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Paul Vallely: Bruce Kent was a prophet who kept our eyes lifted  

17 June 2022

Paul Vallely pays tribute to the peace campaigner, who changed the public mood


Bruce Kent speaks at a rally against the renewal of Trident, in Trafalgar Square, in 2016

Bruce Kent speaks at a rally against the renewal of Trident, in Trafalgar Square, in 2016

“I DON’T know what the future holds. I’m not a prophet,” Bruce Kent said last year on the day that he received his honorary doctorate, on Peace and Reconciliation Day, in Coventry. It was a secular turn of phrase. In religious terms, of course, a prophet is exactly what Bruce Kent was. That was why he sometimes made me feel uncomfortable.

I remember how thrilling it was in the 1980s when he led the opposition against the installation of US Cruise missiles in Britain at Greenham Common. I, too, was opposed to the replacement of Britain’s Polaris nuclear missiles with Trident, arguing that we had better things to spend our money on, and adding — doubtless erroneously — that we could just keep running the old Polaris submarines until they conked out. And I agreed that Ronald Reagan’s calling out the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” risked making things worse, not better.

Best of all, this all came from a Roman Catholic priest — a monsignor, to wit — something that gave hope to young Catholics with reservations about the conservatism of the hierarchy.

But where I was at one with Bruce’s boss, Cardinal Basil Hume, was in my unease at Bruce’s idealistic absolutism. Bruce argued that possessing nuclear weapons was just as immoral as actually using them. The morality of deterrence was specious, he argued, since it was based, in the last resort, on “a willingness to commit mass murder”. The threat to do something appallingly wicked carries an equal responsibility with that of the actual act.

There seemed a lack of proportion about this argument. Cardinal Hume appeared to have a similar feeling. He once said that he would love to be able to walk along the Embankment with a banner saying “But I have to take my responsibilities as a bishop seriously”.

That meant listening to the arguments of another prominent Catholic, Sir Michael Quinlan, who was then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. Deterrence, Quinlan had said, was “the keystone of an arch of freedom from war”. Nuclear weapons, the Cardinal believed, had added a new dimension to traditional Thomist thinking about just war. Deterrence preserved “an unpeaceful peace in an uneasy and unjust world”.

Yet, for all that, Cardinal Hume consistently resisted pressure from Conservative MPs to force Bruce to desist from his peace work. The Cardinal even rejected pressure from the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Bruno Heim, who said that Bruce was either a “useful idiot” or a Soviet ideologue.

Bruce was right on so much. In his heyday, he helped to build a public consensus that contributed to the removal of intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Britain — and created the public mood that allowed Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev to renegotiate a reduction in global nuclear payloads. In his later years, Bruce spoke out about the links between militarism and climate change, and condemned the killing of innocent Yemenis by British bombs and fighter jets sold to the Saudis.

His Christian idealism constituted a counsel of perfection, which, for all his personal amiability, sometimes made mere pragmatists like me feel reprimanded. But he kept our eyes lifted, as is the job of a prophet. Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Read an obituary of Bruce Kent here

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