As we mourn the loss of Pat Arrowsmith, one of the peace movement’s pre-eminent figures over many decades, we pay tribute to a truly extraordinary woman, a ground breaker in many political and campaigning spheres, and one of the finest exemplars of the spirit of the post-war world: giving all to build a new society – of peace, justice and freedom.
Pat was best known as one of the organisers of the first Aldermaston March in 1958, the mass protest against nuclear weapons that helped establish CND – the organisation that she supported throughout her life, serving as its vice-president until her death. Always committed to non-violent direct action as well as more conventional methods of protest, Pat was also part of the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War, a precursor to CND, as well as of the Committee of 100 – the civil disobedience movement led by Bertrand Russell in the early 1960s.
Although she came from an upper-middle class background, being educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and Newnham College, Cambridge, Pat was an internationalist with a strong sense of justice, identifying as a socialist. This found practical expression in her work to galvanise the trade union movement against nuclear weapons. This was an important orientation for the Direct Action wing of the peace movement and Pat was employed by Merseyside CND in the early 1960s to make industrial links. Building on that, she went on a European tour, speaking at popular meetings in the port cities of Genoa, Trieste, Piraeus and Venice, urging the setting up of a Dockers International, which would refuse to handle nuclear cargoes.
She was also willing to put her life on the line in war situations to try and deter indiscriminate bombing and killing. She helped set up ‘Crisis Contingents’, to organise people – using non-violent methods – to put themselves in the way of any major war that would have had the potential to go nuclear. In 1968 she organised and joined a team that went to the Vietnam-Cambodian border, and again in 1991 to the Middle East, sitting down in the desert to try and prevent conflict in the First Gulf War.
Fearless and with no concern for her own comfort or advancement, Pat was imprisoned around a dozen times – once going on the run from an open prison – and was twice named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International. Her political commitment went beyond nuclear disarmament into areas which at that time often led to harsh criticism and censure – she was outspoken as part of the lesbian and gay community, and was active in the Troops Out movement.
Although Pat was most well-known for her work in the anti-nuclear movement, she was particularly committed to the struggle for British military withdrawal from the north of Ireland and her longest prison sentences were for her action in support of that cause. She stood for parliament several times on a programme of ending the war in Ireland and organised the work of the United Troops Out Movement. She also worked in support of prisoners in the H Blocks and when arrested and imprisoned, she went on hunger strike in solidarity with them and was force fed. Indeed Bobby Sands wrote to Pat in 1979 from prison, to thank her for her work and ask for her help to support him and others on the blanket protest in Long Kesh at that time.
Writing on minutely folded toilet paper, that was smuggled out of the prison, Sands wrote, ‘Hi ya Pat! How are ya? A bit of a surprise for you no doubt receiving this letter. But as I’m sure you know already by the cut of the stationery, where its origin is – H.Block. Anyway Pat I’m Bobby Sands POW H Block 6 Long Kesh. I thought it may be a change for you to hear first hand from a Blanketman on H Block. So here I am. … I would like also to thank you and all the members of U.T.O.M. for the great work that yous have done in the past and continue to do. Perhaps victory shall be ours soon. Sealadaigh abu, See ya!’
Pat was the author of a number of books, including the autobiographical I should have been a Hornby Train. She was also a fine poet and had several collections published, often reading her work at protests and demonstrations. In Escape, written in Holloway Prison in 1974, she reflected on prison life and the nature of freedom; the concluding lines capture the essence of Pat, her fearless resistance, her sense of the collective, and her fighting spirit:
And when we argued: “Prisoners too have rights;
we’ll organize a union”,
we freed ourselves.
For freedom isn’t in the heart or head;
it’s in the deed,
Pat was an inspiring and courageous woman who always chose the deed. She dedicated her life to the struggle for peace and justice, pursuing that work with absolute dogged determination and enthusiasm. She was as different from an armchair philosopher as it is possible to be. We will miss her very much.