Paul Anderson, Tribune, 14 November 1986

Nearly six years after the Nato decision to station cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, and almost three years after the first cruise missiles arrived at Greenham Common, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is meeting this weekend in Blackpool for its annual conference.

It is likely to be a rather low-key affair. But this is only partly because CND activists are tired by their years of campaigning. Far more important, the way the peace movement goes about its politics means that it is will almost certainly be a bland show of consensus, not unlike last month’s Labour conference (but without the excuse that a demonstration of unity is necessary to win office).

The two key unresolved questions of peace movement politics – what the peace movement’s attitude should be towards the Soviet Union, and what its stance should be in the coming general election – are unlikely to be addressed directly, let alone resolved. This isn’t to say that the issues won’t dominate the conference, particularly behind the scenes and on the fringe.

The question of the peace movement’s attitude to the Soviet Union – a hardy perennial – has a new urgency to it in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s stream of disarmament proposals in the past year: and while few CNDers would not welcome the Soviets’ proposals, there are some sharp differences of opinion about how enthusiastic the welcome should be, particularly between those close to the pro-Soviet faction of the Communist Party and supporters of the cautious, non-aligned position put forward by European Nuclear Disarmament.

The issue of CND’s stance in the coming general election is one that provokes even sharper differences of opinion. Those who argue that CND should declare its support for Labour have had their hand strengthened by the way the Liberal leadership has forced a pro-nuclear defence policy on its unwilling party.

Nevertheless, those who believe that CND should refrain from backing any political party probably remain in a majority, although their reasons for taking this position vary enormously. At considerable risk of caricaturing political positions, they can be divided into two broad groups.

One, which takes a centrist political position and includes many in the CND leadership, sees the priority as winning the political “middle ground” to nuclear disarmament. Some of this group are enthusiasts for “tactical voting” for an anti-Thatcher coalition, and many play down the NATO question.

The other, which sees the peace movement as a social movement of the left, believes that CND should remain strictly independent for different reasons. This group is less interested in winning over the “middle ground”, and it tends to ‘ consider that a Labour government is the best possible result of the election. But it wants CND to remain autonomous to be better able to exert pressure from the left in the event of a Labour government coming to power.

Many of this group see CND’s job as raising awkward but vital questions, such as withdrawal from NATO, that Labour will not raise.

Why is it that CND conference isn’t more of a forum for all this to be debated openly? Until this year, the main reason has been the format of the conference, which has mimicked that of a party policy-making conference almost to the point of parody – with debate limited to short speeches on carefully composited resolutions.

This year the format has been changed, to indude more “workshops” and so forth. All the same, it’s difficult to believe the results will be wholly satisfactory. Going to Blackpool in November, for starters, isn’t most people’s idea of fun, so many CNDers will give the show a miss. Peace movement activists will have to wait for anything that equals Marxism Today‘s weekend conferences in politics appeal.

Of course, the CND leadership is legitimately worried that too much public airing of differences would be bad for CND’s image, particularly given the enthusiasm of the gutter press for knocking CND. But this attitude is what makes CND conference a crashing bore – and is one reason it never gets any serious coverage in the media.

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