‘Eccentricity’ is now the top badge of honour, as we learn from the recently released 1983 files that this was Mrs Thatcher’s description of the Greenham women. The files also – as might be expected – reveal the flurry of awkwardness that the gender of the protestors caused in Whitehall. As Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw pointed out to the Cabinet in the run up to the Easter protests in 1983, there might be a shortage of cells to house the women protesters: ‘There could be a problem for the prison service if the police were obliged to arrest a large number of women, since there was a shortage of women prison officers. It might prove impossible to find accommodation for new prisoners.’ The Greenham protestors challenged the establishment on so many levels.
The files reveal the serious concern expressed by the government about the scale of opposition to cruise missiles. They were clearly deeply anxious about how to convince the public of the need for cruise, and were fearful that they would lose the argument with the public. Defence Secretary John Nott took the view that the Government had ‘under-estimated’ the level of potential opposition to new US nuclear weapons at Greenham Common. As he observed: ‘We may find that public opinion runs away from us. If this happens we will lose our strategic deterrent – and much else besides.’
Unfortunately, rather than properly engaging in the political argument, the government engaged in a dirty tricks campaign, both against CND and also against the nuclear disarmament policies of the Labour Party under the leadership of Michael Foot, who had also been a founder of CND. The lies and smears are now well known but it is worth remembering what tactics politicians may stoop to when the tide of common sense is against them.
Respecting difference and the democratic right to protest wasn’t much in evidence from the Tory leaders of that time. When the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles began in western Europe in November 1983, Defence Minister Michael Heseltine told parliament that protestors who got too near to the missiles would be shot. In the event, none were shot, but they were treated increasingly brutally by the police. In April 1984, police attempted to close down the camp at Greenham, tearing down the shelters and making numerous arrests. But the women came back and remained there in their hundreds until ultimately the missiles were removed.
Thatcher called it eccentricity. I call it principle and commitment that has inspired generations of activists across the world. Thank you, Greenham women.