New Internationalist

Trident tested

Issue 412

There are many ways of saying no to nukes. Angie Zelter tells the inside story of one of the most inventive.

Photo: Conscientious objection movement
Photo: Conscientious objection movement

On the beautiful and rugged western coast of Scotland is an exceptionally deep natural harbour called Faslane. It is home to a British naval base and four Trident submarines equipped with up to 200 warheads. Just one of these has the capacity to deliver eight times the destructive power of the bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This corner of Scotland has also been the setting for a year-long rolling protest, which involved thousands of people giving up several days to oppose, physically, a programme to upgrade Britain’s weapons of mass destruction.

The Big Blockade started on 1 October 2006. By the end of the year the base had been successfully blockaded for 189 days which led to 1,150 arrests.

‘We piled out of the van and ran towards the North Gate,’ recalls Lavinia Crossley. ‘We lay down in the circular formation we had practised, interlocked our arms and super-glued our hands together. It worked a treat! The banner we had made summed up our action nicely: ‘Sticking Together For Peace’. We remained stuck there for three hours, as the Strathclyde police gently prized our flesh apart.’

The youngest to get arrested was 13-year-old Catherine Holmes who locked on to her teddy bear with her Edinburgh group. The oldest was Betty Tebbs who, at 89, thumb-locked herself to others from Manchester and lay down in the rain, with the midges biting, blocking the south entrance to the base. A group from York came dressed as Vikings, pointing out: ‘The Vikings slaughtered tens of thousands of people but they did so over half a millennium. Trident could do the same in a minute.’

Pete Abel dressed as a squirrel with a placard saying ‘Nuts to Trident’. He gleefully remembers the reaction of the police ‘when they realized that they would have to arrest a seven foot furry squirrel, thumbcuffed to two other protesters at the North Gate. And that he was not going to “go quietly!”’ The Bishop of Reading, for his part, was on hand to bless the peacemakers.

People’s disarmament

Faslane365 was a recent manifestation of Britain’s ‘People’s Disarmament’ movement, initiated in 1961 by Bertrand Russell, who argued: ‘If all those who disapprove of Government policy were to join massive demonstrations of civil disobedience they could render Government folly impossible.’

A group of us had launched ‘Trident Ploughshares’ in 1998 to disarm Britain’s nuclear weapons system in a nonviolent, open, peaceful and fully accountable manner. We did not see the destruction of fences and equipment as violent, or criminal damage, or a breach of the peace, but as practical and lawful. Of course, the Government did not see it that way and there have been over 2,200 arrests leading to 500 trials. Myself, Ellen Moxley and Ulla Roder disarmed a multi-million pound research barge that maintained the ‘invisibility’ of Trident; we emptied the contents of the laboratory into Loch Goil. After five months in prison and a trial where we argued that we were entitled to do this under international law, a brave Sheriff and jury acquitted us, causing a legal furore.

By 2005 I had become increasingly concerned that the peace movement was not exerting enough influence. The trickle of disarmament actions, the one-off mass blockades were easily dealt with.

We were horrified that a new nuclear arms race was starting and the British Government was committed to replacing Trident. They were so busy wasting our money and the world’s resources that they were failing to address the real mass destruction that threatens our security: the oil-and-industry-driven heating of the planet; destruction of our habitat and environment; and the institutionalized poverty that destroys hope and lives. We needed to escalate our disarmament efforts, to provide the political pressure for change in a year when the Scots would hold an election that might bring an anti-Trident party into power for the first time. So the idea behind Faslane365 was to encourage and support more people to engage in civil resistance by organizing blockades on a daily basis over a whole year.

Scotland: officially anti-nuke

The variety of people blockading, the day-to-day disruption to the base, and the diversity of messages against Trident built up the people pressure in the run-up to the Scottish elections. On 3 May 2007 the Scottish National Party (SNP) – a party long-committed to making Scotland nuclear free – won a historic one-seat majority. Opinion poll data showed that for Labour voters who switched to the SNP, opposition to Trident was a major factor. Six weeks later, a resolution opposing Trident replacement was resoundingly carried by 71 to 16.

We are now giving the Scottish Parliament time to remove Trident. Although under the terms of devolution they are not supposed to interfere in ‘foreign policy’ issues and must defer to the British Government, they can reject Trident based on international law as well as moral grounds. We know that if Trident is removed from Scotland there are no alternative secure locations in England or Wales to base the submarines and store the nuclear warheads. The British Government would either have to find a non-submarine alternative or give up nuclear weapons altogether. We must remain vigilant and may need to return to sustained people’s disarmament. If we do, then we will need thousands of people to commit to nonviolent disruption on a massive level. It is up to us.

Angie Zelter is a campaigner specializing in nonviolent direct action. She has been arrested over 100 times and served 16 prison sentences. In 1996 she and three other women disarmed a BAE Hawk Jet bound for East Timor, causing $3 million worth of damage. A jury found them ‘not guilty’. Her book Faslane 365 – a year of anti-nuclear blockades (Luath) will be launched in June 2008.

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