I took a break today from RTÉ’s coverage of the general election to head down to Trafalgar Square and check out the CND’s #StopTrident rally. Here’s my report.
I’m an instinctual multilateralist, but last night I had pints with a friend who passionately believes the UK should give up its nuclear weapons. So today, after a morning spin class and a light lunch, I decided to brave the freezing cold and walk down to Trafalgar Square to hear the case for unilateralism.
Today’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest began as a march that started at Marble Arch and coalesced at Trafalgar Square. As I arrived, reggae music blasted from a stage set up on the stairs of Nelson’s column. Young and old were beginning to gather. A handful of activists set up stage props as journalists made their way into the media pit. The marchers were just arriving, and I made my way to stand on the lip of the fountain to see over the sea of heads and placards.
Of the many signs I saw, most called for the scrapping of the UK’s nuclear weapons in order to redirect money to pay for public services. “Homes Not Trident,” “People Not Trident,” “Climate Not Trident,” “Books Not Bombs,” “NHS Not Trident.” Some were funny. “Exasperated older ladies against Trident.” Some were more crass. At one point, a man in a Guy Fawkes mask walked by holding a picture of the Prime Minister and the words “financial terrorist and fascist.” As the marchers swelled, a group holding up gigantic letters spelled out the words: “Refugees Welcome.”
There were Palestinian flags. Huge Scottish Saltires. A group of Quakers held a banner calling for peace and the end of nuclear weapons. Some of the marchers were older, some were younger. Various Labour Party constituencies came holding handmade banners in the traditional style you see at the Durham Miners’ Gala—or even Orange parades.
In a matter of minutes the numbers before me had swelled from the hundreds to the thousands. A man in a “go vegan” t-shirt walked by with a bongo drum and a ram’s horn tucked beneath his arms. A teenager with a tin of beer followed his mates through the crowd. Finally, at the crowd reached critical mass, various speakers came forward to make their case for unilateralism.
Kate Hudson, the General Secretary of CND, introduced the speakers by saying the gathering was the single-largest demonstration against nuclear weapons in a generation. The leftwing activist and actor, Vanessa Redgrave, said it was the happiest day of her life. Other speakers included Leanne Wood; Nicola Sturgeon; various religious leaders, including the Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell; union representatives; and Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
For me, three main themes emerge from what I heard. One, many speakers said that nuclear weapons belong to the past, and serve no purpose in the contemporary world. The security threats that the UK faces now, including terrorism and climate change, are not addressed by a weapons system from the Cold War. Caroline Lucas, the Greens only sitting MP, called Trident “a reckless vanity project that makes us less safe, not more safe.” “It makes us less safe,” she said, “because of accidents and miscalculations. It makes us less safe because it sends a message to the rest of the world that security depends on nuclear weapons.”
The second main theme was that the vast sums of money that Trident costs would be better spent on public services such as the NHS, nationalising steel mills and building wind turbines, and building new homes. The sum floated by the CND as the total cost of Trident is £183 billion over its lifespan.
Lastly, many speakers spoke of the changing mood of the British public. Despite the mainstream media’s aggressively hostile treatment of the peace movement, they said, the British public are now largely opposed to the UK maintaining its nuclear deterrent. “Look around you,” Kate Hudson told the crowd. “We are now a majority.” At one point I Tweeted out that Vanessa Redgrave had just called for a referendum on Trident and the NHS. To my total surprise, dozens and dozens of people liked and re-tweeted the comment, including the account of longtime socialist and Labour activist, Harry Leslie Smith.
Walking home, questions came to mind. For one, on the point of public support, recent polling actually shows that more than half of Britons support Trident’s renewal. If a referendum were held, it would divert political energy away from other crucial parliamentary activity, and cost tens of millions of pounds to officiate. We’re already facing a referendum this year, and it would be a drain on party resources, and MPs’ time, to force them to campaign on a Trident referendum. It should be noted that in the general election the two main parties campaigned on pro-Trident platforms.
Next, while I’m still not entirely convinced that nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain the UK’s security, it’s unlikely any money saved on nuclear weapons could be invested into public services. NATO still requires the UK to put 2% of GDP into defense spending. If we didn’t invest in Trident, we would still have to invest in the military, unless we withdrew from NATO.
Anyway, back to the general election now on RTÉ.
I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.