MARGARET THATCHER, WEAPONS, AND WAR
April 13th 2013
I was 29 when Margaret Thatcher won her first election in 1979 and served as Prime Minister for 11 years. Prior to her election, I had little or no interest or involvement in politics. It was her eager and unprecedented agreement to allow US nuclear weapons onto British soil (in Cruise Missiles at the US Military Base in Greenham Common, Berkshire) which catapulted me (and many around me) into political awareness and activism.
The early responses to Margaret Thatcher’s death have given surprisingly little attention to this aspect of her premiership, which was, at the time, one of the most controversial and contested. Indeed, only two of the many tributes to her in the special session of the UK Parliament held on 10th April 2013 even mentioned her deployment of Cruise missiles.
It is worth recalling that under the inspirational leadership of former Catholic Priest Bruce Kent, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) became one of the most formidable and effective foci for opposition to Thatcher’s policies. In 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, CND membership nationally stood at 4,000. By 1984, under Kent’s leadership it had risen to 100,000, with another estimated 250,000 members of local branches around the country. October 1983 saw 400,000 CND supporters rally in London against Thatcher’s nuclear policies, one of the largest anti-government rallies in modern history (only exceeded 20 years later by the February 2003 rally against the Iraq invasion). So effective and articulate was Kent’s CND in publicly opposing her policies that individuals and organisations with close links to Thatcher and her government were spurred to mount a well-funded propaganda and “dirty tricks” campaign against CND, which involved such things as infiltration of their offices, and promotion of spurious claims that CND was funded by the KGB.
The Falkands crisis was an extremely fortunate opportunity for Thatcher to regain public support for British militarism in the face of the extraordinary political successes of CND in challenging the raison-d’etre of British defence policy and spending. Many within CND supported the Falklands War and argued that CND should not oppose it, as a “distraction” from their main purpose.
For me, however, the Falklands War was as disturbing (perhaps even more so) as the nuclear issue. It re-established in the national psyche the notion of Britain as a country of successful expeditionary war, sending British troops to far-off places, against the odds, to kill and defeat odious enemies. It needs to be recalled that since the 2nd World War, the only major expeditionary involvement of Britain was the disastrous Korean War of 1950-53, which involved 100,000 British troops and ended in stalemate with more than 2 million people killed. The equally disastrous British response to the Suez crisis, alongside the rapid unravelling of the British Empire, meant that by the late 1960s it was no longer clear what the British military (as a fighting force) was actually for. The Falklands War was, in my estimation, the “touch paper” that prepared national consciousness (and mood) for the far more consequential and ugly British military involvements in Kosovo/Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In one sense, I need to thank Margaret Thatcher. It was her definite and uncompromising policies, translated into equally definite action, that helped me define my own stance on these issues in reaction, and motivated me to become active in pursuing the goals that have developed into the specific peace-oriented projects that now take up much of my time and energy. Perhaps sometimes one needs to become more sharply aware of what one is against before one is able to work out what one is for and what to do about it. Margaret Thatcher was a towering and formidable force in British and World affairs, who showed me very clearly a view of Britain’s role and place in the world which is not the one I want for it, or for myself as one of its citizens. Britain maintains the world’s fourth largest military budget. I hope I might live to see Britain move way down this hierarchy, as a matter not of national disgrace, but of national pride and joy.
(For a more comprehensive account of the British anti-war movement, see Sloboda & Doherty, 2007. The Psychology of Anti-War Activism (1): The British Anti-War Movement 1956-2006. In R.Roberts (Ed.) Just War: Psychology, Terrorism, & Iraq. Ross on Wye: PCS books. Downloadable freely from http://issuu.com/johnsloboda/docs/uk_anti-war_movement_history_chapter)