Review: “The Peace Protestors – A history of modern-day war resistance” by Symon Hill. Pen and Sword, 2022, UK£25 (hardback), 264 pages.
Review by Rob Fairmichael
This is a well researched, well written account of peace campaigning in the UK in the last forty or so years, since around 1980. Symon Hill is also a well known British peace activist who has worked for both CAAT/Campaign Against Arms Trade and PPU/Peace Pledge Union. It is a major undertaking and judging what to put in and what omit in a book of this sort is a massive task in itself.
One surprise is in the title in that no geographical attribution is given, and there is no explanation inside about his geographical unit of reference being the UK. It is to his credit however that he attempts to include Northern Ireland which may ‘look two ways’ but is indeed part of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. There are further reflections on the Northern Irish angle below.
The book is more or less chronological and divided into twelve chapters, some of which are single issue themed (the development of the Greenham Common women’s protest, the Falklands/Malvinas war, etc) and some of which cover a variety of issues. He has done his research well and able to quote from many different activists, new and old, which gives the book a very human dimension.
He also traces certain themes through the book, such as the development of nonviolent direct action (a major theme) and increasing public opposition or resistance to war. Both are encouraging developments though it remains to be seen how increased Tory legal penalisation of protest (of all kinds) works out in the longer term – in suppression of vocal dissent or in increased public sympathy for protesters. Only 22% were opposed to the Falklands war under Thatcher after it had happened. By the time we get to the Iraq war, or the possibility of British bombing in Syria, a majority of the population were opposed. One possible paradox he refers to is a high level of support for the British army but also a high level of opposition to being involved in war. Iraq and Afghanistan do of course receive considerable attention in later chapters.
I certainly got a good sense of the development of the peace movement in Britain over the period concerned, and I don’t even live on the island of Britain (though I am in the UK jurisdiction). Being involved in networking and various conferences and events in Britain over the years it was good to see a significant number of names that I could put faces to – and many, many more that I could not. While Northern Ireland is included in his coverage it is obviously mainly ‘island of Britain’ and it was interesting to read about, and try to come to terms with, the peace movement somewhere I am not generally involved.
While he gives relatively good coverage of Northern Irish involvement in international peace issues, and tries to cover Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ issues, it is in relation to the latter that I find difficulties. The first difficulty is that the Troubles began well before his starting point of 1980 (a starting point which makes sense in relation to international peace issues but not in relation to the Troubles) so early groups and happenings such as Corrymeela, early local peace action, Witness for Peace, the Feakle talks, Northern Ireland Peace Forum, Peace People etc are outside this starting point (although both Corrymeela and the Peace People are mentioned). So he is taking up the story a decade into the Troubles.
Having a conflict right on your doorstep and ‘in your home’ is also qualitatively different to working in opposition to war and conflict elsewhere, and one’s own country’s role in it. The significance of a death or killing for a family and friends is universal however, whether it be on a street, lane, village or countryside in Northern Ireland or in Afghanistan. Despite the attempt to cover some important aspects of the Troubles I feel that some paragraphs here and there do not fit well what was needed. It would not have gone with his chronological ordering but for me the only way to include and deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles would have been in a separate chapter which might have made this coverage both more cohesive and comprehensive.
But there is a huge amount to cover and convey and he does a remarkable job in his couple of hundred pages – and there are 35 pages of references and an index of another 16 pages.
Errors and omissions can creep in to any work, even the best planned. Presumably his reliance on PPU archives leads him to state that the PPU made it a priority to support pacifist groups in Northern Ireland such as the peace camp at Bishopscourt (page 45). While it may have been covered in PPU publications, I am not aware of any direct PPU support, and I was a Belfast organiser for Bishopscourt peace camp. The PPU did however show an active interest in Northern Ireland issues and produced a couple of pamphlets on it, and later on the Northern Ireland Working Group of the National Peace Council, which would have included PPU involvement, was involved (the NPC became defunct in 2000). Something like BWNIC (British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign), which was directly anti-militarist, was also before his starting point.
One omission which perhaps needs correction is in his reference to a failed attempt to get a statement together involving British pacifists and Adolfo Perez Esquivel and other Argentinian activists about the Falklands/Malvinas war, in 1982. (page 21) There was subsequently a joint statement made by Esquivel and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, both Nobel Peace Laureates, and while the latter might identify as Northern Irish rather than British it happened within the boundaries of the UK. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/27350563020/in/dateposted/
Repression, police spies, attempts at greater militarisation (‘Armed Forces Day’ etc) and inculcation of militarism in young people are all part of the resistance by the British state to moves away from war. What is quite shocking, and I didn’t know or if I ever did I had certainly forgotten, was British army generals publicly expressing opposition to, and even threatening mutiny against, a Jeremy Corbyn government over Trident and NATO (page 191).
In ending, I would like to quote a couple of great anecdotes – which do your heart and activism good – from the book. In 1985, at a time of turbulence in international relations, the USA bombed Libya. During a resulting demonstration in London “…two pacifists, Pippa Marriott and Richard Yarwood….noticed that Selfridge’s in Oxford Street had a display of national flags flying from the roof……they managed to make it all the way to the roof without being stopped. They lowered the United States flag and replaced it with a Peace Pledge Union banner. There were cheers from people in the street. The two activists were banned from Selfridge’s for life.” (page 66)
And at a time of mass demonstrations against the war in Iraq in early 2003, the Stop the War Coalition had a phone call taken by Ghada Razuki there. “A woman called up and said, ‘I can’t come to the demo because I’m very old and not very mobile. So I said, ‘That’s OK. What if I send you a few flyers that you can have in your home and if someone comes round you can give it to them?’ And she said, ‘No, no, my dear, you don’t understand – I’m going to go and lie down on the M3.’” ! (page 130)
An interesting aside is the title of the publishers – Pen & Sword – who are mainly publishers of military history. In my understanding the words ‘pen and sword’ are contained in the aphorism that “The pen is mightier than the sword’, which is almost an admonition to nonviolence. If they are publishers of mainly military history it seems a strange title for them to have; yes, it may be the pen about the sword but it begs the question about whether the pen is mightier. I hope that Symon Hill’s book might be a small indication that it can be.
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