Faslane 365: Mobilising communities to abolish nuclear weapons - Rebecca Johnson

Article originally published in the summer of 2007.

Since starting a year-long non-violent blockade of the Faslane nuclear weapons base in Scotland on October 1st last year, Faslane 365 has involved thousands of people from all over the world. With two months to go, the campaign is now gearing up towards October 1st 2007, when many will be returning for a unified Big Blockade, aiming to close the base completely.

Actions over the year have been as varied as the people who have participated: large or small, carefully planned or serendipitously chaotic; some were poignantly funny, such as the Spanish group that covered themselves in slippery blood-red paint before lying down (imagine the MoD cleaning bill), while some were unbearably moving, as when a group of elderly Hibakusha (survivors) of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings laid paper peace cranes across the mouth of the gate and sang songs about preventing nuclear weapons destroying anywhere else in the world. Then they sat down, defying police orders to move. The blockades have ranged from bagpipes and ceilidhs to dawn lock-ons and tripods in the road that closed all the gates for over an hour. Among those arrested there have been Members of the Scottish and European Parliaments, a UN Assistant Secretary-General and his family, renowned writers and musicians, doctors, nurses, community workers, unwaged (but hardworking) activists, scientists, cyclists, mixed choirs, women in wheelchairs, grannies for peace, representatives from various faiths, students with their arms locked together while their professors sat on camp stools in front of the North Gate and held a 6-hour seminar (in the pouring rain)…

What was the purpose of spending all this time and energy? What has it achieved? What was it intended to achieve? What lessons can be learnt?

First, at a time when the majority of British public opinion is portrayed as uninterested in nuclear issues, a primary objective was to raise awareness and opposition to Tony Blair’s precooked decision to renew Britain’s nuclear weapon system, Trident. But Faslane 365 aimed to do more than raise awareness. We wanted directly to disrupt the military-nuclear machine and stimulate a regrowth in non-violent community-based activism on peace, justice and environmental issues.

By blockading the base, we are disrupting what we see as immoral and illegal nuclear deployments; in effect, the citizens being arrested and dragged from the gates of Faslane are the people who are actually upholding the law. In deploying nuclear weapons – and even more so in plotting to procure the next generation – it is the British government that is breaching humanitarian law and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty obligations it has undertaken. Preventing nuclear business-as-usual then becomes a citizen’s duty, enshrined in the Nuremburg Principles. One reason why so few arrests have resulted in prosecution is that the ‘Authorities’ do not want the courts clogged up with hundreds of non-violent protesters determined to show that nuclear weapons are illegal as well as being immoral, inhumane and incapable of contributing to our real security.

But passion and having right on our side are not enough to bring about political change. The yearlong blockading of Faslane was part of a political strategy to break the nuclear chain at its weakest link – Scotland. The deployment of Trident relies on the naval base at Faslane and a facility for storing and fitting nuclear warheads, built into a rock-face at Coulport, a few miles away. But the overwhelming majority of Scottish people want nuclear weapons taken out of their country. This was underscored on June 14 by a vote in the Scottish Parliament in which 71 MSPs voted against Trident, with only 16 (all Tories) voting to keep it. The Scottish Labour Party split - 5 brave souls voted with the majority who want to abolish nuclear weapons. The other 39 abstained, mostly because the replacement of Trident is official New Labour government policy, whether they agree with it or not.

Blockading Faslane puts pressure on the Scottish executive, who have to pay for the policing of the base. Debarred by the devolution agreement (The 1998 Scotland Act) from having an independent say on defence and foreign policy, the Scottish Executive is finding other ways to put legal and financial pressure on Westminster to change its nuclear policy. In one important example, there are moves afoot to charge the Ministry of Defence one billion pounds per warhead that travels on Scotland’s roads to and from Coulport. The grounds are the serious environmental and safety risks when these live warheads are transported in frequent convoys from the nuclear bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield and use routes such as the M8 or M9 past Edinburgh and the A82 past Loch Lomond. Danger money might also be levied for the nuclear weapons carried through Scottish lochs on the Trident nuclear submarines.

A further challenge initiated by Faslane 365 and now taken up, is the argument that London cannot use the Scotland Act to impose Trident on Scotland when the renewal, use and threatened use (and therefore deployment) of these nuclear weapons contravene obligations and undertakings in international law. This is the basis for the ‘Prevention of Crimes Committed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (Scotland) Bill 2007’, sponsored by Michael Matheson MSP, which underscores that Scotland has legal as well as moral and political grounds to reject having Trident.

If Scotland succeeds in rejecting Trident, London would be hard put to find an alternative base for its nuclear weapons, which would greatly add to the political pressure on the UK government to move from nuclear re-armament to disarmament. In so doing, Britain would become the first nuclear power to take on board the 21st century reality that nuclear weapons are a security problem, not a security asset. By transferring our resources to devaluing and abolishing nuclear weapons, Britain could give an enormous boost to international security and non-proliferation.

But of course the issues that have to be addressed go far wider than getting rid of Trident. As exposed in the Blair government’s White Paper and hurried debate on Trident renewal leading up to the ‘three-line-whipped’ vote on March 14, the justifications for getting the next generation of nuclear weapons are very thin. Relying on scaremongering about ‘unknown unknowns’ and outdated notions of deterrence, they equate nuclear weapons with an insurance policy - justifications that could function as proliferation drivers for any nation on earth to acquire their own weapons of mass destruction. Not only do nuclear weapons provide no more insurance than voodoo medicine, but they are also no answer to the real threats we face, which include climate change and terrorism. On the contrary, they contribute to additional WMD threats and get in the way of international efforts to implement coherent security and disarmament policies.

Instead of wasting resources on a capability to threaten mass annihilation, we need to learn to think in different ways about war and peace, and base our defence and security on international cooperation, justice and sustainable development. Overwhelming national force and armaments are now as irrelevant for human security as bows and arrows had become by the 17th century. Terrorism and climate change will not be defeated by nuclear weapons – or even by smart bombs and the suspension of our hard-won civil liberties. We need greater understanding of the causes (including our own roles and practices) and better policy options for dealing with them.

Laws and restrictions enacted under the guise of combating terrorists are now being employed to rob us of human and democratic rights that were painstakingly won during centuries of civil resistance against despotism and tyranny. So Faslane 365’s approach has been to challenge militarism directly while also building a broader, stronger community of activists and resisters who would learn from each other’s struggles and campaigns, share ideas and give support. For this purpose, the 6-person steering group has sought to facilitate rather than organise. Making extensive use of website and internet, we have provided detailed briefings for blockading groups, encouraging them to do the planning, practicalities and decision-making for their particular actions themselves. In most cases this has worked, and people have been so energised and inspired by blockading together that group-members have kept in touch and often gone on to organise further blockades at Faslane or other kinds of non-violent actions at local bases or facilities.

Faslane 365 developed out of a long history of non-violent opposition to nuclear weapons, drawing from the successes of the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp of the 1980s and decades of protest at Faslane itself, from the peace camp to Trident Ploughshares. It added its own unique contribution, encouraging concerned people to form groups and organise autonomously, and take responsibility for one or two days of a collective action extending over the whole year. Each blockading group then posted its stories and pictures on the website for all to share.

October 1st may be the finishing line of the first phase of Faslane 365, but it is by no means the end of the struggle to rid Scotland, Britain and the world of nuclear weapons. On September 30th, representatives from many of the groups will gather in Glasgow to discuss future strategy and plan for the next stage. Civil resistance is not an end in itself, but a tool of mobilisation, pressure and change. It works best when placed in a broader political context that includes education about the issues, analysis of the security environment, alternative thinking about how to address the problems, and participation in (and strengthening of) democratic institutions, including informing and lobbying elected representatives.

Rebecca Johnson is a member of the Faslane 365 Steering Group and a former Senior Advisor to the International Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Hans Blix.