Trident debate in 2016: catalyst or just protest?


  • Preamble
  • What’s different for CND in 2016?
  • Changing political / technological / environmental pressures
  • Trident: old technology
  • Trident as a feminist issue
  • Making connections, building alliance
  • New politics? Or just resistance?

The well attended public meeting (100+, with other attendees hanging in and outside the doorway), ‘Stop Trident. Decision Time 2016’ (16 02 206 @ 19 00-21 30) was organised by Merseyside CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Peter Wilson, Co Chair of MCND, expertly chaired the lively comments and discussion that followed the presentations by the panel of four speakers, two national, two local: Bruce Kent, Vice President, CND, Chris Nineham, National Officer, Stop the War Coalition, Liverpool Councillor and Green Party Mayoral candidate, Tom Crone, and Kim Bryan, General Secretary, Socialist Labour Party. The panel of four speakers included no representatives from the Labour party or Momentum.

It was agreed that this is a moment of political opportunity regarding the replacement or cancelling of Trident, and attendees, especially longstanding CND campaigners, were pleased at the increased media coverage and debate taking place nationally. More explicit acknowledgement of the role of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in creating the space for this shift towards open public debate on nuclear weapons and defence, after years of virtual silence and political suppression, would have been just.

Cost was seen as a key strategic concern, not just a moral issue. The need (for the Labour party, for example) to spell out how the money saved from cancelling Trident could be spent, was stressed, and how important it was for displaced workforces to be redeployed, for example in expanded areas of green technology, alternative energy projects and other social and technological innovations. The escalating and apparently incalculable costs of replacing Trident, are actually useful to the Tories in their determination not to spend on health, social care, welfare, education, and infrastructure projects (such as technological innovation and supporting employment beyond city finance) that probably most of those in the room wanted to see. The language used to effect the political scam is also key:

 When the 2008 economic storm hit (a metaphor which itself does ideological work, implying an act of nature rather than a   crisis of human folly) the then shadow chancellor Osborne reached for a tried and tested script. ‘The cupboard is bare’, he sternly announced, likening bankrupt Britain to an over-indebted home (Tom Clark, ‘We need a new language to talk about the economy’. The Guardian, 19 02 2016).

Eight years later, Osborne sticks with the ‘storm’ metaphor, as he prepares to outsource his own economic incompetence and brutality, now as chancellor: ‘Osborne warns of further spending cuts as global “storm clouds” loom’ (Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 27 02 2016). He seeks to prepare the electorate for his economic failure, but wants to make sure we don’t attach blame to his policies since 2010, but instead identify the responsibility for any disappointment or disaster as ‘out there’, beyond our borders, where ‘foreigners’ reside.

At this ‘Stop Trident’ meeting in Liverpool, people were aware of the need to challenge language, rhetoric and lies: the oft-repeated presented as ‘truth’ / ‘facts’, for example, the questionable posture that Trident is a ‘deterrent’; and the mantra that security and defence depend on weapons. Evidence suggests otherwise: that aggression and violation begat more of the same, and that in 2016 security and defence are not secured by weapons and militarism, let alone weapons of mass destruction. The safety of societies and communities are better served via education, economic investment (not exploitation), skilled diplomacy, professional spies, cultural exchange and other peace-making initiatives.

But as a CND supporter since being taken to my first CND rally as a girl by my father, on this particular occasion my interest centred on how CND discourses have matched and responded to the dramatic developments of the intervening years. At the end of the evening, not very well was my worried conclusion.

What’s different for CND in 2016, compared to the 1950s or 1980s?
This is a new crisis, not a rerun. We haven’t been here before. So what are the distinctive features of the contemporary context for the Trident debate? And what’s new in our experience, in our thinking and understanding? And in our politics.

New political / technological / environmental pressures:

  • UK society has suffered 40+ years of neoliberal brutality (spun as economics), and its consequences for lives, communities, the economy and democracy itself (see my blog:
  • The UK Tory government is on its way to dismantling / privatising the NHS and what remains of the welfare, public sector values put in place in 1948 by a Labour government, after a war that had devastated society’s institutions and infrastructure, as well as traumatised its people.
  • Without the NHS, without social housing and affordable homes, and without access to free education, for example, democracy in the UK will also collapse, for democracy depends on health and wellbeing, access to education, the economic viability and dignity of the general population, as well as the rule of law, not as commodities or purchases, but as human rights. Democracy depends on and is a function of, national efforts towards equality and social justice, in a non-militarised society.
  • The NHS is not just a service provider, not just about our bodies/minds, but embodies the core values of our society. (See, for example, Michael Sandel [2012] What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets.) As such, the NHS is foundational, for example, to the mitigation of poverty, social class differences and disadvantage: to survival, dignity and opportunity of the poorest and most vulnerable, not just the richest and most powerful.
  • The latest neoliberal turn of the screw is the discourse of Tory Austerity since 2010: the Cuts being made to services and social support, ostensibly to pay down ‘the deficit’ produced by bankers’ misbehavior (see the film, The Big Short, 2015). This is not economics but Tory politics. The general population is meant to internalise this scam as ‘necessity’ and as ‘right’, and a reason why there is less and less money for the public services and institutions we had come to accept as central to a civilized and fair society. Meanwhile:

In the US, the top 1% grabbed more than half the total growth in the first five years of recovery, while in the UK, George Osborne, a chancellor who saw no choice to imposing the bedroom tax, still found room to trim the tax rate on top incomes (Clark, ibid.).

Mistakenly, free education and healthcare, sufficient and affordable housing, were assumed as ‘natural’, ‘normal’, permanent: unquestionably part of our social reality. In fact, they are political commitments made by social democracies, as opposed to militarized, totalitarian states. Discussing “water rights and water fights”, Susan George concludes:

 Privatisation means nothing more than handing over the results of the work of thousands of people over decades with virtually no guarantees. The word itself is a lie, and the phenomenon should be called, rather, ‘alienation’, or simply a ‘sell-out’ or ‘give-away’ (George [2010] Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World: 151).

The break up of the NHS is important for a neoliberal Tory government, not just because of the range of business opportunities made available by ‘privatisation’, but because of ‘collateral damage’: its impact on democracy, on the population’s ability and motivation to participate as active, critical and effective citizens, who believe they have power to influence events and their society.

  • Neoliberalism has not just contributed deregulation, privatization, financial corruption and growing inequalities in this period. Its invasions and wars have contributed to a rise in terrorism rooted in religious and political fundamentalisms. The nature of inter/national conflict and threats to national security has altered since the inception of CND in the 1950s. (See BBC1 adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1993 novel, The Night Manager, in which the action has been shifted from a drama about Columbian drug barons, to Middle Eastern warlords. Being screened from 21 02 2016.) The rise of terrorism, of extremist jihadist groups, presents threats to the UK that Trident can play no useful part in combatting, as opposed to increasing the risk of the UK as a terrorist target.
  • In addition to refugees fleeing terrorism and war zones, these years have seen a growing awareness of the plight of environmental refugees (see George [2010: 182-184), and “the resource scarcity issues guaranteed to provoke conflict” (ibid.: 188). Food, water and shelter must figure prominently on that list. (See George, chapter 4, ‘The wall of conflict’: 161-193.)

These structural issues, such as what and who governments choose to fund, foster, starve or destroy, position and shape individuals differentially and collectively, as well as hierarchically, as social constituencies attributed with different social and political value and status. The rising power of the Davos class during the neoliberal years (named after the Swiss resort where they congregate to discuss futures) encapsulates these issues: George deploys the prison metaphor as a guide:

 You can find the Davos class in every country – . . . . They run our major institutions, including the media, know exactly what they want and are much more united and better organized than we are. . . . The Davos class, despite its members’ nice manners and well tailored clothes, is predatory. . . they are also well versed in prison management and they hire the best-trained and most clever guards to keep us where we are (George [ibid]: 7 & 8).

Trident: old technology.
There are other key ways in which 2016 is not a rerun of the 1950s or 1980s: technological innovation is overtaking Trident. Trident is already old technology:

 Forget Trident. Modern warfare means a country can be brought to its knees with little more than a finger on a mouse (Julian Borger [16 01 2016] ‘One false click’. The Guardian).

Pretending otherwise could be a dangerous as well as disingenuous stance. Politically inept and corrupt, when the future is “hybrid warfare”, “cyber warfare”. Borger is not alone in arguing that: “This is the new reality” (ibid. 23). “Big subs can be picked up” (ibid.: 26). Given that secrecy, undetectability have been supposedly key features of the efficacy and power of Trident as a ’nuclear deterrent’, this puts its claim to fame under severe strain. (For more information, see scientist, Dr David Hookes, ‘The truth about Trident’, power point presentation at Merseyside Momentum Political Education event , 09 02 2016.)

As the UK parliament approaches a decision on Trident’s renewal in 2016, Green MP, Caroline Lucas, argues:

Britain must now take this opportunity to use evidence, rather than bravado, as the basis for this historic decision (Letter to The Guardian, 16 01 2016).

And in 2016, new evidence and understanding relevant to the Trident debate extend beyond the impact of neoliberalism, technological innovation, fundamentalisms, terrorism, climate change and environmental crisis. The meeting in Liverpool exposed orthodoxy and conservatism; generational and political issues internal to anti-Trident discourse and activism. The meeting, while alive with knowledgeable, impassioned and concerned participants, nonetheless constituted problematic evidence of significant oversight, absence and ignorance, as if time has stood still.

Trident as a feminist issue.
As well as no Labour or Momentum presence on the panel of three men and one woman, none of whom were young any more (the generational make-up of the panel may be significant in relation to my next questions), there was no evident feminist presence on the panel.

  • Does this mean that the organisers fail to see Trident as a feminist issue?
  • Are they unaware of relevant feminist critique, analysis and activism from the last 40 years?
  • Or, aware of the latter, do they prefer to ignore and exclude these perspectives and insights, in which they have played no part, and therefore have no platform: to silence these (mainly) women’s voices and carry on as before?

For example, Bruce Kent argued that Trident was all about British nationalism, and he cited the initial desire by the UK government to obtain nuclear weapons after the 1939/45 war, and to stick a large union jack on Trident. But Trident is not just about British nationalism, or rather nationalism is not a gender-neutral phenomenon, but represents manliness and elite masculinity as the emblem of power internationally. Nationalism and its invasions and wars are these men’s favoured fighting projects / games. In 2016, we have the means to better understand these patriarchal structures, behaviours and projects, in ways not publicly possible in the 1940s and 1950s, when women’s voices and feminist insights were largely unheard in the public domain, and in particular within politics, militarism, foreign policy and defence.

The murder of civilians, the majority of whom would be women, children and elderly men (as a speaker from the floor pointed out) should make the immorality of the enterprise indisputable, and help us make the arguments for not renewing Trident. This fact alone identifies nuclear weapons as a feminist issue, for:

  • incorporating premeditated violence against women and girls (as ‘collateral damage’), as military policy at an international level and
  • training men into a predatory, violent hetero-masculinity that will do that job without demur. (See Val Walsh [10 02 2016] ‘Trident: Are you manly enough?’, ‘Presentations 2016’ category.)

In Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War-Play Invade our Lives (2014), Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, examines:

not only the most direct and brutal mechanisms of military power (as seen in times of war), but also the processes by which soldierly values and martial organisations wield progressively more power within civilian society (Bourke: 7). See also Bourke (1999) An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to Face Killing in C20 Warfare.

It is critical voices and feminist analysis that have helped us see war, terrorism, militarism, religious and political fundamentalisms, capitalism, and neoliberalism, for example, as feminist issues: involving the cultivation of a predatory, misogynist masculinity, producing institutionalised violence against the most vulnerable in a society: unarmed civilians, not soldiers or mercenaries. And these cross-disciplinary and holistic critiques and analyses help make connections between, for example, social organization, environmental sustainability, economics, peace, democracy and social justice, thereby breaking orthodox demarcations that prioritise, for example, weapons, war, ‘defence’ and sovereignty, and widening public discourse to the larger questions:

  • What kind of society do we want to be?
  • What kind of world do we want to help create and sustain?

These questions and issues require a probing, interdisciplinary approach; multifaceted, holistic awareness; peer process rather than hierarchy: co-production. The tick box mentality promoted by consumerism, for example, will not do this political job. The depth of the probe required is conjured by Katrine Marcal (2015) in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics:

We can criticize economic man as much as we like. As long as we can’t see that he is a gendered theory of the world based on our collective fear of the ‘female’ we will never be free (Marcal: 184). (Emphasis added.)

In her ambitious historical overview of the workings of patriarchy in C19 and C20, German journalist and feminist activist, Marielouise Janssen-Jurreit, critically considers ‘Women without a platform’ in Part 3, starting with a chapter on ‘The fathers of socialism”. She notes:

Marx. . . never directly criticized women’s legal incapacitation, which John Stuart Mill, in 1869, characterized as nothing but bondage legally sanctioned (Janssen-Jurreit, Sexism: The Male Monopoly on History and Thought. Originally published in German in 1976; reprinted in a shorter English translation in 1982: 104.)

In a chapter on ‘Socialism and feminism’, her accounts:

 illustrate the value attributed to the situation of women in everyday life by male party comrades, Social Democratic editors, and labour functionaries. For socialist men class liberation was primarily a liberation of men; women’s emancipation was a secondary promise of historical development [as opposed to politics]. In the more than hundred-year history of the European workers’ parties this has not changed (Janssen-Jurreit, ibid.: 115). (Emphasis added + bracketed insert added.)

Has this orthodoxy softened at all since Janssen-Jurreit wrote these words in 1982? (See Walsh [10 10 2012] ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ and Walsh [10 10 2012] ‘Thinking through and beyond sexism: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’, both on this blog in ‘Essays 2013′ category.)

Katrine Marcal, a young Swedish journalist, writing 40 years after Janssen-Jurreit, i.e. after 40 more years of feminist activism, research and analysis, re-iterates and further illuminates the historical dilemma underpinning how working-class women and men are positioned within these debates, and in particular in relation to feminist projects and politics:

 Dependency has for centuries been seen as shameful. It was something that slaves and women were. When working-class men demanded the right to vote they did it by arguing that they were indeed independent. Before, dependency had been defined through ownership. Those who were owners were independent. Those who worked for someone else were dependent. But the workers’ movement redefined that which was previously called wage-slavery as a source of   pride. Independence came to be defined as having a job with a salary that could support a family. Then one was doing one’s duty. So one could also demand rights.

        Woman, on the other hand, couldn’t do this – because she was still dependent.

 That for working-class men to be ‘independent’ by working full-time they had to depend on women to take care of the  home was not part of that history. Just as Adam Smith failed to tell us about his mother (Marcal [2015]: 185/186).

How this narrative positioned gay working-class men, as socially and politically Other / ‘invisible’, implicitly ‘deviant’, also remained unspoken, unexamined.

Social class positioning and working-class politics do not have to exclude or override feminist analysis and politics. Issues of social class stigma and disadvantage, gender power relations, homophobia, misogyny and racism (the fascist package) are entwined issues, not least because we are all more than one thing, we are all hybrid and multiple in our identities. Yet in contributions from the floor at this meeting, from women and men, it was working-class ‘family’ men’s lives and prospects that underpinned comments and concerns, though the word men was not used.

Making connections, building alliance.
The heavy industries that are mourned locally in Liverpool, such as engineering and dock work, were traditionally men-only working environments. The talk at the meeting of re-instating manufacturing and industry seemed to look back and echo that. Yet the reality of new, high tech industries (such as digital, sustainable energy) will not involve a return to those working environments, even if some of the existing skills, such as those of the Barrow nuclear workers, are transferable and can be a basis for redeployment. Nor will the numbers ever be replicated, due to technological changes (see ‘The trouble is. . . . Economists, economics and the Left’ on this blog: in the ‘Commentary 2016’ category).

The challenge is, for example, to:

  • restructure the UK economy, including
  • reducing the financialisation of the economy
  • decommission Trident
  • redirect finance towards economic and social investment that supports job creation, communities, the environment and democracy
  • reduce the militarization of society
  • reduce / eliminate the privatization and commodification of public services.

[See Walsh (25 06 2014), ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: Enough common ground?’ Presentation at INTAR conference, University of Liverpool. Also, submission to the Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability (05 2014): ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritisng renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. Both on this blog in ‘Presentations 2014’ category.]

The underlying narrative of the ‘plight’ of (heterosexual) working-class men, and by extension their wives, partners, families, and communities, is a significant component of these debates and changes, not just in their own right as a question of economic and political equality, but because of the call of UKIP in 2016, as it targets angry, disenfranchised, mainly white male, unskilled and unemployed voters, promoting misogynist, homophobic and racist attitudes, towards muslims, for example, as part of its rhetorical flourish. Will non political and political working-class women both choose UKIP in 2016? Or will they split?

In 1976, Janssen-Jurreit saw women’s historical lack of feminist solidarity as self-inflicted social and political disadvantage:

 From a feminist point of view, the splitting of female human rights into class interest and special women’s interest is unacceptable and in effect discriminatory (Janssen-Jurreit [1982]: 124).


This comparative presentation of the early socialist movement with the early women’s movement shows how two political currents, both based on emancipation, on liberation from oppression, and on the conquest of human alienation, failed to unite their efforts (ibid.: 127).

These statements still have relevance for UK progressive politics today, not least in relation to the need to build effective alliances across our differences of origin, upbringing, identity and circumstance. As Susan George shrewdly observes:

 And, let’s face it, progressives love to bicker and create fratricidal factions so that they become incapable of confronting power other than rhetorically (George, ibid: 9). (Emphasis added.)

Towards the end of the ‘Stop Trident’ meeting, Bruce Kent, Vice Chair of UK CND, drew attention to the importance of involving other campaigning groups and organisations in anti-Trident activism, such as the forthcoming march and demonstration in London. He lamented their apparent resistance to joining the struggle. Conversely, on the night, the speakers’ panel appeared to be untouched by feminism (in 2016!). When I spoke from the floor, I was faced, not with hostility, but gentle incomprehension, and unwillingness or inability to engage with the feminist issues I raised.

It seems that too many experienced anti-war activists can ‘include’ racism, fascism and the plight of asylum seekers on their agenda, but avoid feminist-initiated campaigns that implicate men’s power and misogyny (on the home front, on the street, in the workplace and in war zones), such as against violence against girls and women, the trafficking of girls and women, supporting equal pay and access to free childcare. Is this a form of political decorum that leaves feminist issues and sexual politics aside, not just as uncharted territory, but taboo?

It reminded me of attendance at CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales) members’ conferences 15+ years ago, where I encountered an exclusively white, middle class, male-dominated culture, in which considering social class issues, gender power relations, sexual politics, masculinities, etc. in relation to environmental issues was apparently literally unheard of: an insubordinate act. At the time, environmental issues were strictly demarcated, and seen as unconnected to social justice, poverty, public health, oppression or social class. Eco discourse was ‘apart’ from the politics of everyday life it seemed. The narrowness and compartmentalization of its ‘specialist’ concerns have since shifted, and I now feel less of an intruder / trouble maker! (At the CAT members’ conference in 2014, I presented a shortened version of my submission to the Liverpool Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability, which was well received: ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. In ‘Presentations 2014’ category on this blog.]

The culture of CAT has responded to the participation of a more diverse membership, including feminist-aware men, and the instigation of a listening culture has produced development, creativity and innovation, that are not simply technical or technological. These developments have in turn enabled CAT to reach well beyond its original base and remit, to influence individuals, communities, organisations and institutions in the UK and beyond, while also benefiting from what is a reciprocal learning process. CAT has proved itself more relevant now, than when it was set set up 40 odd years ago.

New politics? Or just resistance?
Tory Cuts (packaged as Austerity) are designed to divide, subordinate and derail us. We must resist repeating history, and work to establish and strengthen our bonds, our shared humanitarian values and purposes. To do that, we need to acknowledge and understand the problematic history alluded to above.

Social class, gender and ‘whiteness’ have been key, if unacknowledged, determinants of the culture of environmental, peace and social justice groups in the UK from their inception. And in the wake of revelations over the years, we know that the sexual politics of some of these groups has been less than impressive. In 2016, these groups have to confront that history and their own purpose, if they are to attract new, younger and more diverse members, for example. In the light of turbo capitalism and the changes and new pressures described above, CND, along with other oppositional groups, also has to work out its political identity and allegiance, and how best in 2016 and beyond, to contribute to the social and political transformation that can be kick-started by the decommissioning of Trident. This is not a technical matter. Nor are we, as a society, on a leisurely stroll into the future. The enemies are real, rich, organised and militarised.

Like identity politics, single issue campaigns serve both a revelatory and developmental purpose , personally and politically. But they don’t have to stop there. At the moment there exist a plethora of campaigns: including VAWG, trafficking of girls and women, anti-Austerity, Keep the NHS Public / Save our NHS / mental health / Stop the War / Palestine, and campaigns against homophobia, fascism, racism, sexism and misogyny, amongst others. I have argued elsewhere for recognition of the interconnections between various social issues, as well as for the strategic importance of building alliances across differences, seeking common ground. (See Walsh [25 06 2014], ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: Enough common ground?’ posted in ‘Presentations 2014’ on this blog). The Davos class, of course, is content to see us remain in those discrete activist silos. It makes managing and controlling us a doddle.

The growing inequalities in our society and internationally are increasingly visible inequalities, due in large part to the advent of digital and social media. The expanded availability of this evidence has the potential to foster resentment, anger and conflict. Or, it can provide a basis for organised alliance and political action. Meanwhile:

All the elements of the systemic crisis – casino economy, massive inequality, the environment, resource shortage, ‘failed states’, and so on – increase the dangers of military response (George: 182).

Add “risk-increasing European responses” (George: 184-186) and “risk-promoting international financial institution policies” (George: 186-188), of which there have been more than a few since George offered her analysis in 2010, and the context of CND activism becomes differently and distinctively complex, compared to the 1950s or 1980s. George cautions that powerful nations:

 are not focusing on the real sources of future conflict and are consequently spending their military budgets in the wrong way and on the wrong things. . . . Defence budgets are more a part of the problem than of the solution (ibid: 180). (Emphasis added.)

In her introduction (2010), George looks back and ahead:

My own list of public or common goods would start with a new kind, which would not have appeared a decade ago: a climate fit for human beings (George: 14).

The male dominated Davos class will never deliver this, nor do they care to. But in 2016, it is surely a key focus for all those activist silos mentioned above: not separately, but together, in political co-ordination.

After the ‘Stop Trident’ meeting, and the evident energy and optimism it generated, I was nonetheless left with the weary feeling that peace activism / anti-Trident activism / CND suffer the same limitations as those I have identified as still entrenched within the orthodoxies and conservatism of Labour party and trade union cultures. These limitations pertain to resistance to taking women’s lives and experience seriously as a basis for theory, politics and organisation; resistance to power sharing; the resistance of heterosexual men to changing their attitudes and behaviour towards girls and women; the continuing evasion of the critical self reflexivity feminist critique and analysis require of women and men, if we are to build effective political alliances between environmental and social justice activists, including feminists, that are sufficient to the task of decommissioning, first Trident, then the current UK Tory government, as we continue to work to mitigate and overturn neoliberal orthodoxy and its mantra: TINA (There Is No Alternative).

val walsh / 22 02 2016

For follow up, see Selected Recommended Reading list, Joanna Bourke (2014) Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War-Play Invade our Lives: 294-297.





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