Broadening the base

IssueNovember 2009
Feature by Andrew Beckett

The last two years have seen a remarkable development in a new peace movement – the local anti-militarism campaigns. Following a model developed in Brighton back in 2004, people across the country are beginning to focus on the arms dealers and weapons manufacturers in their own backyards.

Lacking a commitment to pacifism or legality, the methods and motives of these new campaigns have been questioned by the older, more established peace movement (not least the co-editor of this journal, Milan Rai). This is an attempt to answer some of those questions.


In an article for Red Pepper entitled “Disarming the Arms Makers”, PN co-editor Milan Rai criticised the SMASH EDO campaign. His criticisms are echoed elsewhere. (Even the name of the campaign has come in for some flak.)

Although some of what Milan has to say is accurate he insinuates that direct action campaigns, such as the long-running campaign against EDO MBM (now EDO ITT) do little to build a broad base of support for anti-militarism. He draws parallels with the militant animal rights movement and questions “whether the tactics which can win particular battles contribute to larger successes, or whether they may be undermining the building of the mass base of opposition which is essential to overall victory”.

Unfortunately, the established peace movement has little to teach anyone about the route to “overall victory”.

“Play it safe” protest

The biggest spontaneous outbreak of anti-war sentiment in British history was in the run-up to the Iraq war. With a few honourable exceptions this was channelled into a virtual re-run of the failed campaign against nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The whole thrust of the Stop the War Coalition’s approach was that marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square would ultimately compel the government to see sense. A march, a few speeches and a coach home – is it any wonder that our government felt safe to go to war?

Underlying criticism of SMASH EDO is the peace movement’s conviction that (despite years achieving little in terms of changing “facts on the ground”) they have the key to genuine social change. Their vision seems to be one of exponential growth – bigger demos and more paper sales until a “mass base of opposition” overcomes existing power structures and brings about world peace and social justice.

This leads to a “play-it-safe” attitude to engaging with both the public and the authorities. Defiance and confrontation are seen as alienating and have “political costs”. The public are seen as apolitical and have to be led in baby steps towards the correct solutions. This approach has not led to an upsurge in numbers let alone a “mass movement”.

When it comes to demonstrations the established peace movement insists they have to be “inclusive” and safe (which often means co-ordinated with the police) and above all “nonviolent”. Add a faith-based approach to symbolic action and “bearing witness” into the mix and what you have is a recipe for ineffectiveness.

“When I think of peaceful protest, an image pops into my head of inert activists, usually with DayGlo mohicans, being carried to the side of the road by openly bored police”. (Barbara Ellen, Guardian, 11 October 2009)

It is this ineffectiveness, not the perceived violence of anti-militarists that is actually the barrier to creating a “mass movement”. It is easy to confuse public opinion with media opinion with the priority being to avoid negative headlines at all costs, ignoring the role that the media play in keeping established elites in power.

Outpouring of rage

By contrast, one of the main inspirations for Smash EDO was the mass outpouring of rage that occurred across the country on the day war broke out – rage not organised by or sanctioned by the Stop The War Coalition. Streets were blocked and, in Brighton at least, the town hall was briefly occupied. This obviously led to confrontation with the police.

Every form of inclusivity is also a form of exclusivity – and building a movement around “nonviolent” symbolic actions is very exclusive.

The reason that the Smash EDO campaign can get over a thousand disobedient people out on to the streets and has inspired new campaigns around the country is that it has gone beyond the symbolic. We’re not wasting our time, petitioning the government, we’re out there, doing it in the road.

Milan claims that SMASH EDO has a “narrow social base” and that the May Day Street Party was aimed at “solidifying and enthusing” this base (presumably at the expense of wider out-reach). There is probably some truth that the “branding” of the campaign has sub-cultural resonances. The fact that the demo in question was on May Day and involved a “street party” points to associations with the 1990s Reclaim the Streets movement for example.

But in attacking our “social base” of the great unwashed, Milan not only ignores the narrow social base of the existing peace movement but ignores the wide spread of ages and classes who have been involved in the campaign. He makes the error of mistaking the tip for the iceberg.

May Day was just one manifestation of an ongoing campaign, which has learned that there is strength in diversity of tactics. The May Day crowd was for the most part young and up-for-it. They’ve come to anti-militarism through anarchism rather than the peace movement. They were also outraged at the police treatment handed out at G20 and were determined not to allow themselves to be trapped like that again.

The list of targets supplied to the crowd, which included Barclays, RBS and McDonalds (all major shareholders in ITT [the company that now owns EDO]) meant that the campaign wanted a little more than just a “street party in the park”. The point of the demonstration was to show that the arms trade and global capitalism are inextricably intertwined.

According to the anonymous quote sourced by Milan, “I found that once told [about the message of the demo] 100% of shop keepers expressed support, although few thought it would change anything.” That’s what we need to change – the idea that it’s impossible to change anything.

The police repression aimed at the EDO campaign stems from their very real fear that we may have found a way to change things. The May Day demonstrations did not incur “political costs”, but, by providing an arena where people were able to fight back against the war machine, did something to restore the credibility of the peace movement.