The threat of a nuclear war may not be what keeps you awake at night. Even so, you may have felt a touch uneasy if you read those reports in the newspapers last week that Tony Blair has now agreed that Britain could host part of the brand-new, $50bn "Son of Star Wars" American nuclear missile defence system. Naturally, the Government officially denied those reports. And naturally, sources in the Pentagon then told a Sunday newspaper yesterday that the agreement was for real.
For a long time, people who became edgy about having bombs stacked up all around them were reassured by the idea that the nuclear arms race between Russia and the US was becalmed. We may still have nuclear weapons parked under our seas on Trident submarines eating up millions of pounds a year. We may have to watch passively as other nations develop their own nuclear weapons. But the more urgent fear that we lived with until the end of the Cold War has receded. We are not sitting, any more, between superpowers that keep showing cleverer and nastier nuclear weapons off to one another, superpowers that are prepared to talk about a limited nuclear war in Europe.
Yet those reports of this government's decision to help the United States start developing a new and whizzy missile shield makes it look as though lunacy may be back in fashion for spring 2000. For generations, people who had learnt to love the bomb argued that nuclear weapons were a great defence system because "mutually assured destruction" meant that nobody would use them first. Now, we are being asked to believe that it would be even better if one country alone - the US - believed it could defend itself against missile attacks and could survive a nuclear war. Does that really make you feel much safer?
You don't have to be a defence expert yourself to understand the arguments of the experts - or indeed of the actor-turned-UN goodwill ambassador Michael Douglas - who say that any missile shield developed by the United States would lead to a mad race to catch up by China and Russia, which wouldn't be able to rest until they had something as good or better. Jacques Chirac put it neatly the other day when he said, "If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there's a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins."
Similarly, you don't have to be a diplomatic expert to see that the current becalming of the arms race between Russia and the US rests on a fragile system of treaties - the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. If the US goes ahead with its new system, it will be tearing up at least one of those, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And then how can we get snooty with any other country that chooses to break any other arms treaty?
As more and more countries develop nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan and the "Islamic rogue states" that the US keeps banging on about, is this the best time for the US and Europe to start a new arms race? Only a few years ago, as the Cold War reached its endgame, the talk was of disarmament. Now, the talk is the scary, meaningless rhetoric of American nationalism; "Freedom from attack, and freedom to attack," they say. When you hear Al Gore and George W Bush trying to outdo each other by talking tough on defence, it sounds as though Ronald Reagan has come out of retirement.
Perhaps Mr Blair thinks that nuclear disarmament is an old-fashioned idea, something that he associates with Old Labour and, worse, with bearded anarchists and kids with pierced lips. But if he really goes ahead with this new nuclear game plan, and starts siting bits of the US's new defence system in British bases, he may be surprised at the way that public opinion swings against him. Reports in the British newspapers last week revealed that the Cabinet fears "a revival of mass anti-nuclear protests across Europe" if Britain co-operates with America on its new defence system.
It's interesting to see that a government that isn't scared by the bomb is scared by the prospect of people sitting down in the streets again. Now, some commentators believe that the big campaigns for nuclear disarmament are things of the past, that the youth of today is too sunk into apathy and computer games and dot.com fortunes to go out demonstrating and camping out in front of bases and clambering on top of missile carriers.
Sure, the membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which is 42 years old, has sunk from a peak of about 100,000 in the mid-Eighties to about 30,000 today. One thing that doesn't help its news value is the very fact that it's 42 years old and it hasn't got there yet. That's the problem with the whole anti-nuclear movement: it's failed this long; who is going to take a bet on its success?
That's one way, the fatalistic way, of looking at the peace movement, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes slip into that kind of fatalism. After all, the very first anti-nuclear demonstration I ever went on was in 1967. It was a grey March day at Aldermaston, and I was two months old. I may not remember the event, but I've got a photograph that my father took to remind myself of the day - me in a pushchair, my mother pushing it, and my sister in a little cart draped with banners. "Aldermaston '67!" says one, "Swords Into Ploughshares!" says another. My parents were rebels with a cause, and it was quite a while before I realised that other families didn't spend their bank holidays carrying banners and singing protest songs.
Then my teens coincided with the resurgence of the peace movement as a response to the siting of Cruise in Britain. I wasn't a much more active participant the second time around, but at least I got to the demonstrations under my own steam and got to hold up my own banners.
How, then, can I be so sure that if the prospect of a renewed nuclear arms race came any closer, people would be getting out again and lining the streets? Wouldn't the years of failure hold them back? I don't think so. Because in fact peace movements rarely fail completely, even if they never succeed completely. You can say that the Sixties peace movement failed, but then you can read that American military top brass were thinking of dropping nuclear bombs on Vietnam until they realised that their own public wouldn't take it. And if the British government is already worried about the prospect of anti-nuclear demonstrations, that shows that the peace movement has a force that its own participants rarely recognise.
The peace movement hasn't disappeared, even if it has drifted out of the news. CND is planning a big demonstration at Fylingdales (where the equipment for the new national missile defence system could be based) in July, and it was only last year that the three women who tried to disarm a Trident-related installation in Scotland were acquitted in a sheriff's court. Sure, many peace campaigners have drifted away or gone into other protests, such as GM foods or anti-roads protests or events such as the Seattle protests. But those protests are breeding a new generation of activists, and the old guard will no doubt come back if the threat of a renewed nuclear arms race comes nearer.
My father, Nicolas Walter, an inveterate peace campaigner, died last month; looking back through some of his articles and pamphlets, I am struck by their energy and optimism in the face of all the odds. "We are living in a world where faith is always misplaced and hope is always betrayed," he wrote in 1963, "but somehow we contrive to keep faith and hope alive."
Another man who has just died, Alex Comfort, is being remembered primarily as a sex guru. But many people remember him more as a persuasive pacifist. "In peace as in war," he wrote in 1945, "the only final safeguard of freedom is the ultimate willingness of the individual to disobey." Those two individuals may not be here to take part in future protests, but I don't think that spirit has died out yet.Reuse content