Races Against Time – Chapter 6

Nearly 40 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I was preparing to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in a ‘safe’ conservative seat, I published 6 essays in a booklet entitled ‘Races Against Time’. The sad truth is that much of what I was warning about at that time, when ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a term, is still crying out for action.  I still stand by the words written in my thirties but am desperately disappointed that so little has changed in spite of the millions of good people, including my grand children, who have expressed the urgency to act.  

Let’s act now – or it really will be too late.

  1. The Power of Plutonium: Written 3 years before the Chernobyl disaster.
  2. Burning It Up: Addressing scandalous energy inequality and waste.
  3. Transport of Delight: Domination of the car and loss of our rail network.
  4. Economy & Equity: Conservation, population, food, and the Third World.
  5. Raping the Benefits: Global control of the commodity markets. 
  6. Breach of the Peace: Russia and the existential threat of nuclear war.


“If you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” (Gandhi).

Liberals know what it is like to be in a minority, but we persist in the belief that one day, whether it be at the coming election or the next, we will succeed in breaking through those barriers that stand in our way. My overwhelming conviction is that governments have pulled and lured the population in the wrong direction for so long that their massive deceit has become institutionalised. The politicians have made the course and we are all supposed to run around it. We have a choice of pursuing the blinkered race or stopping to think where we are racing to and what for.

In this series of six essays, for they are no more than that, I try to give emphasis to some of the matters that concern me most. They are not the standard economic and social issues that dominate our politics, but they have a fundamental effect on our lives, on our welfare and work, and on our continued existence. I give priority to those areas that I see as a threat to our existence and hope to alert as many people as possible. I ask that these chapters are read with an open mind and that it is seen as a document of hope and not despair – hope that if we all do a little we can win these races against time.

“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Those were Bristol M.P. Edmund Burke’s words 200 years ago and this pamphlet is my small contribution to that sentiment.

George Ferguson

Bristol 1st May 1983

Breach of the Peace

A primary school playground in the dinner hour, on the outskirts of Leningrad. Children playing, running and screaming with delight. Tears from a child with a grazed knee and comfort from a sympathetic teacher. The sun is shining, but suddenly the sky gets brighter, the children look towards the light and their screams of pleasure become screams of pain as in seconds they are hit by a searing heat. They cannot see. They run in panic. Suddenly there is nobody there that can tell them what to do and where to go. Suddenly they are all alone. Flesh melts off their faces just before a roaring and thunderous wind picks them up and flings them through windows and walls of their school buildings. They are the lucky ones.

Beyond the school, survivors of the Cruise missile attack on Kronstadt Naval Base eventually die a slow and agonising death. Those that survive the pain and damage of their sizzling bodies will be left to starve. The wind will blow over the countryside and the invisible deadly dust will settle. The farming families, with little interest in world affairs, will dehydrate through vomiting and diarrhoea. Their water supplies, if any remain, will be poisoned and they will be left in the dark, without communications, without medical help, to eat their contaminated food. I hate to paint the picture. I am sick to death of hearing such descriptions, but unless we face the consequences of carrying out the threats on which our fragile ‘peace’ is supposed to rely then the arguments about disarmament and deterrence are reduced to the level of a giant international poker game.

On 12 December 1982 40,000 women staged the most significant demonstration that this country has seen since the end of The Second World War. They were dismissed by our Minister for the Armed Forces as being ‘woolly minds in woolly hats’, but they were women from all walks of life, of all ages, many of them making a public protest for the first time in their lives, in a desperate plea for the world to cry halt to this madness. This was no flash in the pan, no rent-a-crowd, but the culmination of a long and patient protest, a cold, wet and uncomfortable protest by a group of dedicated women who felt that they could best serve their families and friends by campaigning for peace. “If non-violence is the basis of our future the future is with women” (Gandhi). I would like to think that we all have a role to play in moving towards a saner way of maintaining our future. Only a maniac could want anything other than peace and I am charitable enough to believe that even those that make the warlike noises, and political warmongerers who denigrate the work of CND and other peace movements, and use cheap slur to attack their leaders, do so because they think they have a better way to maintain peace.

A complicated argument is polarising, and simplistic terms are being used by both sides to describe their own positions and to insult the others. A barbed wire fence is being built between ‘unilateralism’ and ‘multilateralism’ and the followers and cheer leaders are queuing up behind their favourite teams. If there is to be a fence, it should be between those who genuinely want to work for nuclear disarmament and those few, those very few, who foster fear and aggression and are prepared to risk the unthinkable for their own political ends.

There is political capital to be made in exaggerating the threat of our enemies. It is an age old device that diverts attention from domestic troubles. Our leaders try conveniently to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. The ‘moral majority’ in the United States preach a message of hatred and anti communism that deeply shocks most visitors from this country and is, in many ways, a more sinister threat than the evil that they profess to be guarding us from. They have an ally in their President. It is this paranoid attitude that prevents us from planning a transfer from escalation, and the inevitable consequences of accident or lunacy leading to nuclear war, to a reduction in these godless weapons and the shifting of funds and research and development to beneficial means.

Albert Einstein wisely said that, “mere praise of peace is easy, but ineffective. What is needed is active participation in the fight against war and everything that leads to it”. The protests will go on, they must go on, they are the catalysts for change. They are the reason that the arms talks have been kept alive and why governments will find it increasingly difficult to continue to play their war games at our expense. Even the authors of the ‘NATO Review’ concede that anti war movements act as powerful reminders of some basic cravings of democratic societies. They argue however, that they are used by the enemies of democracy and that “anti war, anti nuclear, pacifist and neutralist movements can be an expression of immature political thinking”. This is written by old men who are convinced of the aggressive and expansionist intent of the Soviet Union. It would be folly to ignore their experience and their warnings as it would be to accept their conclusions without question.

The justification of the deterrent theory is that catastrophic consequences of nuclear warfare are known to be so great that neither side would ever attack. The weakness of this argument lies in the necessity for the protagonists to convince their enemies that they are actually willing to use these weapons. The only way that they can do this is to convince themselves that they are prepared to carry out this ultimate destruction and global suicide on our behalf. Is there anything that we have that is worth so much that we are prepared to allow our governments to use this grotesque threat and presumed intent in order to protect it? It is on a moral level several times worse than prospective parents threatening to torture and murder, with intent, the children in that Leningrad playground because they do not like the curriculum and fear that their children will have to learn the same. Believers in nuclear deterrents justify their stance by pointing to the peace in Europe and the freedom from global conflict for the last 38 years since the Second World War, but it has been an unstable peace during which the two super powers have built up a large enough armoury of nuclear weapons to destroy each other, and the rest of us, several times over. The risk of disaster due to technical or human error must now be rated higher than it was only two or three years ago.

Even if we are to succeed in restricting the holding of nuclear weapons to the United States and Soviet Union there must be a high likelihood that we will have nuclear war within the next thirty years. The American move away from deterrents based on mutual assured destruction, MAD, to the possibility of fighting a nuclear war that can be won brings the probable disaster even closer.

But it is not only the super powers that have these weapons. We have them, France and China have them and India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, and Argentina, Brazil and Chile could all be preparing to make their own nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty has not prevented the diversion of weapon quality plutonium from civil reactors. Some of these countries may already be in secret possession of nuclear weapons.

Our government claims a commitment to non-proliferation but the arguments it uses for the maintenance of our own independent deterrent give justification to other states becoming nuclear powers.

We cannot disinvent nuclear weapons. We cannot disinvent the gallows. This is an argument for retaining every single evil deterrent that man has devised.

We know that we can dismantle nuclear weapons, but can we begin to dismantle the very real fears that have been built up on both sides? It would be foolish for any Westerner to claim certain knowledge of Russian intentions. We know what they did in Czechoslovakia. We know what they did in Afghanistan. In our relatively free society we strongly deplore these strong-arm tactics. Are they proof of the assertion of our government that the Soviet Union is an old fashioned expansionist power and that the ultimate aim is one of world domination? There must be little doubt that the Soviet Union would like to see a communist world, as the United States would like to see a capitalist world. To the Russians, the American involvement in Vietnam must have seemed as threatening, as is to us the Russian suppression of any sign of democracy breaking out in the many countries along its thousands of miles of border. The US involvement in Central America, or interference, (depending on your point of view) can hardly be seen as philanthropic or humanitarian.

Both sides have committed barbarous acts. To paint one side as being all bad would be as naïve as to paint the other as all good. We all dread the prospect of war, but none can dread it more than the Russians who lost over 20million people in the last world war. That is 50 times as many as Britain and almost a 100 times as many as the United States. It must be likely that a country that has suffered so much under foreign occupation would suffer a certain paranoia about the intentions of its enemies and would guard strongly against the possibility of any repetition of such a holocaust. It is presumably for this reason that the Russians have been so active in maintaining a ‘buffer’ between themselves and their ideological opposites. They have an understandable fear of any form of instability in these bordering states, which does not excuse their actions but may go some way towards explaining them.

To extrapolate this behaviour as being a direct threat to the Western world may be good propaganda for governments who have difficulty in convincing their electorates of the need to spend an increasing proportion of the national budget on preparing for war, but it is a scaremongering argument that ignores Russian history and geography. Because of the secrecy of the Kremlin decision-making and the lack of information in Russia, it is not possible categorically to deny the threat, but I do dispute the logic that is used to prove their expansionist ambitions. If one distrusts either side it is possible to read sinister motives into their actions. “One side tends to judge itself by its (peaceable) intentions, and its opponent by its (excessive) capabilities” (The Church and the Bomb).

How do we reduce the fear and suspicion that has led to this circle of terror and the production of more and deadlier weapons on both sides? How does either side make the first step back? What part can Britain play as a smaller nuclear power, or are we irrelevant? I believe Britain has a part to play in releasing this tension and helping to find common areas of agreement to enable us to draw back. There is no way we can guarantee the success of any strategy. In whichever direction we face there are risks, and the results of our actions can be little more than informed guesses.

The British government is determined to keep our own nuclear forces out of the disarmament talks at Geneva. If we regard ourselves as allies of the Americans, there seems no justification at all for this stance. The Russian leadership has of course taken advantage of the situation and Mr Andropov has offered to balance the force of SS20s with that of the French and British equivalents. In the present unlikely circumstances of France and Britain renouncing their nuclear arsenals, is it not at least conceivable that a further reduction in Soviet warheads could be made? The poker game approach to negotiation has given excuses to both sides to increase their forces following each round of talks. The time has come to show some cards, to stop this madness and to make some reality of the talk of multilateral disarmament of which there has so far been no sign. The multilateral process has little chance of starting spontaneously when it is impossible to agree on balance, when both sides want to negotiate from strength, and when verification becomes more and more difficult as the technology becomes more sophisticated. The irony of Mrs Thatcher’s complaints about the difficulty of verifying Russian missiles, is that the weapons we plan to accept on our soil, without our control, and in the American Trident system are amongst the least detectable of all. This inevitably leads to the escalation of mistrust.

The only hope of any genuine multi-lateral disarmament is for someone to take a first unilateral step, however small. We are in a better position to take this step than either of the main protagonists, but the renouncing of our nuclear capabilities would undoubtedly be seen by Russia as a genuine reduction in the direct threat to the USSR. This is hardly likely to increase the probability of an attack on this country by a nation that believes hitting hard to pre-empt an attack on themselves. We should make our intentions clear and public and invite reciprocation, without making this reciprocation a condition of our renouncement and without tying it to other issues. I believe that the significance of such a move would be much greater than most strategists suppose, or will admit. It in no way need reduce our commitment to multi-lateral disarmament and just could be that vital catalyst for change that will lead to a truly comprehensive test ban treaty and a freeze on the production and development of yet more lethal and uncontrollable weapons. With Cruise missiles planned to arrive in this country before the end of this year we cannot wait. We need new initiatives now. This is the initiative at our disposal, it is our trump card, it is part of a multi-lateral hand, and now is the time to play it.

To those who cry ‘appeasement’ and point to our unreadiness against Nazi Germany, I answer by quoting again the authors of ‘The Church and the Bomb’. “In 1939 it was possible to go to war confident that the nation would survive, whether or not it was victorious. In nuclear war, the nation, as an organised structure of authority and social relationship, would largely cease to exist”. I believe in the maintenance of common security and that nothing can be gained by leaving NATO or reducing our ties with Europe. We should remain fully committed to conventional forces to reduce the possibility of an early precipitation into nuclear warfare, making the next major aim in the multi-lateral process the establishment of a nuclear free Europe. Until we achieve this, we will be haunted by the prospect of committing the ultimate crime against humanity, not only against the children in that Leningrad playground but against every living creature on this planet. The arms race is a race in which there can be no winners.

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