Gollum and the ring of power

IssueJune 2006
Feature by Howard Clark

“It is our duty to future generations to build nuclear power stations.”

I think I've heard that before. Perhaps when I was a little boy and the Queen opened a plant producing plutonium for British nuclear weapons at Calder Hall (part of the Windscale complex) and emphasised the contribution of its side-product, electricity. Or perhaps it was in the 1970s when I worked on Peace News and we began to campaign against civil nuclear power.

All my life nuclear power has been touted as “the fuel of the future”. Today Tony Blair repeats the refrain as if we haven't already arrived at a future that is a consequence of the very policies he advocates.

  • Still Britain is a country where energy is wasted as if it costs nothing, as if once “used”, it somehow “disappears” without trace.
  • Still people talk of the “potential” for renewable resources of energy. Wind and water power are part of our history, a picturesque feature of theme park Britain, but for decades now they have been shunned for practical purposes, no matter what clever technologies other countries have introduced.
  • Still the experts don't know how to treat the nuclear waste that has been accumulating for more than years 50 years and whose poison will probably out-last our planet.

Like Blair, the government of Iran also says nuclear is the future. Yet curiously, Jack Straw has just lost the foreign secretaryship for laughing at the idea that they might be punished with a bombing campaign. Blair's latest address to the CBI, however, changed my mind about contributing to the 70th birthday section of Peace News. I could not sit idly by when a prime minister offers such a barmy sound-bite as “nuclear power is coming back with a vengeance”. Vengeance? Help -- vengeance against all those who had warned it is unnecessary, uneconomic, and unsafe.

This pre-empting of the expert report on energy was clearly something personal and far from rational. That same afternoon Blair went berserk in parliament, apparently causing panic among his aides by threatening to send illegal refugees back to murderous situations (not just showing how nasty he can get, but also ripping up the Geneva Conventions). Next stop the funny farm? Few people can be a greater menace to society than a crazed prime minister, and yet perhaps nobody else's sanity is under such pressure. Addicted to power, they inhabit a world of permanent conspiracy and manipulation, kept company mainly by those who collude in their dangerous delusions.

In a Scottish field

On the day Thatcher became prime minister, I was camped in a field by the Torness nuclear power site preparing a nonviolent occupation. “Together we can stop Torness.” Well, we didn't, but it is a kind of victory that Torness was almost the last new nuclear power station to be built in Britain. PN's concerted campaigning against nuclear energy began in 1973 when the US activist Bill Moyer submitted an article. Bill is probably best remembered as the author of the Movement Action Plan (see his book Doing Democracy, New Society Publishers) that analyses social movements and, in particular, asks activists to recognise where they are succeeding. But this earlier piece was a call for a nonviolent action strategy against nuclear power. At the time, we'd heard complaints from local Friends of the Earth activists that FOE HQ were putting the brakes on anti-nuclear campaigning and so two of us went over to confront FOE nuclear expert, Walt Patterson, with Bill's call for action. Walt gave us a physics lesson (much needed I confess), but from what was happening in other countries, we remained convinced it was time to prepare a grass-roots campaign against civil nuclear energy and, wider still, for an alternative energy strategy.

The “environmental lobby” tended to be quite impressed with Labour's Minister of Energy, Tony Benn, and thought it was a genuinely democratising move when he set up the Windscale Inquiry. We on PN were sceptical, almost on principle but also rightly -- despite the voluminous and impressive evidence against nuclear energy, Labour and Conservative were bent on pressing ahead with nuclear expansion. Peace News was the best British source of information on the mass nonviolent demonstrations at Malville in France, the West German citizens' initiatives and anti nuclear occupations, the Movement Against Uranium Mining in Australia, and later about the US development of the “affinity group” model of organising anti-nuclear alliances. In 1978, PN readers, co-editors and contributors became prominent in the Torness Alliance: it was, a friend told me, as if we had been waiting for this to give us something to be nonviolent about.

Anarchism in practice

For the first time in Britain, a protest movement made nonviolence training an important part of their preparation. It was the first mixed movement here to take feminism seriously, both in analysis and in organisational practice, pre-figuring the 1980s women's peace movement. Our decision making was anarchism in practice -- working from affinity groups to an alliance-wide consensus.

It was by no means perfect, not least because of certain saboteurs -- a contributor wrote to Freedom after the May 1979 occupation saying he would no longer refer to himself as an anarchist because he didn't want to be associated with those “anarchists” who tried to sabotage collective decision making. Later, when miners' leader Arthur Scargill tried to launch the Anti-Nuclear Campaign, we insisted on introducing him to consensus decision making but he never got further than asking people to rubber stamp his opinions -- “all agreed? aye, so next point ...”.

At Torness, you couldn't ignore the presence of many forms of lifestyle politics -- from the cocounsellors sitting cross-legged, facing each other and dealing with their stress, to the whole-food network we'd mobilised and who made sure that no nonviolent direct action movement could ask for better food. Here, in short, was the alternative society in resistance to the state.

I don't pretend that our movement alone put a stop to nuclear construction, but we played our part. Our arguments were well-founded: about the kind of society nuclear power would lead to,about the risks, about the dodgy electricity demand forecasting and even dodgier economics that was masking certain industrial interests. We applied ourselves to “demystifying” the science of the subject, not leaving it to expert debate, and developed a holistic analysis embracing feminism and ecology. Moreover we linked up with local groups campaigning against projects on their own turf.

Anti-nuclear cycling

In 1979 I spent nine weeks cycling around British civil nuclear sites -- from Orkney downwards -- visiting anti-nuclear groups. I sent in reports to PN about the strength of the groups I met, the alliances they had made in their community, the nonviolent lengths they were prepared to go to, the way that they had equipped themselves to engage in public debate with professional industry spokespeople, and the connections they were making. Some groups were wary of the alternativist ethos of the Torness Alliance, but I wouldn't describe any of them as NIMBY activists -- they saw themselves as part of a larger movement to refashion energy politics. Apart from Torness, not one of the projects then mooted for greenfield sites has actually been carried out.

A few years later, after the protracted Sizewell Inquiry and once the Conservatives had “liberalised” the supply side of electricity, even Thatcher could see nuclear power was no longer economic and needed hidden subsidies. And nobody was offering to be the custodian for nuclear waste.

Until, it seems, Gollum Blair. Our rapidly cracking up prime minister just doesn't seem capable of making obvious connections. He misses no opportunity to warn us about the need for vigilance against (non-state) terrorism while underwriting every act of terrorism carried out in alliance with the USA, and now proposes to construct a set of perfect targets for terrorists.

However, nuclear madness is not just his personal aberration. It has been the preferred “solution” of generations of power mongers. A nuclear energy supply lends itself to social centralisation, to hierarchy and indeed to their pursuit of power. Taking the ring of power from Gollum is not enough, for its power can enthral even hobbits -- people too decent to want to be prime minister. Rather it has to be melted, undone and cast away.

Hooked on power

Once more, it seems we need to begin forming extra-parliamentary, cross-community alliances ready to resist the new nuclear menace and to change British energy policy. One evening on my 1979 bike tour, I was offered a microphone and sang Buddy Holly's Everyday with anti-nuclear words by Mike and Annie Lockwood. Perhaps it's time to rehearse them again -- here's how it ends: Leave it to the blinkered politicians
Trust in them to make the wrong decisions
They don't care, they've got tunnel vision
They're hooked on power (a ha ha)

Nuclear power, it's the only answer
Everyone says we gotta take a chance,
a Nuclear death's the only way to go, aho a ho ho.