Being realistic - demanding the impossible. I want to believe!

IssueSeptember 2006
Feature by Janet Kilburn

Having been involved in anti-nuclear campaigns and actions for the past 20 years, it's with something of a heavy heart that I write this critique of Faslane365. I kind of got dragged in at the last minute because two possible contributors fled the country when they realised the deadline was approaching -- cowards!

There are two personal reasons for feeling a certain weight of treachery for writing this: firstly I really would like to see some genuine grassroots mass social movement against nuclear weapons (well, against weapons and militarism per se, really, but nukes would be a great start) and secondly I know most of the organisers, like and respect them very much, and know how much effort and energy is being expended trying to make this thing work. However, none of it is enough to keep my big mouth shut. Ironically, I am actually going to Scotland to provide legal support over the first couple of days. Because despite my (sometimes a bit hard) criticisms, on balance I think people should be supported for getting off their arses and doing something. (Even when doomed to failure. Prove me wrong -- please!)

My comments in this article are to some degree a reflection of my frustration at the general lack of risk-taking and understanding of power within the peace -- and other -- movements. As a “participant-organiser” (for want of a better label) I am as guilty of setting up equally mad schemes and then trying to twist arms to drag people out of their normal lives for a few moments. So in some ways this is not just a critique of F365 but of the approach many of us who set up and participate in mass nonviolent direct action have.

People v the state (not)

The idea, as suggested in last month's PN article, that Britain's nuclear disarmament would have some kind of domino effect -- making it harder for France and perhaps others to develop new nukes -- might have some weight; the problem is, a few hundred activists carrying out essentially symbolic actions in Scotland is not going to bring about nuclear disarmament.

Apart from not viewing and presenting itself as a campaign in direct confrontation with state power (which of course it sort of is -- even if that doesn't sound fluffy and welcoming enough), I think one of the biggest problems with F365 (or any other project which intends applying pressure to force a policy change) is that when you make a demand, on some level it has to be possible for both those making the demand to make it effectively, and for those who are given the power to respond to be able to comply. (Of course, it can also be argued that this is merely reinforcing state power on some level, by appealing to them to change policy, but that's another discussion.)

It's also questionable whether a series of actions at Faslane -- where Trident has been deployed from for the past ten years -- would bring as high a return as disruption at Aldermaston, where the facilities for the next generation of nuclear weapons are being built right now. One advantage to campaigning in Scotland of course is the ability to harness the energy of nationalism.

For those applying such pressure, this means that the strategy and tactics need to be razor sharp and collectively executed with a certain militant attitude (otherwise they will easily be crushed) and the recipients of such pressure need to have the space to make some or all of the requested changes (otherwise they won't).

Beyond the symbolic?

I am not convinced that the groups involved in F365 think about the issue in this way, or are really prepared to go beyond the symbolic, or that there is a clear and collectively understood and agreed set of tactics. In terms of tangible output, another symbolic action -- particularly on this scale -- is basically a waste of energy and resources.

Conversely, an action which begins effectively and looks as though it might be sustained is likely to be responded to with a massive deployment of police and an escalation in repressive and violent tactics. I have to ask whether those participating are prepared for and have been briefed on this because, anecdotally, it sounds as though its time for a Scottish holiday with a few banners at the side of the road and a handful of people sat in it (probably for ten minutes before being politely arrested by the Strathclyde police). Telling people that if they are effective there will be an escalation, and they need to prepare for that, would scare some people off -- but maybe it would also show some faith in the possibility of their actions being effective in the first place!

As for the government's room to manoeuvre, given the geopolitical baggage and power that comes with being a nuclear weapons state, they are not going to be able to comply with the request to disarm -- and will be particularly reluctant to give an inch when the pressure comes in the form of direct action. The government spends half its time telling us it won't “give in” to “terrorism” (an entirely subjective word) -- so why on earth should it capitulate to a couple of thousand of us (minus bombs, obviously).

An ungovernable force

For me the whole premise smacks of lobbying with bells on (F365's stated aims are to “witness and impede the nuclear base” and “demonstrate concerns”). While I am happy for every moment the military finds it difficult to carry out its preparations for death and destruction, I would be even happier if there was such a groundswell of people that the implementation of policy became unworkable in practice, due to our amazing and ungovernable force.

Unfortunately, the limits of single-issue campaigning and the desire to operate within a certain comfort zone suggest that the amount of pressure required to change state policy (which is a lot -- ie as much as or more than the huge and powerful business community can muster) is not going to be brought to bear. F365 organisers are intelligent, beautiful, committed people, so the question has to be asked -- why set something up to fail? If 100 people did arrive in Scotland every second day, for a year, to very actively and effectively blockade this key nuclear base it would be a miracle. After all, that's more than 18,000 people taking direct action and -- while I am a committed believer in the power of people to effect change -- each spectacular failure to achieve a dramatic -- if unattainable -- goal can end up empowering the state and its functionaries. In the end, we have a limited amount of collective energy and it is important to consider whether this is the best way to deploy it.

A collective deception

Taking a look at Rebecca's article in the last issue of PN I picked out a couple of things that I found particularly subjective. For example, “We are at a nuclear crossroads even more significant than the 1980s -- and look at what civil society achieved then”. Well, what did we achieve?

Not wishing to be a major downer here, but I also lived at Greenham and was there the day the first cruise were loaded onto the planes and sent back to the US. Did I wave the fuckers off thinking we'd had anything to do with it? Not really. The political climate had changed, cruise was considered militarily obsolete and the US's Trident II(D5) had been rolled out.

It's nice to think that in the 80s people power pushed the US government sufficiently to make them do something -- and that the same could happen again -- but I am not convinced.

I know my comments may be seen as positively heretical in some circles.

Tangible differences

Given the strength of feeling and the numbers of people on the streets and at the bases in the 1980s on this issue, its hard to imagine that after a further 15-20 years of the rise of the individual, conspicuous consumption, and an extension of most people's comfort zone, that there will be any kind of successful active mass movement in this country for the foreseeable future. Not just on this issue but on any.

Unless there is mass non-co-operation and practical interference with the workings of the state (and “the movement” is prepared to deal with the violent responses to such action) then the government and the military and the private companies involved will carry on business as usual. One million people on the streets made no tangible difference in the run up to the Iraq war. One million on strike, and causing chaos at the bases, in the city, at the supermarkets, prisons, schools (possibly the same thing), etc, maybe that would apply some genuine pressure.

I want to believe!