Forty years ago, on 22nd October 1983, CND held the largest demonstration in its history, with 400,000 people in Hyde Park. The reason? West European leaders had decided to deploy new US missiles that would likely lead to nuclear war in Europe. British prime ministers – first Callaghan in 1979, then Thatcher – agreed to take cruise missiles, at Greenham Common and Molesworth bases, from 1983. The deployment of these missiles – and Pershing missiles elsewhere in western Europe – meant that Europe would be the nuclear battleground in a war between the US and Soviet Union – which seemed ever closer. This fact was not lost on the populations of Britain and western Europe. The movement against cruise missiles was a movement for survival. During the first years of the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people mobilised to try to stop the missiles.
Public concern about the threat of nuclear weapons was rising. Even by April 1980, an opinion poll showed that over 40 per cent thought a nuclear war was likely within 10 years. As Bruce Kent wrote in his autobiography, CND was on ‘the receiving end of this new interest … Week by week arrived more letters, more membership applications, more callers, more journalists, more requests for speakers, more orders for badges and leaflets … Our two small office rooms, which can’t have amounted to more than 300 square feet in total, were jammed with volunteers, Council members and existing staff … By the end of 1980 we were in new offices, themselves soon becoming too small. New memberships poured in by the hundreds every week. The graph which we had on the wall outgrew the wall and had to be taken across the ceiling.’
Between 1979 and 1984, CND’s national membership grew from 4,267 to 90,000. Local membership increased to 250,000, and rallies and protests attracted enormous numbers. The great strength of CND at this time, coming out of the 1970s as a relatively small organisation, was to embrace this spontaneous upsurge of groups and activities, to share its knowledge and experience, its ability to articulate public concerns, and to give direction to the mass mobilisations that followed.
The first big anti-cruise demo was held by CND under the slogan ‘Protest and Survive’ on 26th October 1980. Participants numbered over 80,000 at the final rally in Trafalgar Square. By the end of the year, CND had set up or revived loose regional structures to help support groups and increase communication and coordination. Throughout 1981, protests and demonstrations throughout the country were increasing in size: 16,000 protested in Sheffield; 10,000 went on a Trans-Pennine march; 20,000 attended a march and rally in Clydeside; the Glastonbury festival was run in aid of CND. This is to mention just a few of the enormous range and diversity of events throughout that year. October 1981 was the time of a remarkable mobilisation throughout Europe. Within a six-week period, massive demonstrations took place in many countries across Europe: 250,000 in Bonn, 10,000 in Oslo, 50,000 in Paris, 50,000 in Potsdam, 80,000 in Helsinki, 12,000 in Brussels and hundreds of thousands in Rome. In London the turnout was in the region of 250,000. As Bruce Kent described it: ‘The park was full. It was, from the platform, an amazing spectacle, with moving crowds of people as far as the eye could see, right down to the edge of the Serpentine. We claimed 250,000 and that seemed a modest guess to me.’
At the general election of June 1983 the Conservative Party was re-elected and the vote of the Labour Party went down, split by the departure of the Social Democrats. But this was not a pro-cruise vote. There were clear majorities in opinion polls against cruise, Trident and US nuclear bases in Britain. Nevertheless, after the election, Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine announced that CND was dead and buried, but this was far from true. CND’s membership continued to grow, from 75,000 in 1983 to over 100,000 in 1985, with a paid staff of 40. This continued increase in membership and support was not surprising, given the increasingly tense global situation.
Notwithstanding vast public opposition and the enormous march to Hyde Park on 22nd October, in November 1983, the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles in western Europe began, with 93 missiles scheduled to arrive at Greenham. The British government began to take a harder line towards those protesting at the bases. In November, Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine told parliament that protestors who got too near to the missiles would be shot. The Labour spokesperson responded, ‘There are gradations of defence. You don’t defend missiles against unarmed women by shooting them.’ None were shot, but they were treated increasingly brutally by the police. In April 1984, police attempted to close down the camp at Greenham Common, tearing down the shelters and making numerous arrests. But protest continued. The women came back and remained there in their hundreds until ultimately the missiles were removed.
By 1991 all the cruise missiles sited at Greenham had been removed and the entire class of nuclear weapons had been banned by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by Regan and Gorbachev in 1988. What a remarkable triumph for popular protest. And we absolutely need more of that now. In 2019, President Trump withdrew the US from the INF Treaty, opening the door to a new nuclear arms race in our increasingly destabilised world. The recent discovery that the US is in the process of returning nuclear weapons to Britain – to Lakenheath airbase in Suffolk, alongside those already stationed across Europe – requires a powerful response from the British people. We are all a target as a result.
Let this weekend’s anniversary be a warning from history and a call to action. Once again, we must protest to survive.