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From ‘Operation Gandhi’ to a prison escape: Michael Randle’s well-lived life

New book ‘Ban the Bomb’, a delightful combination of biography and autobiography, explores Randle’s extraordinary commitment to achieving peace

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 October 2021, 12.00am
Michael Randle, then chair of War Resisters' International, points at leaflets in support of Czechoslovakia, September 1968
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Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Early in 1961, an MI6 officer, George Blake, came under suspicion for spying for the Soviet Union. He was arrested, tried in a closed court at the Old Bailey and sentenced to five terms of imprisonment for 14 years – the maximum for the offences. To some surprise, the judge ordered three of the offences to be punished consecutively, sending Blake to jail for 42 years, the longest term given to anyone in Britain at the time for a non-life sentence.

Five years later, Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London and managed to get to East Germany and then to Moscow, where he lived until his death at the age of 98 last year. More than two decades after his escape, it emerged that the plot had been very much an amateur endeavour, instigated by Sean Bourke, an Irish prisoner whom Blake met in The Scrubs. Bourke had enlisted the help of two peace campaigners, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, who were also serving time in the prison.

The escape became a famous case and while Bourke could not be extradited from Ireland for his role in it, both Randle and Pottle were arrested and tried at the Old Bailey in 1991. Neither claimed any support for the Soviet Union, indeed one of Randle’s earliest nonviolent actions was an attempt to cross the Austrian border to Hungary in 1956 to support passive resistance by Hungarians to the Soviet occupation. Rather, both Randle and Pottle’s concern was with what they felt strongly was the inhumane treatment of Blake by the British legal system. Theirs was a position argued effectively in court and the jury found them not guilty, the decision immediately being labelled that of a ‘perverse jury’.

Pottle died in 2000 but Randle is very much with us, if remaining best known for his role in the Blake escape. That is unfair because there is so much more to his life’s work than that, and fortunately for anyone involved in peace activism, we are well served by a new book, ‘Ban the Bomb: Michael Randle and Direct Action against Nuclear War’ (Ibidem Verlag, Stuttgart, 2021), by Martin Levy, a librarian at Bradford University, where Randle studied and worked for many years.

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Randle’s concern was with he felt was the inhumane treatment of Blake by the British legal system

Levy’s book is amazing on two counts. One is the way he has written it; it is far from a conventional biography. Instead, he recorded a series of conversations, mostly with Randle but some with his wife, Anne, too. Each has been only lightly edited, and to accompany them Levy has been able to source many photographs and artefacts that illustrate much of Randle’s life.

The second is that very life: many decades of peace witness and a determination to promote nonviolent direct action, which has landed him in prison a good few times, including that famous spell in Wormwood Scrubs.

A remarkable life

The book starts with Randle’s childhood in the south of England in the 1930s and 1940s; exploring the close connections he had with his mother’s family in County Carlow and Kildare and their Republican links, his time spent at school in Ireland during the Second World War, and his Catholic upbringing. Then came the influence of the English philosopher and writer, Aldous Huxley, and later that of Gandhi, followed by his registering as a conscientious objector in his late teens.

Gandhi’s approach became a key part of Randle’s outlook in the mid-1950s, with the work of Quakers such as Hugh Brock and Kathleen Rawlins being prominent. Randle was involved in ‘Operation Gandhi’, a British pacifist group that sought to put into practice Gandhi’s thinking and stemmed from the work of the Peace Pledge Union that set up a commission in 1949 to look at the relevance of the Gandhian approach to post-war Britain.

At one point, Levy asks Randle simply: “Gandhi’s ideas being what?” To which he replies:

“Well it’s not easy to describe them succinctly. At least, it wasn’t then! But, in essence, Gandhi argued that war and violence were not inevitable, that there was an alternative method of struggle, of non-cooperation and non-violent direct action, which he called satyagraha, or truth force.”

From there we go through a remarkable life – seven decades of commitment, principally to campaigning against nuclear weapons but later with important academic contributions on alternative defence and civilian resistance, especially his work on the role of civil action in Eastern Europe on the breakup of the Soviet bloc.

After his early actions in Hungary, Randle was heavily involved, in both the UK and Ghana, in action against the French nuclear tests in Algeria. When he returned to Britain, he worked as a core member of the anti-nuclear movement in the early actions at US nuclear bases in the UK, especially the anti-war group, the Committee of 100. It was as part of this group that Randle and five others – dubbed ‘the Wethersfield Six’ – received substantial prison sentences for organising a demonstration at Wethersfield airbase in 1961. This sentence would lead to Randle’s meeting with George Blake.

Randle’s decades-long involvement with War Resisters’ International and other groups may have centred on nuclear issues, but they also involved actions against the Greek Colonels and supporting Czech resisters to Soviet suppression at the time of the Prague Spring in 1968.

But the springing of George Blake certainly did grab attention, as did the trial. Blake’s escape was an amateur effort, which involved Anne crafting a rope ladder with knitting needles for rungs. The somewhat crude plans may have helped to make the escape attempt invisible to the authorities, but they also make it all the more astonishing.

After his escape, Blake was moved between flats and houses of friends in London, before being smuggled out of the country and across northern Europe in the hidden compartment of a campervan driven by Randle and Anne, who appeared to be taking their two young boys on holiday.

In the more recent past, from the early 1980s onwards, Randle has combined his actions with academic work. While his own books and teachings are important, perhaps his most significant contribution is his six years of coordinating the work of the Bradford University-based Alternative Defence Commission, especially its first volume, ‘Defence Without the Bomb’, as well as three more books.

Levy’s ‘Ban the Bomb’ is an unusual but rather delightful combination of biography and autobiography, gently edited and something of a page-turner, not least because it concerns a life very well lived.

When Levy was completing the book, he kindly asked me to write a brief preface. I ended it with the following passage about Michael Randle:

“In his own quiet way, and with no fuss, he persists in his optimism against the odds and serves as a remarkable inspiration to many. This is a fitting tribute to a remarkable person.”

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