Politics may be dying but protests live on - and history proves they can work

Sean O'Grady@_seanogrady
Saturday 15 February 2003 01:00

Tony Blair may not think much of today's protests against war but the tradition of peaceful dissent is a long and noble one, with deep roots in the Labour movement.

After all, it was the first leader of the Labour Party, Kier Hardie, who led one of the earliest large-scale demonstrations against war when he spoke to a large crowd at Trafalgar Square on 2 August, 1914, calling for a general strike to prevent the conflagration.

When the next global conflict loomed, revulsion at the horrors of the Great War pushed people to join organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union, whose membership peaked at 100,000 in 1937. But outright, vocal, opposition to war against Hitler, when it came in 1939, was confined to a few Nazi sympathisers and Communists loyal to Stalin's pact with Hitler. During the war, a few PPU members were arrested for inciting disaffection in the Armed Forces.

The real peace movement in Britain had to wait for the coming of peace, or, rather, the arrival of the Cold War and the possibility that man could actually render the entire planet uninhabitable. By 1960, with a committee of 100 intellectuals led by Bertrand Russell, drawing on the philosophy of civil disobedience pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and appalled by the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was able to launch some of its biggest protests to date. Some 140,000 people converged on the Government's weapons testing facility at Aldermaston led by Michael Foot, and mass rallies in Trafalgar Square did little to alter the Conservative government's policy, although official documents register a degree of alarm in Whitehall.

They did succeed in (temporarily) changing the Labour Party's policy to reject the "independent deterrent". The CND lost momentum towards the end of the Sixties but, by then, a new, emotionally charged cause had emerged: America's bloody adventure in Vietnam. In 1968, 80,000 people swarmed around the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. The demo was broken up by the police; 300 were arrested and 90 policemen hurt. Those demonstrations may have helped stiffen the resistance of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in refusing President Lyndon Johnson's repeated requests to send even a token battalion of Scots Guards, complete with bagpipes, to South-east Asia.

Some of the old spirit of CND rose again in the early 1980s, when the Cold War rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher reached a new pitch. As in the early Sixties, many feared war would destroy mankind; a more particular focus for anxiety was the prospect of American cruise and Pershing missiles at Greenham Common and elsewhere.

The rally in Hyde Park in October 1981 attracted a crowd of 250,000. Today's march could be twice as large. Politics may be dying, but protest has never been livelier.

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