IN 1981, a group of women in Wales decided to walk to Greenham Common in Berkshire in protest at a plan for the United States to site nuclear missiles at the RAF base.
As they walked, they gathered support from more women, and began to attract the attention of local media, which reported on the march (women!). On the morning of 5 September, they arrived early at the air base, to be greeted by a solitary policeman, who mistook them for the cleaners, although four of them were chained to a fence.
The marchers had no clear plan on what to do once they reached the base. The idea to set up a camp emerged only after their arrival. They stayed, in one configuration or another, for 19 years.
The story of the Greenham Common women is the starting point for Symon Hill’s richly detailed and thoroughly readable history of the past forty years of peace protest in the UK. Why start here? By then, the peace movement was becoming frustrated with the seeming ineffectiveness of endless marches and letter-writing. It moved on to non-violent direct action.
Hill’s history charts British militarism through four decades, taking in the bombing of Libya, the first Gulf War, the Trident nuclear programme, and the conflict in the Balkans, through to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and beyond. By turns, peace protests evolved and adapted new ways of making themselves heard. Besides reacting to such British military action, anti-war protesters became more proactive, notably in targeting weapons being sold by UK manufacturers to oppressive regimes and in blockading arms fairs.
alamyGreenham Common women at the camp established in 1981 to protest against moving American Cruise missiles to the RAF base there
Of course, the peace movement is not a single body, but made up of many different groups with varying strategies and policies. Hill — himself a pacifist and activist — does not shy away from exploring the disagreements that emerged between them, nor questions about a lack of diversity at times. The inventiveness and wit of protesters provide a welcome and surprising thread of humour throughout the book.
This is not a book about Christians, though naturally they feature, whether they are initiating the Ploughshares movement or are Anglican bishops speaking out against peace protests. The pacifism of the Early Church is mentioned, up to the point when “Christianity is domesticated by the Roman Empire.” The Gospel injunction to turn the other cheek is taken as read. After 9/11, Muslims became more active in anti-war protests.
So, what does it all amount to? Hill points out notable successes along the way: three women, having broken into an air base and damaged a Hawk jet bound for Indonesia in 1996, were acquitted of criminal damage after the jury accepted that sabotage was justified in preventing the aircraft’s use against the East Timorese; local authorities begin to ban arms fairs in their boroughs; and, in August 2011, when record protests had followed the invasion of Iraq, parliament voted against the bombing of Syria — the first time in 200 years that a British government had lost a vote on going to war.
The Revd Fraser Dyer is the Vicar of St Anne and All Saints, South Lambeth, in south London. He previously worked for Greenpeace UK.
The Peace Protestors: A history of modern-day war resistance
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