystifyingly that he could not be certain that Britain would not need the £100bn system. (Cost estimates for the nuclear weapons range between £60bn and £120bn over its lifetime).
“I believe in multilateral disarmament but I can’t say to you on the radio now that I would back away from renewing Trident, because I wouldn’t”.

Yvette Cooper has voted consistently in favour of a Trident replacement and is fully committed to keeping four Trident submarines and maintaining a continuous at sea deterrent.

Liz Kendall is also committed to replacing Trident but she is far and away the most hawkish of the candidates. Apart from being pro Trident she has insisted Britain must meet the minimum 2% defence spending. Adding “under this Government we’ve seen a quiet diminishing of Britain’s role in the world, which we did too little to challenge because we’ve been paralysed by the past. Under my leadership, Labour will no longer stand by while the Prime Minister weakens our country and allows the world to become less secure”
Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate that opposes Trident renewal, is in favour of unilateral disarmament and wants to withdraw from Nato.

Interestingly Polly Toynbee a member of the left of the Labour party had this to say. “Politics is often about symbols, not reality. Take Corbyn’s anti-Trident stand. I imagine, but I don’t know, that the potential leaders would not choose to spend tens of billions on these four submarines. But Labour is pledged to them, because any hint of unilateralism brands the party as unelectably reckless. I can argue against Trident, but Labour in opposition dare not.”

This opposition to Corbyn’s position on unilateral disarmament is echoed by Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, Jack Straw, Gordon Brown, David Milliband, pretty much the whole of the Tory establishment, the US Government and undoubtedly Donald Trump if he finds out. Many would support Jeremy Corbyn’s position on this particular issue albeit recognising that its actual implementation would only be a good start.

Unlike some organisations the PPU has, as you would expect, been taking a consistent position against Nuclear Weapons at least since 1949! [Ed Actually 1945 see Swiming Against the Tide - the Peace Pledge Union Story]

Peter Glasgow