Can British peace activists win nuclear disarmament this election?

On May 7, people in the United Kingdom will vote in the most unpredictable election for decades. The rise of smaller parties, both left and right, makes the result hard to call. Despite this, the mainstream media persist in seeing only a narrow range of topics as “election issues.” Britain’s nuclear weapons have not generally fallen into this category.

But now everything has changed.

Election coverage focuses on issues that the two main parties — the Conservatives and the Labour Party — disagree. Parliament is due to make a decision in 2016 about whether to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system and the Labour leadership shares the Conservatives’ enthusiasm for renewing it.

Peace activists have been stepping up the pressure, but ironically it’s the Conservatives who have turned Trident into a headline issue.

On April 9, Conservative Defense Secretary Michael Fallon launched a verbal assault on Labour leader Ed Miliband, accusing him of preparing to scrap Trident. Miliband strenuously denied it. Within hours, Trident was the number one trending topic on Twitter in the United Kingdom.

For those who have tried hard to get Trident into the headlines, it was a reminder of the frustratingly undemocratic way in which politics operates. While opinion polls consistently show that a majority of the British public is opposed to Trident renewal, most of the press are firmly in favor, accusing any politician who thinks otherwise of endangering the country. The sudden media controversy, however, was an opportunity for opponents of Trident to make their voices heard.

That’s not to say they hadn’t been doing so already. Protests at nuclear bases have become more frequent and many have been organized as part of the network Action AWE. Last summer, a seven-mile scarf knitted by people all over the world was stretched between the two wings of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire. On March 11, a singing flash mob appeared in the lobby of the Houses of Parliament, performing an oratorio about Trident. Later, a group of cyclists rode from London to the Atomic Weapons Establishment, stopping on the way to visit communities affected by government cuts.

“The state and military-industrial complex have a monopoly on violence, but we have a monopoly on creativity,” said Sam Walton, peace and disarmament program manager at Quaker Peace & Social Witness.

The anti-Trident movement in Britain is diverse, including pacifists, hardline Marxists and retired generals who regard Trident as ineffective.

“The key thing is that there’s a spread of different types of action,” said Andrew Dey, who has on several occasions chained himself to others to block nuclear bases. “We need pressure within political parties, we need street stalls, and we desperately need more direct action.”

British politics is in an unusual place. In 2010, the coalition government formed by the Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats began making sweeping cuts, privatizing parts of the National Health Service and removing benefits from thousands of disabled people. Poverty rocketed. The Labour Party has opposed only some of the more extreme measures.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the mainstream parties are losing ground to other parties on both the left and the right. If Labour do not obtain an overall majority in Parliament, they are likely to do a deal with the Scottish National Party, or SNP, which is left of center and anti-Trident. The Labour leadership insist that they will not make any bargains over Trident. However, a survey suggested that Trident is opposed by three quarters of Labour candidates, despite their leader’s position.

Some argue that grassroots actions are precisely what is needed to put the pressure on MPs. The election isn’t simply about voting. “I don’t need to join a party, or even vote, to have an impact on the election,” Dey explained. “Grassroots activism isn’t an addition to politics, it’s not some optional extra — it’s where politics ultimately is.”

Some left-wing politicians are happy to support nonviolent direct action. Caroline Lucas, a Green Party Member of Parliament, was herself arrested at an anti-fracking protest in 2013. Plaid Cymru — a Welsh socialist party, whose name means “Party of Wales” in Welsh — has called on candidates of all parties to oppose Trident. In the past, the party’s defense spokesperson, Elfyn Llwyd, has expressed support for peace protesters facing trial after peaceful civil disobedience. When Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson was asked if the party supported blockades of nuclear bases, she said they did, explaining, “We’re very supportive of grassroots activism in as peaceful a sense as possible.”

The British peace movement’s diversity is both its strength and its weakness. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament remains the leading anti-nuclear NGO, but protests are often organized spontaneously by small grassroots groups. These groups tend to cheer each other on — it is not uncommon to see secular anarchist groups publicizing action by religious pacifists on social media.

This is not, however, the same as working together. At times, the campaign against Trident can appear rather haphazard. The need for secrecy when organizing certain direct action means that different groups are unaware of each other’s plans until they happen. The timing of protests is often highly questionable. Protesters sometimes choose times or days when the media are likely to be otherwise occupied, making coverage less likely.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition tend to organize marches through central London that are very similar to countless marches in the past. Creativity in parts of the movement contrasts with the unquestioned and repetitive use of traditional methods in other parts.

“It feels like a lot of the peace movement is stuck in the past and unwilling to adapt to new tactics,” said Walton. “There are some very conservative peace groups, who would rather continue as an ineffective echo and social club, rather than adapt to the world today and actually be effective.”

For a more positive example, Walton looks to Faslane 365, a year-long series of actions in 2006-2007 at Faslane in Scotland, where Trident submarines are based. There were daily protests, often with blockades and arrests. The work of the base was disrupted. The structure of Faslane 365 allowed coordination between varied groups. So, for example, one day might be a Christian blockade, another a student blockade and another a protest by environmentalists making points about the need to transfer engineering skills to renewable energy.

“Faslane 365 crystallized Scottish public opinion on the issue,” Walton said. “It helped to forge Scotland’s identity as a nation that opposes nuclear weapons.”

But will the Trident issue have an impact on the election, either in Scotland or in the other three nations of the U.K.? Will grassroots activism make a difference to the chances of MPs opposing Trident?

The answer may depend in part on how the anti-Trident movement is perceived. Some are keen to quote ex-generals who oppose Trident renewal, even though they do so because they want more money spent on conventional troops. Many see such alliances as a tactical necessity. “If we think we are going to get disarmament with just today’s peace movement then we are woefully naïve,” Walton said.

Nonetheless, this can cause problems when peace campaigners want to oppose high military spending as well as Trident. Britain has the sixth highest military spending in the world. Many focus on the cost of Trident at a time of cuts to public services. One example was a major demonstration called Bairns not Bombs in Glasgow on April 4. “Bairns” is a colloquial Scottish word for children.

“Bairns not Bombs is a perfect example of how grassroots activism has evolved — slicker, politically literate and social media savvy,” said Mairi Campbell-Jack, the parliamentary engagement officer for Scottish Quakers. “In just three words it manages to capture the core issues why many people do not want a renewal of Trident.” In other words, the name affirms support for social welfare at the same time as rejecting nuclear weapons. It presents an alternative: Cut expenditure on warfare rather than slashing spending on public services and social security.

It’s common for peace activists to contrast expenditure on Trident with cuts to disability services. The danger is that they do so simplistically, and without raising the issue with the groups campaigning against such cuts. An English disability campaigner told me anonymously that she often sees peace campaigners talking about disability cuts but making little if any effort to build connections with disabled people’s campaign groups.

“People in the peace movement want to stop Trident, which is admirable,” she said. “A tactic for arguing for this is ‘We could spend the money on other, more important, things.’ Then they’ve thought that disabled people are more likely to be appealing.” Thus they unintentionally add to perceptions of disabled people as passive victims.

Instead, she said, the peace and anti-austerity movements should be working together.

With less than a month to go until the election, it may seem a bit late to be talking about alliances. But there’s a British saying: A week is a long time in politics. The Conservatives’ decision to make an issue out of Trident may yet backfire on them. Since the invasion of Iraq, the British public have been far less keen on preparing for war.

If Parliament votes to reject Trident, it will be because of pressure from below. Applying that pressure effectively is the challenge facing the British peace movement between now and polling day — and afterwards.

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