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De-developing nukes

Howard Clark’s ideas on nonviolent strategy from 1978: how can the local victories of the anti-nuclear movement be strengthened in order to mount a serious structural challenge to the state’s commitment to nuclear power? Nonviolent anarchists must remind themselves of the failure of the civil disobedience against the Bomb.

A banner at a 2011 anti-nuclear demonstration in Berlin. Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved. A banner at a 2011 anti-nuclear demonstration in Berlin. Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved.Writing in the afterglow of a beautiful day of guerrilla nonviolence at Torness, I’m no longer daunted by the question with which I’ve been shadow-boxing these past few weeks: ‘exactly how do we intend to reverse the nuclear power programme?’

On that site, I saw for myself the achievement of the people who occupied Half Moon Cottage in creating a symbol for us to rally around, and also in creating an atmosphere where it was possible to communicate across boundaries of uniform. I experienced, too, the commitment, determination and sheer dash of many comrades in the anti-nuclear movement; a reporter might talk of courage and daring, but most of us there were simply doing what we felt needed to be done, scared as we were. Looking up from the pit I smiled at a policeman looking bored: he smiled back – one of the many tiny breakthroughs that day as I learned afresh of the power of cheerful nonviolence to defuse aggro and inspire us to exceed the limits we usually set ourselves.

The nonviolent militancy we are demonstrating at Torness can undoubtedly be very successful on local issues and, allied with the work to arouse a local community to identify its own interests and find its voice, could lead to victory there. As well as all the usual reasons people have for not wanting nuclear power stations on their doorsteps, around Torness there is likely to be additional resentment of the special provisions the council is beginning to make for the imported labour and also of the probable phasing out of the coal-powered station at Kincardine, up the coast.

From the points of view of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), Windscale may be considered strategically more important than Torness – so much else depends on its expansion. But looking from the point of view of anti-nukes, I see the campaign against Torness as pretty much our dynamo at the moment, generating the energy and enthusiasm to make feasible the poorly-supported demonstrations at Capenhurst and Heysham.

As our movement takes shape, it begins to resemble the outline Bill Moyer proposed in the first article Peace News printed specifically on how to oppose nuclear power (June 1973). Groups are contesting nuclear developments in their own areas (localities and, what Bill didn’t mention, areas of interest) and combining when appropriate for mutual support in larger scale activities.

Strong and weak groups

One problem which immediately arises in this approach is the relationship between strong and weak groups. People in the Torness Alliance are pledged to oppose all nuclear developments, so clearly the momentum gained around Torness should be used to help other campaigns. On the other hand, I was one of the people (300 or so, I reckon; certainly not the 500 Peace News tends to claim) who went to the Heysham demonstration and felt we were being used as an anti-nuke rent-a-mob. The discussion around Heysham in Peace News has centred on how the demonstration was organised: I’d question whether a demonstration with negligible local support was an appropriate tactic at that stage. It horrified me to learn that 100,000 people live within five miles of Heysham but that still we had to be imported into the area merely to add numbers to the demonstration.

Another problem was anticipated by Roger Moody (Peace News, 5 May 1978) when he complained that the anti-nuclear movement tends to react as a consumer protection lobby and lacks logic in its ‘choice of targets’. I agree with Roger that the debate should be about the nature of society more than the nature of energy; also that ‘needs’ should be redefined from the standpoint of groups in the Third and Fourth worlds, and that we ought to ‘have the will and conviction to oppose the nuclear fuel cycle at every stage of its death-dealing progress, not simply between the reactor and the waste pit’.

At the same time, looking at UKAEA’s recent setbacks in being refused permission to test-drill possible ground for waste disposal, these are the result of local reaction, the ‘consumer protection lobbies’, rather than the activities of a principled anti-nuclear movement. It is this kind of reaction to close-at-hand dangers which gives the anti-nuclear movement its urgency, but it does need linking with our common themes – de-centralism, community power, the interdependence of all life on the planet.

We may succeed at Torness, but stopping the nuclear power programme means tackling Windscale and Dounreay too, and in those places anti-nukers have but the slimmest hopes of gaining local purchase, while it’s easy to feel powerless to help the peoples whose land has been expropriated for uranium mining or who are forced to mine it. Ultimately local victories must become stepping stones to a complete change in course, and we have to face the state’s commitment to nuclear power.

The few

As far as I can tell, most of the thinking about how to challenge the state’s commitment to nuclear power has so far been about what can be done by ‘the few’, the people most committed or (in some cases) most ‘expert’. Some of the thinking has been very good (I’m thinking particularly of that around Peace News, the Torness Alliance and Feminists Against Nukes). Yet without an adequate and explicit strategy, involving many more people than will sit in front of earth movers, we could fail to be more than a nuisance to the nuclear industry.

To add a pinch of historical perspective, maybe we nonviolent anarchists need to remind ourselves of the failure of the civil disobedience against the Bomb. At the height of the Committee of 100 (the disobedient wing of the nuclear disarmament movement of the early ’60s), Colin Ward, then editor of Anarchy magazine, remarked that this was the middle class sitting down to protest at its own impotence. The movement he was talking about made a remarkable impact on political life in Britain, and involved thousands of people in illegal action, yet ultimately his judgement was accurate. Today the class character of our movement is more complicated, though just as far from being proletarian. As for impotence, over 20 years ago, Colin Ward traced that powerlessness back to source in a way which I believe offers the anti-nuclear movement its crucial insight:

"The choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions occurs every day and in every way, and the extent to which we choose – or accept, or are fobbed off with, or lack the imagination and invention to discover alternatives to – the authoritarian solutions to small problems is the extent to which we are their powerless victims in big affairs. We are powerless to change the course of events over the nuclear arms race, imperialism and so on... precisely because we have surrendered our power over everything else."

Question consumerism

Perhaps this analysis could lead to resignation, despair even, and an assumption that all action on big affairs is futile. I’d hope that it will lead to the recognition that the basis for large-scale nonviolent confrontations over nuclear power must be our efforts to introduce ecology into everyday life, to question habitual consumerism and open the way to a more sharing lifestyle.

Whereas ‘environmentalist’ thinking concedes that large-scale social engineering may solve environmental problems for us, it’s fundamental to ‘ecological’ thinking that ecology is also about social relationships, about how we live. Many people’s lifestyles have changed as a result of this awareness. In some respects, it’s even possible to say that, arising from this, the anti-nuclear movement already has its equivalents of the charka (spinning wheel) and khadi (home-spun cloth) in the Gandhian campaign for Indian self-rule.

I’m not so fanciful as to claim the same symbolic status for bicycles or recycled envelopes (or any other single item of ecological living you’d care to add) as for spinning and khadi. Nevertheless, just as Gandhi saw khadi as a means of boycotting foreign cloth and thereby reducing dependence on imperialist and capital-intensive industries, in a variety of ways many people are seeking to wean themselves away from the anti-ecological practices a capitalist economy presses us into. And, in the same spirit as Gandhi’s advocacy of spinning, in workshops all over the island people have been bodging up do-it-yourself technology – albeit usually ineffectively. For a good exposition of Gandhi’s ideas on this, get hold of Bob Ellsberg’s article, abridged from Catholic Worker in Peace News, 11 June 1976.

This ethos – the ethos reflected in many ways by Paul Wesley’s Greenpeace broadsheet on ecological lifestyle in PN in 1971 – has obvious value in binding together in some broadly common culture. However, it is most widespread among people of middle-class origins and it does not amount to a full ‘constructive programme’.

Home insulation comes immediately to mind as a constructive alternative to nuclear power, yet anti-nukers seem to have taken it up only haphazardly. We make plenty of airy references to how much energy insulation could save, but in the main seem content to keep that as part of our propaganda armoury rather than see what potential there is for an insulation campaign involving, say, tenants’ associations and council direct labour workers.

More ambitiously, maybe local Alternative Energy Alliances (AEAs!) could one day be formed. Involving community groups and ‘workers’ in devising simple improvements to a city’s energy system – not just windmills and solar panels but better home designs or heating from refuse. The other week, York Safe Energy Group got into a dispute with a lecturer who’d just been pooh-poohing the contribution ‘ alternative technology’ could make to the national grid. But he, like most of that sort of ‘expert’, wasn’t thinking about local conditions, and decentralised or intermittent sources of energy, as much as about barrages across the Severn, forests of windmills in the Orkneys, and ‘nodding ducks’ strewn across the Atlantic – centralised technology again, feeding a centralising energy system. To make any headway against this kind of thinking, it seems to me that we need to do more than wait for better energy storage methods to be designed; we’ll have to be able to point to successful schemes worked out in localities.

Workers’ plans

Another aspect of a constructive programme must be support for ‘workers’ alternative plans’ for socially-useful work. Inspired by the example of Lucas Aerospace work – and it’s been touted around so much, it’s about time some attention was paid to the idea – other workers facing redundancies are beginning to discuss their own plans. Back in 1959, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War managed to persuade three trade union branches in Stevenage to call for token strike action in favour of more peaceful industry being brought into the town. As I understand it (and I was only nine at the time), few people had thought seriously about ‘peace conversion programmes’ at that time; worked-out proposals for towns such as Bristol and Coventry came only a few years later. Remembering how the ‘alternative technology movement’ failed the Lucas workers when asked for ideas, we need to be a bit more alert and apply ourselves more determinedly here.

In general, isn’t reaching out to form coalitions at least as important in promoting constructive ideas like these as it is in campaigning against something?

While constructive activity is essential if we’re to unhook from nuclear power, there is no substitute for a direct campaign against it. And by connecting the constructive activity to the campaign against, we will probably help the campaign expand as more and more people see that nuclear power is basically not in their interests.

At the same time, however, there are loads of people – probably including most Peace News readers – who oppose nuclear power and all it entails but are unlikely to campaign: they have too many other commitments (valid commitments, too).

Those of us thinking about direct action against nuclear power have thought about site occupations, blocking transport, sitting-in at government offices, and a whole range of other actions, but the first point of resistance is much further back and it involves most people: consuming electricity from the national grid. This is something most anti-nukers seem aware of in our own lives, but somehow we rarely seem to be able to relate it to campaigning.

Switching off

The obvious idea here is the partial electricity bill strike, people withholding the ‘nuclear portion’ of their electricity bills (about an eighth). Most people who get a quarterly bill could join in this.

Already, Gloucester Alternatives to Nuclear Technology have proposed that people pay 85% of their bills and send the other 15% to the ‘energy decision-makers’. (I prefer an eighth as the arithmetic’s easier.) This might be a useful way of warming up to a proper bill strike, except that it seems to have been proposed as something extra to be done by people already actively committed. Before proclaiming a ‘consumer campaign’, as many anti-nuke groups as possible should have been canvassed with the idea. Instead of an announcement appearing in Peace News almost out of the blue, anti-nukers around the island should have been involved in some build-up to this. We could also do with some sort of legal briefing.

In a nonviolence training session at Durham a few weeks ago, a group envisaged a gradual build-up to an electricity bill strike proceeding step-by-step and setting ourselves a timetable: actions at electricity boards: collective switch-offs; perhaps an electricity-free Midsummers Day in 1979; setting up an alternative fund into which people could pay the money they were withholding and then borrow it back to install insulation or draught-proofing; finally the strikes to start in December ’79. Other groups would no doubt come up with other ideas, adding to that, refining it, even changing it basically. The point is that such a campaign should be planned in concert.

The first French partial electricity bill strike involved less than 200 households – I suspect that was a result of casual planning, as I’d want to set that number as a target for the York area alone. Maybe I sound plodding and serious at this point; where’s the joy and spontaneity of nonviolent resistance in all this? Well, there is scope for fun – people could arrange to visit their electricity boards to pay their bills together and make a spectacle of it, we could have switch-off parties – but organising corporate action with people living in separate, sometimes isolated, households, and on a usually private matter, will also be hard work.

Before a major campaign of civil disobedience, Gandhi liked to call a hartal – traditionally this had been a religious event when people would close shops and suspend work as a sign of mourning or as an act of self-dedication. For Gandhi, it was a means of gauging the strength of support by some act of voluntary renunciation. A switch-off hour (or longer, or shorter) could be a similar ‘prelude to direct action’ in the event of a bill strike. Collecting signatures for a safe energy declaration could be another indicator of support. Moving on from the stand people can take in their own homes, there are possibilities for liaising with them in their organisations – unions, civil liberties groups, anti-imperialist groups and on outwards, trad political groups – to inconvenience, embarrass or pressure the nuclear industry, and in some cases perhaps refuse co-operation. That’s very vague because the coalitions which are possible depend very much on the local situation, who’s involved in what. Anyhow, I’m not trying to propose detailed outlines for campaigns within campaigns. Instead I’d rather recommend people to use the ‘training techniques’ described in the accompanying box to help their groups think more clearly about strategy.

Training techniques


Series Brainstorm: To ‘brainstorm’, I think it’s best to have a group no bigger than 12; split into two if necessary. The group sets itself a task – ‘how can nuclear power be stopped?’ – and a time limit. Someone agrees to write down suggestions and people call out ideas in as brief a form as possible, without any discussion, comment or argument. After the first brainstorm, the group discusses which ideas it wants to pursue and, in a series brainstorm, they will then brainstorm one particular line they want to campaign on, ideas for activities, and so on. This method is useful for discovering new means to achieve the aims, and also new areas for activity.


Strategy game: First, you think of a situation reasonably relevant to your group and split into two or three groups. If the situation were Torness at the moment, one group would be our campaign and another the South of Scotland Electricity Board. Each group goes into a separate room to workout their plans. After 15 minutes or so they write down their initial plans and submit them to two umpires. These umpires check out the reality of certain plans – if a demonstration is called, they decide how many come; if injunctions are sought, they decide how the court responds. The umpires then communicate each side’s plans to its opponents, and so the game continues until some sort of climax is reached. Generally this game takes at least three hours. Umpires can introduce complications (newspaper scandals, revisions in the nuclear budget). Each group can suggest a role-play (a public debate, television confrontation) if they want. Sometimes it’s useful to have a third group – say the police or judiciary to respond to civil disobedience. After the game comes the evaluation when people discuss contingency plans they may have had and the merits of particular tactics. The main points of this game are to encourage people to look beyond the next particular action and to be aware of the options available to their opponents.


Social Speedometer: To show the spectrum of opinion in a community on the issue, you draw a diagram like a speedometer, marking points from Very Hostile to Actively Involved. The group then discusses who falls into which category and lists them. This speedometer represents the state of the community at the start of a campaign. Late in the campaign, one group has moved clockwise from Very Hostile to Hostile, and another from Very Friendly to Actively Involved. The group can think up how to move each group clockwise, and ought to take into account that what pleases one group might upset another so certain balances need to be struck. This tool helps to stop people seeing public opinion as an undifferentiated lump.


This article first appeared in Peace News on 15 December 1978. 

About the author

Howard Clark was a civil resistance scholar, peace activist and chair of War Resisters’ International. His most recent book is People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (London: Pluto 2009)


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