Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at 60 - is a nuclear war really still a threat?

CND member Alan South pictured at his home at Halifax.
CND member Alan South pictured at his home at Halifax.

It’s 60 years since CND’s first ever meeting. Chris Bond speaks to two members of the organisation about their own memories and why the peace movement still matters today.

Back in the 1960s, Bradford was regarded by many people as a symbol of the North’s fading industrial might, it certainly wasn’t seen as a hotbed of peaceniks.

But Alan South from Halifax, then a young CND campaigner, paints a slightly different picture.

“I was there in 1967 when people were giving out flowers in the centre of Bradford. I probably did too - if you were 17 or 18 back then it’s the kind of thing you did,” he says. “I had a friend who, in between leaving school and going to university, got a job on the buses as a conductor. I can remember he was doing the Bradford to Baildon route and he would hand out flowers to the passengers.”

During this period the peace movement in Britain had grown, its ranks swelled by such epoch-making global events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the increasingly polarising Vietnam War.

At its heart, though, was opposition to nuclear weapons. In the years following the end of the Second World War and the devastation wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was growing alarm amongst many people over the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There was a feeling, too, that lessons hadn’t been learned and the possibility of a nuclear war had become a real and present danger.

It was out of this that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was born and this weekend marks the 60th anniversary of its launch. That historic meeting was followed a few weeks later by a march to a little known Berkshire village called Aldermaston, home to an atomic weapons research centre, which cemented the anti-nuclear movement in the public consciousness.

Alan South became involved because of his father, Alick, who was secretary of the Bradford branch. “I was involved from the age of about nine or ten. I attended a lot of CND meetings along with my father, so I grew up with the movement.”

He remembers going on some of the early Aldermaston marches with him. “They were great fun. There was a huge sense of camaraderie and there was such an assortment of people from all over the country. You met people from Glasgow and Cornwall and people of all political and religious persuasions,” he says. “They were very noisy, musical affairs and we quite often got support from bystanders. We weren’t regarded as a bunch of eccentrics. If we were on a longer march sometimes people would step forward and give you a bar of chocolate or congratulate you for what you were doing.”

Bradford’s members were an integral part of the organisation. “David Hockney’s father, Kenneth, was very involved with CND and along with my father was among the main moving spirits in CND. He made a lot of the banners we used and I remember walking into London on one of the marches and seeing David Hockney by the side of the road cheering us on.”

Alan believes the Vietnam War helped galvanise the peace movement at the time. “That’s when CND came of age. It became a mass protest movement and people within it became politicised and this became both its strength and weakness because from the late 60s onwards people started diversifying.

“The people on those marches came into contact with other ideas such as vegetarianism and sustainability and the growth of the whole ecology movement goes back to that time.”

Alan, who’s now 68 and lives in Halifax, believes CND is as important now as it was 60 years ago. “We’re seeing a revival of interest because the situation with North Korea has made people nervous again about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used either deliberately or accidentally.

“The danger now which doesn’t get talked about as much as it should is the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of IS, or some other rogue state.”

The organisation has ebbed and flowed over the decades but Alan believes it’s still relevant today. “The legacy of CND is enormous in what it did to radicalise a generation. If you think of the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 60s, CND was a similar phenomenon in Britain. There was a palpable sense of excitement and a desire to try and do something.”

For Kath Cripps, it was another family member who inspired her to rally to the cause. “I didn’t get actively involved until my first grandchild was born in 1972, and my thought was I wanted to make the world safer for her,” she says.

Kath was living in Hathersage, in the Peak District at the time, and took part in demonstrations at places like Aldermaston, Molesworth, Capenhurst and Greenham Common.

The latter became synonymous with the peace movement in the 80s and Kath has vivid memories of being among the women that camped out there. “It was such a wonderful thing to be involved in, I went down there several times. I slept in a tent and in the back of an old converted ambulance once, which was very cold.”

She was there for the famous ‘Embrace the Base’ demonstration in 1982, when 30,000 women linked arms around the nine miles of perimeter fence. “That was a very inspiring occasion and something I’ll never forget.”

Kath is a member of Sheffield CND and worked in the occupational therapy department at the now closed Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield. She was also a magistrate, which unwittingly landed her in court.

It started when a friend was arrested for obstruction at Greenham. After refusing to pay the fine she was brought back to appear at Bakewell Magistrates, where Kath sat on the bench. The local CND group went along to show their support. “I wasn’t due to sit so I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t join them. Some of them went into court but I didn’t I stayed outside.”

However, Kath was recognised and the story made the local Press. She was brought before the Lord Lieutenant and told to promise she wouldn’t demonstrate outside any court proceedings again.

“I couldn’t do that and I didn’t feel I had to apologise.” As a result she was dismissed for bringing the magistracy into disrepute. The campaign group Liberty took up her case but the appeal against the decision was turned down and Kath was ordered to pay £800 costs, which in the mid-80s was a significant sum.

The saga took another twist when she featured in the BBC’s TV documentary series Open Space – which brought her story to a wider audience. “When it went out on BBC2 I got letters from all over the country nearly all of which included cash so I was able to pay off the fine and give a nice donation to Liberty.”

Now 81, Kath says she’s too old to join the protesters but, as a member of Sheffield Creative Action for Peace (Scrap), which is affiliated to CND, she remains very much involved. “I can’t go on these big demonstrations any more but this group allows me to help make banners and things for them put on the fences. I still do my bit.”

She’s heartened by the Wool Against Weapons campaign, where protesters knitted a seven-mile “peace scarf” against replacing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system, and the success of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) which was awarded last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

She believes, too, that CND is far more than just a relic of the Cold War era. “Young people are still joining and there are new initiatives popping up all the time, so I think the campaign is very much alive and well. There is still work to do but there are a lot of things that give me hope.”