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Bruce Kent: As I please

Welcome to our new columnist!

When my brother, sister and I were young, many eons ago, Aunt Edith was a regular visitor. She always brought sweets which were most welcome. But she also had wise words not equally appreciated. ‘If I were you dear….’ was the start to many a long talk about what we should be and ought to be doing. The editor of Peace News has asked me to contribute a column a few times a year and this is the first. I will do my best to avoid Aunt Edith’s ‘If I were you dear...‘ old age syndrome.

Not that I am short of opinions. Congratulations first of all to all those in various organisations who have kept the peace flag flying despite obstacles of many kinds, moments of hope and moments of near despair. When I began as general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [in 1979 – ed], I think we had about 3,000 members – some already dead, as I discovered when they did not respond to cash appeals. Canon Collins, a co-founder of the organisation, even said on the radio that since CND was finished he would be turning his efforts elsewhere. Then came those astonishing Hyde Park rallies of the 1980s.

Membership shot up to well over 100,000. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev put an end to all that. He was so reasonable it was hard for anyone to think of the Soviet Union, for all its faults, as a global monolith bent on running the world – which is the way the Heseltine hawks had portrayed it (Michael Heseltine was a Conservative minister). I even remember, outside our London N4 pub, a nice old chap coming up and congratulating me on getting rid of nuclear weapons. If only!

CND is not of course the only active peace movement. All Peace News readers will be familiar with the Housmans Diary and Directory, a hardy, indispensable annual if ever there was one, showing that peace activism is a worldwide concern.

If I had prizes to give, one would certainly go to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) which has done so much to expose a corrupt trade. A second prize would go to Pax Christi (I declare an interest) which persistently challenges the churches to practise what they preach about peace.

A third would go to War on Want which has not hesitated to make the links between poverty and militarisation. If I remember rightly, it had to resign from the Disasters Emergency Committee because of this radical stance.

There is no point in avoiding some of the inter-organisational problems. Competition does go on – some of it ego-fuelled, some of it funding-fuelled – between groups. But one of the biggest barriers results from government ‘charity‘ regulations. Accept ‘charitable’ legal status and you will get substantial rewards in terms of tax rebates. And ‘charity’ is such a nice, non-controversial word.

But the price of these tax rebates is that organisations do not stray outside the limits arranged for them. It has been no surprise that, in all this recent climate change concern, so little has been said about the effect of military production on changing the climate, or about the conflicts which have emerged, for example as a result of people moving to avoid advancing deserts. Poverty and war are twins, though you would not gather that from many overseas development organisations.

Let me not end on a discouraging note. More and more people are realising that, for all its cost, militarism does not bring security. If the NHS is in trouble for lack of £20 billion why are we spending £200 billion on building and running a new generation of nuclear weapons? Doors are opening, dear. We need to push. That’s what my Aunt Edith would say.

Bruce Kent is vice-president of CND and Pax Christi, among many other roles.