Monday, March 25, 2013

Spies for Peace 1963: An Example of Libertarian Direct Action

Fifty years ago this Easter a small group of individuals associated with the Committee of 100 and/or Solidarity found detailed plans to be implemented by the British government in the event of nuclear war, a contingency which was clearly considered to be on the cards and which those in positions of power intended to survive, however few people were left for them to govern.
The  initial semi-accidental discovery in February 1963 was of RSG6, the Regional Seat of Government at Warren Row, fortuitously close to the route of the CND march from Aldermaston that Easter weekend.  In the intervening weeks there was a return visit, better organised, in which photos were taken, maps traced, documents transcribed or appropriated, and a spectacular publicity coup was prepared.  A duplicated pamphlet, Danger -  Official Secret! was distributed by post to make the information (which included a list of the other RSGs and register of occupants).as widely available as possible without disclosing the identities of the ‘Spies’, who risked punitive jail sentences if caught. They never were. The revelations were reported in the national media on Easter Sunday, and large numbers of the marchers, favouring direct action, chose to take the route to RSG6 in defiance of the ‘respectable’ organisers.

All the considerable efforts of the police and security services failed to discover those responsible. Files reveal how seriously the state took the matter, believing the yarn that an inside tip-off was behind it and debating whether to revise the policy on selecting staff for the RSGs. 

Now that those sinister places have been relegated to Cold War history, metamorphosed into tourist attractions – which is not to say that the mindset behind their creation has been reformed and rendered harmless – it may be difficult to realise the shock effect their existence produced. To quote Natasha Walter:
Although it had long been common knowledge among the elite that there was a secret system for wartime government survival, it came as a shock to ordinary people that their rulers were making detailed plans to fight a nuclear war and to ensure the survival only of the politicians and civil servants, without any democratic consent.
 It took a long time for the RSGs to become the bizarre heritage sites they seem to be today, but the futile farce of ‘Civil Defence’ in the context of nuclear war was decisively exposed. There were follow-up exposés, publications and demonstrations in various parts of the country for yeas after.
The action was carried out by a small number of libertarians acting on their own initiative, its impact ensured by careful planning, without leaders or ‘discipline’, and by a network of committed trustworthy supporters. It encouraged the more radical, activist elements in the anti-war movement and is perceived to have influenced many subsequent protesters.
Something like the full story has only recently been told.
Sources / Further Reading
Sam Carroll, Danger -  Official Secret! and the Spies for Peace: discretion and disclosure in the Committee of 100. History Workshop Journal, Spring 2010: (no. 69) pp.158-176.  The most complete and well-authenticated account there is likely to be, using interviews with participants; sympathetic and thoughtful analysis from a Life History Research viewpoint.
Natasha Walter, ‘How my father spied for peace’, New Statesman, May 20, 2002. The essentials of the story as heard from well-known anarchist Nicolas Walter and some others.
Cabinet Office File, CAB 21/6027 Security significance of Membership of the CND and other Unilater[al]ist Organisations: “in light of Spies for Peace incident, to consider if any special security arrangements may be required for RSG staff…” “desirability of avoiding political embarrassment such as resulted from Spies for Peace incident” etc. In relation to the next training exercise “FALLEX 65, May '65: “Detailed information on the probable extent of slaughter and devastation will necessarily be given; clearly ought not to be given to an active CND supporter; undeclared sympathiser might yield to emotion as probably happened in 62.” (Quotes from notes made when reading the file in the National Archives).
Peter Laurie, ‘Can a secret be SECRET if it isn’t actually secret?’ New Scientist July 13 1978 pp.96-99.       “I have often been asked why, after so much fuss had been made about ‘Spies for Peace’ in 1963, there was no objection to my book [Beneath the City Streets] four years later, which in some respects went a good deal further.  I think the answer is that in 1963 the government was in the middle of the huge and urgent task of moving its war infrastructure from under and around the major cities, where it had been buried against the Russian atom bomb of 1953, out to the country where it might be safe against the Russian H bomb of 1961.  Angry public debate about the ethics of sheltering the top brass while the rest of us fried in the fall-out might delay this essential work. But by 1967 it was mostly done.”
Matthew Grant, After the Bomb: Civil Defence and Nuclear War in Britain, 1945-68. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.  Review at <> says it “shows that building shelters for all of the 11 million 'key workers' required to keep Britain running in the event of a nuclear strike would have cost £32 million more than the entire NHS budget for the same period.”
Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War. Allen Lane,  London, 2002. See pp. 164-8Probable nuclear targets in the United Kingdom: Assumptions for planning. Also gives a mention of the ‘Spies for Peace’ episode, which likewise featured in a National Archives exhibition Hennessy curated a few years ago.
N J McCanley, Cold War Secret Bunkers.  Barnsley, Leo Cooper/Pen & Sword, 2002. Gives the text of Danger - Official Secret! (pp. 166- 171) in full saying that it “encapsulated the distrust, fear and feelings of a generation”. 

Anti-War and Anti-Nuclear Protest: An Overview

Note by Alan Woodward circulated prior to the Radical History Network of NE London meeting, with Pat Arrowsmith, on 13 February 2008. Reproduced in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Spies for Peace (Easter 1963).
 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at 50 years
This month RaHN examines the history of one of the most popular organisations for peace,  the CND, and is asking one of the earliest members, Pat,  to speak.  Of course the story of anti-war and anti-arms movements goes back before 1958. In the First World War, conscientious objectors  were treated with the cruelty that we have come to associate with the ruling class, both then and now.  Their treatment would qualify for a war crimes trial today  but it is hidden under the carpet most of the time.

The interwar years saw some considerable progress, with the War Resisters International  and Peace Pledge Union being formed, and Peace News being established.  The pacifist movement , remembering the slaughter of WW1, was strong and well supported.  But WW2 presented a drastic choice:  if Hitler did occupy Britain, then labour movement activists, Jewish people, gays and the disabled, etc.,  were likely to be sent to concentration camps.  This prompted  many to reluctantly accept a position of fighting in the war, not to defend a phoney democracy, or a so-called Socialist State, but purely in self defence -  the “working class policy”, as it was called.

Aldermaston 1963 (showing "Greece" banner)
All these considerations were dwarfed by the invention of nuclear power and from 1945, it was the survival of the human race at issue, despite the secrecy of the government’s plans.  In a few short years, there were enough A and H bombs  to destroy the whole world several times over.  The CND was
formed, consisting of traditional pacifists, labour  and trade union people, groups like the Quakers and countless individuals,  and from 1958  grew to become the most  powerful movement for decades.

Many of the more militant were critical of the CND mainstream approach. However big the annual Easter March to, or from, Aldermaston would become, they argued that this  display of people power could be ignored by government.  So the Committee of !00 was formed which carried out direct
action  - sit downs, occupations  etc - and local groups and special sub groups like the Industrial Committee carried out these tasks. In truth the resolution had got through the Labour Party Conference but was reversed the following year. Invading the ‘post war’ Regional Seats of Government sounded better [
RSGs – this is where Spies for Peace come in].

Active members of CND and Youth CND transformed local politics and revived many libertarian organisations  as well as others.  The Wilson government seemed to promise  change but it was soon embroiled, by association, with the American war in Vietnam.  Old Labour disappointed its supporters much as New Labour has done.  New campaigners joined old hands in the fight for banning the bomb.

Jumping forward some years, the nuclear arming of submarines and the use of rockets generally, saw a re-birth in the 1980s.  Many military bases were besieged  not just by the women at Greenham.  The total futility of government plans for protection  at the outbreak of nuclear war were exposed. Protect and Survive was overwhelmed by Protest and Survive.  New groups sprang up  as protesters  against the arms trade reflected the appalling consequences of third world societies with little resources,
killing off millions of civilians  with tin pot wars.  Anti-colonialism disintegrated into petty dictatorships.

Today many see the potential disaster of climate warming as the chief concern but the capitalist market is still as incompatible  with world peace as a sustainable society. War and its catastrophes could end the world before the consequences of  climate change come fully into effect.
So the struggle against both goes  on.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


In 1832 the women of the United Kingdom were excluded from the Parliamentary franchise.

After 71 years this injustice remained.

In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed.
This is the story told through their own eyes …

A lecture by writer/director Nigel Shephard, who will be presenting his work so far on the film Banners and Broad Arrows. He tells the story of 
the Suffragette Movement from its inception in 1903 to its demise at the outbreak of war in 1914, using original still photographs taken by the Suffragettes themselves. Please come along to demonstrate your support at this first fundraising event to take the film into full production.


Many pictures only recently released from the Official Secrets Act

* Never previously published photographs smuggled from Holloway prison
* Meet the director and share in developing ideas for the film
* Rare opportunity to discover the history of the suffragettes through
their own photographs

Tickets on sale now (this is a fundraising event for the Feminism in London 2013 conference)