On this day in history – 1961
Today, 18th February 2013, we read in the news that an explosion in poverty-related hunger in Britain is putting the government in danger of failing to meet its international human rights obligations to its most vulnerable citizens (see ‘here’). It seems that the combined impact of Cameron and Osborne’s failed austerity policies, such as the overall benefit cap, local housing allowance limits, bedroom tax, cuts to tax credits and council tax benefit and the freeze in the value of welfare payments is already having devastating consequences for Britain’s poorest people. But will the clueless duo admit that they are incompetent to run an economy? Don’t hold your breath.
We can’t help but wonder what Bertrand Russell, one of the towering intellects of 20th century Britain, would have made of our current incapable government. He certainly would have had something to say about the morality, or immorality, of many of their decisions. The reason Russell is on our mind today is that February 18th is a date with a special significance for the Scrap Trident Coalition and, indeed, for political activists all over the UK. For it was on this day, in 1961, that the Committee of 100 carried out its first act of civil disobedience.
The idea of a UK-based, mass civil disobedience campaign against nuclear weapons emerged early in 1960 in discussions between peace activists Ralph Schoenman, Hugh Brock, April Carter, Ralph Miliband, Alan Lovell and Stuart Hall. Schoenman approached Bertrand Russell, then president of CND , with the idea. Russell agreed that there was a need for such an organisation and, subsequently, the Committee of 100, was launched at a meeting in London on 22 October 1960 with a hundred signatures. Russell was elected as president.
Russell explained his reasons for setting up the Committee of 100 in an article in the New Statesman, in February 1961:
“ The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has done and is doing valuable and very successful work to make known the facts, but the press is becoming used to its doings and beginning to doubt their news value. It has therefore seemed to some of us necessary to supplement its campaign by such actions as the press is sure to report. There is another, and perhaps more important reason for the practice of civil disobedience in this time of utmost peril. There is a very widespread feeling that however bad their policies may be, there is nothing that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join massive demonstrations of civil disobedience they could render government folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible. Such a vast movement, inspired by outraged public opinion is possible, perhaps it is imminent. If you join it you will be doing something important to preserve your family, compatriots and the world.”
Amen to that!
The Committee’s first act of civil disobedience took place on 18 February 1961. The protest was timed to coincide with the arrival of Polaris missiles in Britain with the expected berthing of USS Proteus on the River Clyde. It began with a march from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square where there were speeches. The crowds then went on to the Ministry of Defence where Russell taped a message of protest to the doors. This was followed by a sit-down demonstration in the street for close to three hours.
Russell, at that time an impressive 88 years of age, took part along with his wife Edith and thousands of others. Somewhat to the surprise of the Committee, there were no arrests.
We hope you enjoyed this little jaunt down memory lane. And we hope that it demonstrates to you, as it does to us, that we, the people, are capable of making our own history if we so choose.