The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.
Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.
The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.
Government papers released now reveal that within Thatcher’s government there was real concern about sole American control of nuclear weapons stationed in the UK – especially at the time of the Greenham Common protests. Defence secretaries John Nott then Michael Heseltine would have liked dual keys over the weapons of mass destruction but they didn’t get them.
The papers also reveal that civil servants rehearsed for the scenario of a nuclear war and even planned a broadcast by the Queen to the British people. The speech would have said the following:
I have never forgotten the sorrow and the pride I felt as my sister and I huddled around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspiring words on that fateful day in 1939
Not for a single moment did I imagine that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me
Nuclear free zones were an early 80s political phenomenon that swept Labour run local councils, student unions and other bodies. They were always derided by the Tories as a vainglorious gesture by grandstanding politicians. However, they captured a widespread anxiety about the threat of nuclear war that was very pervasive in the late 70s and early 80s. The turnout on CND demos surged massively at the turn of the decade and I remember being on one monster march to Hyde Park in 1981.
Here’s an announcement that Merseyside County Council (later abolished by Thatcher along with the GLC and other authorities that were nearly all Labour run) was going to declare itself a nuclear free zone.
Seems like another epoch but you may remember the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp which saw an all-women permanent protest outside the RAF Greenham Common military base for nearly two decades. It started in 1981 at what was a high water mark for CND activity. I went on the huge demo that year in Hyde Park and it really felt like we were making a huge difference.
You have to remember this was the era of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. We also had nuclear friendly Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. The issues have changed massively now but the threat of a nuclear incident is always with us. Here’s anti-nuclear poster I found in my attic that might jog your memories.