Aldermaston: the UK’s nuclear legacy

As the British government looks to cut its spending, little sense exists in developing a new Nuclear weapons program.

A protestor holds a Campaign for Nuclear
"The associated dangers and health risks of the many atmospheric nuclear weapons tests taking place at that time, very much contributed to popular fear and were central to the founding of CND in early 1958," writes Hudson[AFP]

The village of Aldermaston in Berkshire (United Kingdom) is forever linked, in history and the public imagination, with nuclear weapons – and with protest against them. It has given its name to the Atomic Weapons Establishment, where Britain’s nuclear warheads are produced. And it has given its name to the marches which launched the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament onto the British and world stage in the late 1950s. Those early marches – and CND itself – were inextricably linked to the social radicalisation of the time.

They articulated both widespread popular dissent and the social rebellion of the youth of that era. In many respects it was through the early mobilsations of the anti-nuclear movement that the radical politics of what were to become the new social movements were first expressed. Early sociological studies showed that many of CND’s early supporters had no formal faith or politics, and were more concerned about ‘working for a more humane society than in finding themselves a good job’. In particular, surveys found that there was an immediacy to campaigners’ concerns: ‘They believed that the bomb immediately threatened the future of civilization, that it had to be banned very quickly or Armageddon would come first.’

As anti-nuclear campaigners prepare to return to Aldermaston for a CND protest this Easter Monday, how much have things changed in the intervening 55 years? Two things strike me in particular. Firstly, the extent to which the political context has changed. 1958 was the height of the Cold War and the sense of the immediacy and overwhelming nature of the nuclear threat permeated the consciousness of very many people. The associated dangers and health risks of the many atmospheric nuclear weapons tests taking place at that time, very much contributed to popular fear and were central to the founding of CND in early 1958.

It was that sense of imminent disaster, resurfacing again in the early 1980s in response to the siting of cruise and Pershing missiles in western Europe, that led to the mass expansion of CND and the radicalisation of a whole new generation – myself included. 

In the post-Cold War world, that sense of imminent and direct threat from nuclear weapons has waned, and rightly so. We no longer face any direct state-on-state nuclear threat, as everyone from former prime minister Tony Blair to the current UK government’s National Security Strategy (NSS) are only too happy to admit. Indeed the NSS has downgraded such a danger to a tier two threat, instead recognising terrorism, climate change, pandemics, cyber warfare and other very modern dangers as the primary risks that we face. Secondly, the extent to which opposition to nuclear weapons has become a thoroughly mainstream affair. 

While CND certainly retains its radical edge and still has moments of protest chic – iconic fashion designer Katharine Hamnett has produced two new t-shirts for Monday’s protest – the cause has been thoroughly embraced by the majority of the British population, including many former Cold Warriors. 

Senior military figures now routinely describe Britain’s nuclear weapons system Trident as useless. Previously pro-nuclear politicians are speaking out, even at the highest level.  Former Tory Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, who served with Mrs Thatcher, describes it as ‘completely past its sell-by date’. And recently Des Browne, the Labour Defence Secretary who pushed Trident replacement through Parliament in 2007, has said that Trident is ‘neither strategically sound nor economically viable’. 

In all parties, attitudes are changing. The reasons for this are obvious. Trident can no longer credibly be claimed to meet our security needs. But above all, for the vast majority of people opposed, the issue comes down to the cost. 

Last week’s budget unveiled additional billions in cuts and the British people are paying the price. The government’s economic policies are hitting ordinary people very hard.  

Yet at the same time the government spends £3bn a year on nuclear weapons and plans to spend over £100bn on building and maintaining a replacement for Trident. Why is it that the government says there is no money for social services and supporting the welfare of the most vulnerable in society but can find endless money for nuclear weapons, wars and interventions? I recall that millions of pounds were suddenly found for missiles to attack Libya two years ago, at the same time as we were told there was no money for people’s actual needs.

In the eyes of many, scrapping Trident and opposing its replacement are part of the economic and political alternative which would mean more for education, health and social services and less for posturing with weapons of mass destruction on a world stage where the vast majority of the global audience wants nuclear disarmament too. With the £100bn planned for Trident replacement, we could invest in building 30,000 new homes every year, creating 60,000 jobs. We could quadruple our annual investment in renewable energy. Or we could fully fund all A&E services in UK hospitals for the next 40 years. 

For all these reasons and more – the moral, legal and humanitarian issues at the heart of our movement – we are going to Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory again. We are closer to nuclear disarmament than we have ever been – please help us make it sooner rather than later.

Dr Kate Hudson was chair of the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 2003 to September 2010, when she became general secretary. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner nationally and internationally.