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William Hetherington, 'Swimming Against the Tide: The Peace Pledge Union Story 1934 -2009'

Peace Pledge Union, 2010; 52pp; £6.50

The PPU will be well-known to older readers of PN, but perhaps to others only because of the white “peace poppy”. What was once a mass movement supporting the pledge to “renounce war, and never again... [to] support or sanction another” became a small organisation, largely concerned with peace education.

Along the way the organisation faced challenges, losing members during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. The PPU opposed conscription, continuing this opposition into “peacetime”, while supporting individual conscientious objectors (COs). It peaked at 140,000 members in 1940, falling to 98,000 by 1945.

Hetherington’s pamphlet is too short to go into detail regarding life for peace activists during the war, but he includes something of the wartime history of this paper, including Eric Gill publishing two issues in the face of printers unwilling to handle pacifist literature. He also hints at PPU supporters trying to build what would now be called an alternative society, through community development.

One such initiative by COs became the Family Service Units (which lasted until 2006) while the roots of Oxfam were within a PPU Food Relief Campaign to support the starving in Europe. The PPU shrank but continued to spawn other movements, including Operation Gandhi which led to the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear Weapons, and on to CND and the Committee of 100. In recent times the PPU gave rise to a wide interest in co-operative games for children. Surprisingly, however, the author does not mention the Forward Movement of the PPU, an anarchist grouping which moved into the orbit of Freedom and War Commentary.

After a flurry of activity involving the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign (which led to Hetherington taking part in one of the long political trials so common in the ’70s), and during the Falklands war, the PPU subsequently became less of an activist organisation. It did not benefit from the rise of CND and was irrelevant to the campaign against the war in Iraq. Did the PPU debate this, or the sale of Dick Sheppard House in central London, their home for over 50 years? But perhaps what I’m asking is that someone write a full book on the PPU, a surprising lacuna given how important it has been in public life.

Topics: Anti-militarism