The signing of an inf Treaty at the Washington Summit of December 1987 has brought to a symbolic (if illusory) close a dramatic episode in postwar history.footnote It will not, it seems, mark a decisive reversal in the nuclear arms race. Compensatory adjustments, on the nato side at least, and the us determination to develop a new generation of space-based weaponry will probably carry the military competition forward into a qualitatively new round, while sea-based systems will take over the strategic roles of Cruise and Pershing II.footnote1 It will not represent the recovery of a European popular sovereignty against superpower occupation, or the emergence of a progressive ‘third way’ in the political alignments of the international community. The Thatcher and Kohl governments came unwillingly, and under strong American pressure, to an acceptance of the deal; and they looked ahead not to dealignment and denuclearization but rather to the coalescence of a European nuclear pillar of nato. It may not even be the solid foundation it appears for improved superpower relations. The failure of the Summit to show any progress on resolving superpower disputes in the Third World was suggested by contradictory indications of Soviet policy on Afghanistan. Certainly, any return in the near future to the cold war virulence of the early 80s seems unlikely; nevertheless, the political significance of the agreement for the two governments is hugely discrepant; and the underlying goals of us policy—nuclear superiority and global confrontation—have not perceptibly, or even officially, altered. But despite all this, and paradoxically, the inf Treaty will bring about the fulfilment of the central political demand which since 1979 has generated and united a peace movement of unprecedented proportions across Western Europe.

To the uncertain significance of the event itself, therefore, must be added the series of ambiguities which it highlights concerning the impact of the peace movement in the eight years from the ‘Twin Track’ decision of December 1979 to the Washington Summit of December 1987. For the withdrawal of Cruise, Pershing II and the ss–20s will take place after the effective political defeat of anti-nuclear protest in every relevant European country. And the initiative for disarmament has come not from nato governments, the prime object of the peace movements’ attentions, but from the ussr.

There can be no easy answer to the question ‘Has the peace movement succeeded or failed?’ There are, however, other related questions which may more legitimately be asked at the formal conclusion of the inf drama. The official (and much disputed) rationale for the nato ‘modernization’ was the need to counter Soviet deployment of the ss–20. The insistence was disingenuous, but it encouraged a popular suspicion that the nuclear arms race was proceeding according to its own reciprocal dynamic, and had passed beyond the ability of political actors on either side to control. In turn, this very autonomy of nuclear accumulation—together with the irreducibility of the universal threat which it posed—seemed to argue both the necessity and the possibility of a distinct nonaligned politics of protest which could disrupt the process by removing its European focus of confrontation: because the military aspect of the conflict was irrationally self-determining—rather than rooted in a complex and persistent historical contradiction of social systems—a single-issue campaign to block inf deployment could be seen as engaging directly with the dynamics of the nuclear arms race.

Such an analysis, exemplified in the writings of Edward Thompson, has indeed been fundamental to the practice of the resurgent peace movement of the 1980s. However, this analysis is not simply a recruiting convenience; for it is interdependent with two further claims about the agency and strategy of disarmament which sharply distinguish its politics from those of the traditional Left. The first of these is that expanded public consciousness of the nuclear threat may constitute the basis of a sustained transformative political mobilization irreducible to issues of class, and not resting on a comparable endemic conflict of material interest. The second is that while unable to exploit an immediate interdependence comparable to that which chains capital to labour, the peace movement nevertheless finds its own terrain of political struggle—‘public opinion’ and, secondarily, the corpus of civil rights—on which to advance its goals—the return of a non-nuclear government, the physical obstruction of deployment, etc.

In several respects Britain was exceptional among the deployment countries: it possessed its own ‘independent’ nuclear weapons; and, partly as a result, its major peace movement, the cnd, had a strong national inflection and was less inclined to act or think as part of a wider European opposition. However, the composition of its social base, and its broad ideological orientation, mirrored those of its continental counterparts. The membership of cnd exhibited a high degree of social heterogeneity, though it was heavily skewed towards the white collar/professional segments of the population, manual workers made up a mere 5 per cent, and students accounted for 20 per cent. By contrast with the traditional Left, the representation of women has been very high. Similarly the ideological orientation of the movement’s activist base has been extremely diverse. While elements of the social democratic and communist Left have found a place in the mobilization, much of the momentum derived from a more generalized counter-cultural critique: affinities with the ecological movement (itself recently boosted by the Three Mile Island incident of March 1979), Protestant religious groupings and the women’s movement have been especially marked. In Britain the Churches have not provided the institutional underpinning of the peace movement as they have in Holland and to a lesser extent in West Germany; but it was here that the alliance with the women’s movement was exemplified (from March 1982) in the camps at Greenham Common and the 30,000-strong women’s demonstration which encircled the base in December 1982.

The diverse character of the peace movement, combined with its overlapping links with the other social movements that had been transforming the political scene since the late ’60s, encouraged many in the belief that a distinctive ‘new’ politics was emerging to displace the ‘old’ class politics. And certainly the movement displayed immense creativity in finding new and dramatic ways of influencing public opinion, and in mobilizing completely new categories of political support that had not been reached by the constricted parliamentary and union politics of the orthodox Left: if local membership is included, then by 1983 cnd members (250,000) were probably as numerous as those of the Labour Party. Of the national membership two-thirds were not members of unions; and while 70 per cent were Labour voters, 74 per cent did not belong to any particular party. The sheer rate of expansion was also impressive: in 1979 cnd had little over 4,000 members; up to the end of 1983 it increased by an average 100 per cent per year. And its October demonstrations (resuming in 1980) drew 60,000, 250,000 and 400,000. This was of course paralleled in Europe: the climactic month in October 1983 saw demonstrations of over 200,000 in Rome, Brussels and the Hague, while a string of actions in West Germany involved protestors totalling some one million.

The non-party-political emphasis of the grass-roots was also fortified by memories of the long-standing unreliability of the Labour Party. But the consequent notion that the peace movement constituted itself independently and then revived the parliamentary debate by the external pressures it was able to muster is misleadingly simplistic. Like Social Democratic and Eurocommunist parties across Europe, the Atlanticist Labour leadership found itself faced in the late 70s with a growing internal challenge. As early as 1974, with the appointment by the nec of the Defence Study Group, the nuclear issue became increasingly enmeshed with the struggle for inner-party democracy. During the Party’s internal crisis of 1979–81 ‘defence was perhaps the policy area most often cited by the reformers’.footnote2 Indeed the first national anti-Cruise demonstration, attended by 20,000 people in June 1980, was organized through the Labour Party. Moreover, from November of that year, following the lead of Manchester City Council, Labour–controlled authorities all over the country declared Nuclear Free Zones. By 1983 there were over 150 of these, and it was they, significantly, who were responsible for the British peace movement’s largest tangible success: the cancellation of the Hard Rock civil defence exercise of February 1982.