Was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament a moderate campaign group or a ‘new’ social movement? (by Jack Watt)

Was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament a moderate campaign group or a ‘new’ social movement? (by Jack Watt) The term ‘new social movement’ (henceforth NSM) is a contentious one, describing something never entirely static, quantifiable or tangible. From environmentalism to women’s rights no single NSM fits every criterion ascribed, and one can find neither agreement between academics nor a concise definition. By no means comprehensive, here is one attempt to define some elements of a NSM:

‘[A] new style of movement emerging from the protest movements of the 1960s. Critical of established political structures, they are loose, fluid networks with decentralized, open, democratic structures. They emphasize values that are universalistic rather than class-based’

This essay will focus mostly on the first wave of CND, emerging in the 1950s. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was an organization whose original, official and predominant aim was to achieve unilateral disarmament of nuclear weapons in the UK. CND was in direct contradiction to the above definition of a NSM in every way. Firstly, it declined and nearly disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s. Secondly, leadership was often highly cooperative with established political parties. Thirdly, the structure of the organization was not entirely democratic or centralized, and eventually required membership. Furthermore, support for banning the use of nuclear bombs does not require universalistic values, as will be explained later. Finally, CND was, to an overwhelming extent, a middle class movement. However, CND is still one of the more problematic organizations for NSM theory, blurring the distinction between a widely supported, single issue campaign, and a larger collective desiring profound change within State and society. While nuclear weaponry is undeniably expensive, and a nuclear holocaust would be a materialistic disaster, it is widely held that CND’s central concern and stance against the bomb was a post-materialist and moral one. Was it that CND ‘wanted to get rid of the bomb… without upsetting the pattern of life in Sutton,’ as Duffy reluctantly suggests in her memoirs, or that activists essentially ‘saw the bomb as the final, absurd and obscene product of a society which was based on irrational if not insane assumptions?’

Structurally, CND resembled an ‘old’ social movement rather than a new one; Kaldor deems an NSM to be one of ‘loose, horizontal coalitions’, while ‘old’ social movements are characterized by membership and a vertical structure as found in CND. NSM are generally regarded as being more organic, a complex mass from which no clear leadership or direction can be ascertained. A NSM’s construction in the public sphere, when juxtaposed against the rigidity of the state, often symbolically promotes ideals of potential societal structures. CND’s bureaucratic feel however mirrored the more traditional British society from which it had emerged (such as national and regional bodies, chairmen and elections). The unrepresentative nature of CND’s leaders, often given the position for their intellectual reputation, was also representative of traditional society or an ‘old’ social movement such as the Chartists. Rochon concisely states CND ‘made no pretence at fostering the kind of direct democracy expected of a NSM.’ The CND National Council even declared ‘we are not experimenting to create a perfect democracy – we are campaigning to get rid of the bomb.’ This statement’s meaning is two-fold; the council did not want to foster radical visions of how society should be altered through its structure, but wanted to focus on the one, moderate issue at hand. It is clearly hard to ascertain whether CND could therefore qualify as a NSM because of the formality of its structure. It appears more typical of an organization which aimed to operate in the civic sphere, with the respectability of a group seeking moderate, limited reform.

Peggy Duffy claims on the contrary, that CND’s leadership was ‘often to the left’ of most of CND’s followers, and that smaller CND groups ‘never recognised the radical revolution in British politics that it required’ . Duffy’s autobiographical account must be treated with caution, mixing glorified nostalgia with disillusionment at the ultimate failure of the movement. Considering that the leadership refused to expand outside the issue of nuclear weapons for an extremely long time, cautiously accepting positive neutralism and anti-NATO, it seems Duffy was in fact a radical minority in the upper echelons of an otherwise focused and conservative movement. Taylor and Pritchard agree, stating:

‘unlike the more radical supporters… CND leadership accepted… that the existing political and strategic framework was given and almost immutable, and that the unilateralist campaign involved no more than a change of mind… on the part of the existing political leadership’

The vast numbers of different people incorporated within CND meant that CND’s structure grouped together disparate viewpoints and ideologies – Messina said that ‘not since the Chartists had a British protest movement garnered so much support.’ Thus it was impossible that everyone outside of leadership believed that nuclear weapons were only a symptom of an inherently damaged social mentality and global political atmosphere. CND contained conservative campaigners; pragmatists opposed to ideologies such as pacifism. But for the ‘back end’ of CND, left wing radicals and pacifist romantics, it probably represented a formalised organization which offered a convenient place to cross-network. For them, it may have been a structured campaign group on paper, but a loose social movement in practice. This has created what is colloquially referred to as CND’s ‘umbrella.’ The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament never intended to be a mass movement, but a specific pressure group. Its explosion into public popularity and consciousness created a lack of ideological focus though, as this umbrella competed to expand the scope of CND’s ambition and original goal. While the leadership resisted most attempts to expand outside of the issue of unilateral disarmament, the ‘umbrella’ radically unified a British society characteristically divided by class, religion, generation and ideology. Veldman believes this umbrella effect carried with it a promise of ‘allowing Britain to revivify its own culture’ through romantic protest, which sounds far more like an NSM than a traditional pressure group.

In his intensive study of CND, Pakin argues that for most middle class members;

‘the movement’s attraction [was]… as a rallying point for groups and individuals opposed to certain features in British society which were independent of the issue of the bomb,’ such as gay rights and liberal immigration’

He goes further though to suggest the movement attracted people whose ‘relationship to the normative order provides a surer guide to their support for… CND that any ‘rational’ consideration of defence or deterrence.’ The claim that CND overwhelmingly attracts people who are mainly concerned with attacking institutions, rather than the campaign aim itself is slightly unfair. I would suggest that while it is partially true, many people joined the movement mainly because of concerns directly related to the threat of nuclear war. However, the failure to make progress alienated many into a more radical ethos. As the concerns of their moderate campaign were not heeded by government, the supporters began to evaluate and criticise the political system within which they inhabited. Parkin himself states that ‘a feeling of remoteness from centres of decision making’ stimulates a social movement. Due to its lack of success in established political frameworks, the campaign morphed from one with a moderate aim into a social movement, but still retained a sincere and overwhelming concern about unilateral disarmament and nuclear weapons. It appears somewhat reductionist to suggest that most members were of the liberal middle class, releasing anger at a host of unrelated issues. While it unquestionably did attracted people aiming to profoundly change the values and interactions of state and society, I believe that the failings of the campaign made it into a social movement. Those within CND began to question the established structures they were bought into contention with, which seemed to ignore or even betray them.

Despite its best efforts, CND was unable to avoid other organizations being grouped under its banner. The more confrontational groups that splintered from CND (such as the Committee of 100 and Greenham Women’s Peace Camp) were often regarded, erroneously, as one united movement in the public eye and by the popular media. Much of this confusion comes from the fact that the same CND members swelled the ranks of these other organizations. In this respect, whether CND wanted to be a moderate campaign group or not, it acted as a centrifugal agent for the larger environmental and peace movements. Duffy herself admits that CND was de facto, ‘all the ad hoc’ that emerged from it , even if leaders such as Canon Collins and Lord Russell tried to stress the distinctions between them.

CND’s main causes of contention with members who subsequently went on to form these splinter groups were twofold. The first was those members who wanted to expand CND’s aims outside their fundamental issue. Hugh Jenkins, Chair of CND encapsulated the leaderships position on issues such as NATO or cruise missiles when he said ‘it is hopelessly wrong… to see our energies being diffused rather than concentrated on our single essential aim’ The second bone of contention was the tactical repertoire that more radical members wanted to employ in order to achieve fresh progress. Groups such as the DAC and Cruise Watch were formed out of a desire to employ more direct protest tactics, often of an illegal nature. CND was keen to stay within the law. The preferred means of campaigning utilised more conservative tactics typical of lobbying and pressure groups, to change the government’s attitude and policy.

Charles Tilley argues that a sustained campaign, which utilising methods such as rallies, demonstrations, petition drives and pamphleteering is a typical method of a social movement. Furthermore, worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment are all essential in order for a social movement’s repertoire. CND certainly empathised all these things, but it did not official approve of unity and commitment to the greater anti-nuclear movement, or declare their actions worthwhile.

However, many members did share such a cross-commitment between CND and more radical groups in practice, so CND was awkwardly a conservative campaign group within a larger network. Groups such as DAC, who were willing to utilise rhetoric and protest methods such as sabotage and occupation may have shared members with CND, but it was these groups, and not CND, that rejected the political and social systems around. These systems were illegitimate for their attitudes to violence and deterrence, so they felt less need to offer purely ‘legitimate’ protest. CND, on the whole however, believed that the system was legitimate and must be respected in regards to lawful protest.

Government was the target of protest and pressure repertoires, but was also a potential ally for the campaign. CND frequently attempted to work with the Labour party, like more traditional pressure groups or even old social movements, to achieve its major campaign aim. Lobbying, petitioning and the support of trade unions typify this. CND also contained a large number of Labour supporters, especially in its early years. The relationship with the Labour Party leadership election of 1961, where unilateral disarmament was promised in a policy to attract the ever increasing CND showed a clear effort to work with the shadow party to achieve its aims. In a 1959 CND bulletin, Michael Foot even went as far as to say ‘only through election of a labour government and the political pressure which we may exert afterwards can we succeed’. The key phrase is political pressure; this indicates CND was a tool for pressure within the established framework, and was not supposed to be a tool for an overhaul of the British social and political system.

Rochon states that the campaign’s acceptance of the role of government, and the established political system as a positive force for their aims, meant it was not a social movement.

‘[CND] did not possess the integrated ideology of social and political change… to fulfil the revolutionary vocation demanded of them by new social movements. Indeed, the new social movement theory does not acknowledge the role of national, centralised organisations within a movement’

However, a reversal in Labour’s policy only served to justify the position of people under the far-reaching CND umbrella who were weary or showed outright hostility to party politics. Myers notes the ‘clash between those who saw CND as a rebellion against political activity’, the kind of radicalism more typical of a NSM, and those who deemed CND a campaign group ‘with its bargaining and compromising, and… role as a foreign policy pressure group with mass support… opposed [to] any policy statement except a demand for British unilateral nuclear disarmament.’ Once again, it becomes clear that CND’s members varied greatly on their views to established politics, and indeed what they wanted to ultimately achieve. For some, therefore, CND was a moderate campaign group. But for others it offered not just a nuclear-free future, but a Parliamentary-free one too.

Ultimately, CND’s leadership wanted to attract the largest membership possible to demonstrate numerical support for their major stance against unilateral disarmament. To do so it had to retain a pragmatic stance, in order to alienate the fewest people possible. By allowing its members to be part of organizations such as the DAC, but without endorsing them, they kept their more radical members, but did not alienate members who regarded their involvement with CND as strictly that of a non-radical pressure group.

To conclude, to some extent CND’ s novel nature has made it appear more of a ‘new’ social movement than it really was. Melucci suggests because ‘it was the first of its kind, it did offer a revolution as it ‘announce[d] something else was possible.’ As the first mass movement in post-WWII Britain, it possessed a pioneering quality that was equally as radical as any social movement. In this way CND can be regarded as a ground-breaking group acting as a NSM prototype through its appeal in the public sphere, or a transitional hybrid bridging old and new social movements due to its mix of Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary pressure.

Its huge membership and media attention has danger potential for romanticised a perception of a mass movement, rather than an exceedingly popular single issue campaign. In order to achieve sustained pressure on elected Government, numerical displays of strength, not radicalism were favoured. Many members CND were happy to attract were therefore not people intent on more broadly changing British values. The organization’s decline and re-emergence in the 1980s, stimulated by the replacement of nuclear missile systems, only served to highlight that most membership waxed and waned in direct relation to the issue of apparent impending nuclear threat, rather than a far deeper rejection of British values on war, violence and the Earth.

However, as the 1960s progressed, the fixed, hierarchical leadership did not seamlessly work with young, radical members undoubtedly influenced the anti-authoritarian atmosphere of the decade. Betrayal by the Labour Party only served to further push CND’s members from the established political and even societal framework. In this respect, many people in CND had the outlook of a member of a social movement, looking beyond the issue of unilateral disarmament, even if leadership often desperately tried to retain the power position of the organization as a pressure group aimed at Government defence policy.

Ultimately, CND was not ideologically unified or radical enough to be a regarded as a ‘new’ social movement, and leadership actively avoided diffusing focus to larger issues than nuclear disarmament such as withdrawing from NATO or attacking other forms of military tactics. Anderson summarises that ‘CND was never more than a liberal movement’, which is true for the most part, despite fringe elements. He further notes a ‘tendency to isolate one issue and treat it independently of other relevant issues’, and as explained, a ‘new’ social movement necessitates a more relaxed and compounded approach. Finally he declares CND was ‘thereby evading the necessity of a broader assault on the evils of the prevailing political system’ due to its desire to remain a moderate, single-issue campaign throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Byrne, P., Social Movements in Modern Britain: Theory and Practice in British Politics (London 1997)
Carroll, S., ‘I Was Arrested at Greenham in 1962’: Investigating the Oral Narratives of Women in the Anti-Nuclear Committee of 100’, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40179781 (Found 16 January 2012)
Duffy, P., Left, left, left: a personal account of six protest campaigns, 1945-65 (London, 1971)
Kaldor, M., Global Civil Society: An Answer to War, (USA, 2003)
Messina, A. – Post-war Protest Movements in Britain: A Challenge to Parties, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1407843, (Found 1 January 2012)
Minnion, J. & Bolsover, B. (eds.), The CND story: The first 25 years of CND in the words of the people involved (London, 1983)
Myers, F., Dilemmas in the British Peace Movement since World War II, http://www.jstor.org/stable/422712, (Found 2 January 2012)
Parkin, F., Middle Class Radicalism: The Social Basis of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Manchester, 1968)
Pearson Learning Company, Glossary, http://wps.pearsoned.co.uk/ema_uk_he_marsh_sociology_4/130/33342/8535747.cw/content/index.html (Found 3 January 2012)
Pichardo, N., New Social Movements: A Critical Review Nelson A. Pichardo Annual Review of Sociology 23 (New York, 1997)
Rochon, T., Mobilizing for peace: The antinuclear movements in Western Europe (United Kingdom, 1968)
Taylor R., Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1965 (Oxford, 1988)
Taylor, R. & Pritchard, C. (eds.), The protest makers: the British nuclear disarmament movement of 1958-1965, twenty years on (Oxford, 1982)
Veldman, M., Fantasy, the Bomb, and the Greening of Britain: Romantic Protest, 1945-1980 (Cambridge, 1994)


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