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Seeing links and opportunities

How has Britain's most active nonviolent direct action campaign against British nuclear weapons responded to the war on terror? TP2000's press officer David McKenzie reports

Trident Ploughshares activists, in the face of the failure of the British government to fulfil its promises to get rid of its nuclear weapons, undertake that responsibility themselves, by peaceful and nonviolent and accountable direct action. In the four years of the campaign there have been 1803 arrests, 398 trials, 1711 days have been spent in jail (not counting time in police cells) and fines totalling £56,490 have been imposed, though rarely paid.

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PHOTO: COURTESY OF TP2000

There have been effective and serious disarmament actions involving small groups (such as the disarmament of the research barge Maytime in 1999) and large numbers of activists (as at the mass blockades of Faslane naval base). While the core membership is the 200 people from 14 different countries who have taken a pledge to disarm, there are several thousand active supporters, many of whom also engage in direct action.

Although criminalised by the British police and courts, the campaign enjoys considerable civic and popular approval, especially in Scotland. In 2001 the general Assembly of the Church of Scotland actively encouraged its membership to engage in civil resistance to Trident and a poll showed that a majority of Scots approved of direct action at Faslane, home to the Trident submarines. In 1991 the campaign was presented with the Right Livelihood Award in the Swedish Parliament for being “a model of principled, transparent and nonviolent direct action dedicated to rid the world of nuclear weapons”.

State surveillance

The campaign has been affected by the “war on terror” in a number of ways. As regards changes in levels of security, on the one hand we are still getting into high security bases and on to Trident submarines as easily as before, painting one sub in August at Faslane and getting inside another at Devonport dockyard in southern England in November.

On the other hand people involved in the Faslane blockades (including some that the courts have taken no action against) have been barred from entry into Italy and it is likely that general surveillance of TP activists has got more thorough.

We also recognise that things could get very much worse as civil liberties are increasingly under threat from anti-terrorist hysteria and the trend that had already been established for increasing state information on citizens.

WMDs and violence addiction

We have maintained our timetabled programme of camps and mass actions as before, but TP affinity groups are now engaged in more anti-war activities, and this is one factor in the relative shortage of affinity group actions clearly focused on Trident.

A number of TP pledgers have become heavily involved in the monitoring of human rights abuses and in peaceful intervention in Palestine. While this broadening of activity does affect the overall energy available for the Trident campaign there are also huge gains from the healthy and active linking of related peace, human rights and environmental issues. Trident is after all the key illustration of the addiction to violence that underpins our national life.

While talking to media people recently at the side of Loch Long, as the Ark Royal aircraft carrier loaded its munitions for the Iraq war, the connections to Trident were unmissable, with the vast nuclear arsenal at Coulport just two miles away down the lochside.

Phrases and concepts, like “weapons of mass destruction” and “international law” which in the past needed some explanation, are now in common parlance and we want to make the most of these opportunities. For example, we are expecting that many of the people who have become active in protesting against the war will join us at what is accepted as a major anti-war action, the Really Big Blockade of Faslane naval base on 22 April.

Campaigning tips

  • Preparation and support. A basic feature of our affinity groups is the way they provide a framework of mutual support through all the phases of a nonviolent direct action, from preparation and planning, tracking police custody, publicity work, legal support at the time and in the court processes that follow, and in some cases prison support.

     

    We also have a campaign infrastructure that is able to complement the support provided by affinity groups, especially where court or prison support is required far away from the affinity group's area. This support from the campaign infrastructure is also necessary since we have been able to involve many people in camps and mass actions who are not TP pledgers and might not have affinity group support.

    This commits us to steady and often repetitive work but it is essential to have a framework that ensures that good work is not wasted and that people who are experiencing direct action for perhaps the first time are not cast adrift and lose heart.

  • Go for it! The ethos of careful preparation and support mentioned above has to be balanced by a willingness to respond quickly when opportunities present themselves and to recognise that every positive action involves risks.
  • Have fun. It's a bit odd to be writing this as Bush is lining up a threatening State of the Union speech, but I have heard it said by those who have a sense of humour that keeping your sense of fun through it all is a key to survival. They also say that there is plenty raw material about at the moment for gentle piss-taking, whatever that means. Speaking as a retired schoolteacher I fundamentally disapprove, but then it takes all sorts.

 

Maintaining focus

We do not know whether there will be more gains than losses. In the meantime in TP we are sure we need to keep a fine balance between maintaining the sharpness of focus that has been so important to the campaign's success so far, at the same time as responding to the threat of war by being engaged in formal and informal coalitions and by taking antiwar action as affinity groups - as the Muriel Lester group did during a mass, nonviolent weekend of actions at the British military's Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood in north London on 18 January.

Through our experience of nonviolent direct action and our insistence on the preparation and thought that needs to underpin it we are making a particular contribution. In Scotland TP people have provided the nonviolence training for those who have pledged civil disobedience in the event of an attack on Iraq.

Keeping the issues alive

In a review of our current performance at a recent meeting of affinity group representatives we faced some of the weaknesses in the campaign. There is disappointment that the increase in the numbers of pledgers is slow; that outside camps and mass actions there are too few actions by affinity groups; that “maximum” disarmament actions are in short supply; that in spite of having what we believe is an inclusive ethos there are whole constituencies which we do not engage with. There is also the danger of getting bogged down in a war of attrition in the courts, particularly the courts local to Faslane and Coulport.

These difficulties have been overshadowed by considerable strengths and successes. Our actions at Devonport, from the blockade on 3 February 2002 to the camp which took place last November, have helped to put the issue at the top of the public agenda in Plymouth. In February 2002 we joined Scottish CND for a three-day blockade of Faslane. On the first day we achieved the longest shut-down so far of all vehicular access to the base - nothing came in or out for over three hours. And every other week there is the pleasant surprise of a TP action which you knew nothing about beforehand, like the blockade of the Rolls Royce factory at Derby (making the new fuel plates for HMS Vanguard) which is going on as I write. Then there is the feedback we receive from all over, which somehow takes one by surprise, that our activities are still providing inspiration for people.

To the future!

Trident Ploughshares was set up as a limited time campaign and we are committed to a regular and genuine annual consideration of whether we should continue the campaign beyond the immediate commitments we have. Because of this, while we spend time on strategy, we deliberately do not lay down plans longer than one year ahead. We have just decided to continue for another year.

We believe we should stick to what we do best. “Peoples' Disarmament” is a clumsy term but it does describe well our preoccupation with confronting the Trident crime as directly as we can and with empowering others to do so. Our experience is that the integrity of that preoccupation is what provides the energy and the opportunities. We also acknowledge our dependence on so many other aspects of the peace movement, the groups involved in legal exploration, in technical research, in political lobbying, in public education, etc, as well as those whose focus is different from but complementary to our own. And here one can tentatively suggest a task for the peace movement as a whole. In the present crisis we have geared up our networking and collaboration to become more effective. Is this something we can maintain in a steady state beyond the present phase?

TP 2000, c/o 42-46 Bethel Street, Norwich NR2 1NR, Britain (email tp2000@gn.apc.org; http://www.tridentploughshares.org ).

David McKenzie is TP2000's primary press worker. He lives in Scotland.