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Anne Yates & Lewis Chester with a foreword by Desmond Tutu, 'The Troublemaker: Michael Scott and his Lonely Struggle Against Injustice'

Aurum, 2006; ISBN 1 845130 80 4; pp338; £16.99.

Reverend Michael Scott, once an iconic figure in the campaigns for racial justice, colonial freedom and nuclear disarmament, is now largely forgotten. Anne Yates and Lewis Chester's The Troublemaker: Michael Scott and his Lonely Struggle Against Injustice, should go some way to ending the neglect of this quiet, introspective yet determined pioneer of nonviolent direct action.

Born into a clerical family in Sussex in 1907, Scott was ordained in Britain as an Anglican priest in 1930 following a two-year period of study and convalescence in South Africa. His acquaintance with Gandhi's philosophy and nonviolent strategy came during work in India from 1935 to 1938. However, he never embraced a totally pacifist position, and on return in England he enlisted in 1940 in the RAF until being discharged as medically unfit twelve months later.

Land and freedom

Returning to South Africa in 1943 he engaged in campaigns for social and political justice for the black and Asian population. In May 1946 he refused to pay his income tax as a protest against “European bad faith in its dealings with non-European peoples” and that summer took part in a satyagraha campaign organised by the South African Indian Congress which took the form of nonviolent attempts to occupy municipal land from which Indians had been excluded under new laws curtailing their commercial and residential rights. To the consternation of his bishop, Geoffrey Clayton in Johannesburg, Scott was arrested and imprisoned for three months.

At this stage even Trevor Huddleston at the Anglican Mission in Sophiatown disagreed with Scott's strategy, favouring a more gradualist approach. He subsequently decided that Scott had been right and paid him a generous tribute in his autobiography, Naught for your Comfort.

Early in 1947 Scott took up residence amongst South Africa's poorest and most deprived population in the squatter shantytown of Tobruk on the outskirts of Johannesburg and campaigned for improvements in the appalling conditions there.

Addressing the UN

However, the campaign which brought him to international prominence was over South West Africa, now Namibia, a former German colony which South Africa governed under a League of Nations mandate and which it was planning to annex by means of a bogus referendum.

Armed with a petition drawn up by the chiefs of the Herero people of the territory, and with statements of support from other tribal groups, Scott flew in 1947 to New York to lobby their case at the Fourth Committee of the UN which had responsibility for negotiating the transfer of former mandated territories to UN International Trusteeship status.

In 1949, to the fury of the South African government, the Committee took the unprecedented step of allowing him as a private individual to address it. It was thanks in large measure to his efforts and those of fellow campaigners that South Africa failed to gain international recognition of its attempted takeover.

In 1966 the UN General Assembly asserted that South Africa had forfeited its mandate and that South West Africa would be taken into UN administration, and in 1968 it formally required South Africa to vacate the territory. However, it was not until 1990, following a protracted guerilla war by the South West Africa Peoples' Organisation (SWAPO), that Namibia finally gained its independence.

Tense moments

Scott's political work in relation to Africa expanded to other parts of the continent with the setting up of the Africa Bureau in London in 1952, the initiative mainly of David Astor, then editor of The Observer, who became one of Scott's keenest supporters. It had a modest, essentially educational, agenda and the backing of leading figures in the liberal establishment.

Scott's relationship with its Executive was often tense because of his propensity to engage in radical campaigning activity without their knowledge or approval. Thus in April 1953 he was expelled from Nyasaland for giving advice and support to a civil resistance campaign to the Central African Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

In 1964 he played a key role as a Peace Commissioner in brokering a ceasefire between the Indian Government and the Naga independence movement, but his absences from Britain occasioned by his continued championing of the Naga cause led to further tensions with the Bureau and in 1966 to his expulsion from India.

Direct action

Scott's other major commitment was to nuclear disarmament. He was a member of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), which organised the first Aldermaston March at Easter 1958. In December of that year he took part in an attempted occupation of the Thor Intermediate Range Rocket base at North Pickenham, near Swaffham in Norfolk, organised by DAC, and along with 31 others spent Christmas in Norwich prison after refusing to be “bound over to keep the peace”. On that occasion I had the privilege of sharing a prison cell with him.

In 1959-60 he participated in the Sahara Protest Team - jointly organised by DAC, the Committee for Nonviolent Action in the US, and the Ghana Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - which took the form of an attempt to drive northwards from Ghana through Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Mali to the proposed French nuclear testing site near Reggan in the Algerian Sahara. I witnessed at first hand the enormous respect in which he was held in Africa when a vast crowd converged on Accra airport to greet him on his arrival and carried him shoulder high to the VIP lounge.

In 1960 Scott was joint signatory with Bertrand Russell of Act or Perish, the manifesto which accompanied the launch of the Committee of 100. Its activities were to land him and other campaigners, including Russell, in prison for a month in August/September 1961. They also had the effect of deepening the mutual suspicion between him and Canon Collins, Chair of CND and of Christian Action which engaged in relief work in South Africa and provided valuable support to the anti-apartheid movement there.

In January 1962 he attended the launch of the World Peace Brigade (WPB) in Beirut and was chosen to act as one of its three co-presidents. During 1962, the WPB, with the participation of Scott, worked with the Tankanyika (Tanzania) president Julius Nyerere and the leader of United National Independence Party (UNIP) in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Kenneth Kaunda, to plan an international nonviolent march from Dar es Salaam to the Northern Rhodesian border to coincide with a general strike there against the Central African Federation. The proposed march and strike never took place as the British government, in part almost certainly because of the threat of this action, acceded to UNIP's demands for free elections in Northern Rhodesia, which in turn heralded the end of the Federation.

Critiquing the book

The original work on this book was undertaken by Anne Yates, who died in 2000, and was completed this year by former Times journalist, Lewis Chester. It is a good, well written account. My only major criticism concerns the research on and analysis of the nuclear disarmament movement, notably a serious failure to appreciate the impact of the first Aldermaston march and the publicity it generated.

The broader analysis of the nuclear disarmament movement and its political impact is also in my view inadequate. Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis is identified as the main cause for the decline of the movement on the assumption that the public felt reassured that the superpower leaders had things under control because, having gone to the brink of catastrophe and drawn back from it, they would not want to venture there again. The Cuban Missile Crisis did have a demobilising effect, but mainly I think because many people felt that however massive the anti-nuclear protests the decision to embark on nuclear war could still be taken by a handful of leaders.

Other factors, such as the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 also took some of the heat out of the situation. But only temporarily - as is evinced by the massive resurgence of the movement in the early to mid 1980s and the renewed current debate on the future of Britain's nuclear weapons.

A final quibble. Generally the authors succeed well in presenting Scott as an individual - his deeply introspective nature, his difficulties in some of his personal relationships, his puckish sense of humour in private moments, his absent mindedness, and the near impossibility of working smoothly with him in committee because of his tendency to re-open discussion on decisions already taken, or to follow a different line afterwards following a period of “inner disquisition”. But in discussing Scott's “suspicious nature”, although they do note that he often had good reason to be wary, I feel they do not always take this sufficiently into account. Overall this is a good book and a reminder of the rich tradition which lies behind the nonviolent radical movements of the present time.