Michael Foot: interview

In 1958, Michael Foot and his illustrious pals started the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Now, post-Iraq, memberships is on the up again. Time Out meets the veteran campaigner to talk Blair, Boris and bombs

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    CND founder Michael Foot

    On October 25 1981, I went with my mum to my first demo. On a stage in Hyde Park, a wiry, white-haired man passionately exhorted us to reject ‘the insanity of nuclear weapons’. The cause? The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which throughout the ’80s mobilised the largest mass protests Britain had ever seen. The speaker was Michael Foot, peace activist, leader of the Labour Party and the world’s most famous donkey jacket-wearer. Inspired, I went on to help ‘encircle’ Greenham Common, marched on the US nuclear base at Molesworth and spent much of the decade shouting at the ‘pig’ police helicopters which crowded the skies over the peace protests.

    As editor of the left-wing weekly Tribune, Foot had watched in dismay as first the US then the USSR and UK developed and tested new atomic weapons. He was always a fierce advocate for the abolition of Britain’s nuclear deterrent but in January 1958 he joined a committee that included philosopher Bertrand Russell, Canon John Collins of St Paul’s cathedral, JB Priestley and peace activist Peggy Duff, and set about organising an opposition movement. ‘There can be no subject more important than this one of what we are going to do about these weapons which are going to blow us all to pieces,’ he maintained at the time.

    CND was launched with a massive public meeting at Central Hall, Westminster on February 17 1958. Foot and writer AJP Taylor spoke; 5,000 people listened. The movement quickly gathered support from students, church leaders and trade unionists as well as major cultural figures including Benjamin Britten, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave and Iris Murdoch. ‘Young people, properly dressed in the regulation protest uniform of the day of duffel coats and blue jeans, flocked to its meetings,’ recalls Kenneth Morgan in his recent biography of Foot.

    But it was the three-day protest march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, the nuclear weapons research establishment in Berkshire, at Easter 1958 that really gave the fledgling movement a boost. Part political protest, part folk festival, the annual march became a focus for CND activists.

    Foot is one of CND’s iconic figures. But his support of the movement put him at odds with the Labour leadership and caused bitter division within the party. For CND, unilateral disarmament was the only way forward – the movement insisted that Britain should take the initiative and get rid of its nuclear weapons. Its leaders argued that multilateral disarmament (supported by Labour leaders such as Foot’s hero Nye Bevan), which focused on negotiations between countries, was clearly not working. The party finally adopted unilateralism in 1960, only to controversially drop it in 1989 under Neil Kinnock, when the stance was partly blamed for making the party unelectable.

    It’s been a long time since I wore my CND badge, but stepping into Michael Foot’s Victorian Hampstead home the decades fall away. At 94 he looks little different from the Foot I saw at that rally. There’s still the mop of white hair, slightly less abundant now, the large black glasses and the curious jolts of the head. He’s just finished perusing the latest edition of The Asian Age, and it’s clear that he is as passionate about world affairs as he always was.

    Foot’s light, airy house is filled with books by Russell, Taylor and HG Wells, another ardent peace activist. A framed football shirt in the downstairs loo honours Plymouth Argyle FC, where Foot was a director for years. The shirt, with the number 90, was given to him by the club on his ninetieth birthday. He has said he refuses to die until Plymouth win the Premier League, so he may be going strong at 200.

    But it is Foot’s first great love whose presence is all-pervasive. His wife, filmmaker Jill Craigie, who died in 1999 aged 85, is everywhere: in photos that show her in her beautiful, raven-haired prime, and in Foot’s every utterance. Barely a sentence passes without a reference to her, ‘the greatest CND supporter of them all’. Slowly, we head upstairs to her library, its shelves gradually depleting as he gives her books away to friends and archive collections. Foot is physically frail; his sentences are punctuated by long ‘aaah’ sounds, deep sighs which surge through his body as it seems to play catch-up with his mind. But, like a nuclear missile, once he starts there’s no stopping him. He launches into his sentences as if he were once again addressing that crowd back in 1981.

    What do you remember about the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945?

    ‘It was a terrible event that very much influenced me. Soon after that I became friendly with professor Joseph Rotblat [the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who developed the first nuclear weapons but then resigned and became a protester]. He came and told us what would happen if the new weapons were used. We didn’t find out the full extent of the damage caused to people at Hiroshima until much later, but it was scandalous. Even more outrageous is the thought of doing it again.’

    How did you become involved in CND?

    ‘There were three people leading these matters: one was JB Priestley, one was Bertrand Russell. The other chap was Einstein from America. He sent us a special message supporting us just before the first anti-bomb march. I had met Einstein before at Oxford, and he was a very fine person. Russell was the most important of the lot; he was very experienced in campaigning. He had opposed the war in 1914-16 and had done that very bravely. He was absolutely convinced about the cause and came to this house a number of times. He was a wonderful chap.’

    What were the first marches like?

    ‘It became much bigger than we expected. We made lots of friends on the march such as the journalist James Cameron. The women were very important; they were there from the start. The children also enjoyed the marches.’

    Tell us about meeting Gorbachev.

    ‘Jill repeated very strongly that there would be another Chernobyl – Jill was half Russian. When they had the terrible explosion [at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986], we were in touch with Gorbachev. We had several meetings. He is a very fine chap in my opinion. I did go to Moscow – not a very nice place, by the way – but I went there for the meeting with Gorbachev in which we were talking about the abolition of weapons. At the same time, I was writing a book on HG Wells, and that was part of the discussion we had in Moscow.’

    What did Gorbachev think of CND?

    ‘He was a CND-er too. He had seen what had happened at Chernobyl, he understood it better then any of the other Russian leaders. He really understood what CND knew, that you had to get rid of all the weapons.’

    Isn’t it hypocritical of us to say to countries like Iran that they mustn’t develop nuclear power, when we have our own?

    ‘There is no case to say that Iran can’t have nuclear power, especially when they say they are doing it for peaceful purposes. But Israel having the bomb… we have made protests about that. If Israel has the bomb, it is no good thinking that other people are going to be stopped. We have got to get back to the Non-Proliferation Treaty [an international agreement to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, which was launched in 1968 and currently has 189 countries signed up] which some of us strongly backed. It is even more tragic to see both India and Pakistan having weapons now. There won’t be safety until they abolish them.’

    Last year the government voted for a £20billion scheme to renew Trident nuclear missiles. What did you think about that?

    ‘I’m very much opposed to that. All those governments, including ours, who signed the NPT need to start adhering to it.’

    Don’t we leave ourselves vulnerable if we don’t have a nuclear defence?

    ‘It’s perfectly proper to have an armed force. Nuclear weapons will blow the world to pieces. There is a case for other weapons but nuclear weapons are quite different.’

    Did you feel betrayed by Tony Blair over Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’?

    ‘He was very bad on this subject. The whole business of going to war in Iraq was quite wrong and CND was right to oppose that. I said in my essay, “A Better Way to Abolish Weapons”, that there’s a better way to deal with the weapons of mass destruction than going to war. I gave the book to Tony Blair when he was at Number Ten. I’m sorry to say that he didn’t agree.’

    Will a new president in the White House make a difference?

    ‘America was also supposed to abolish weapons as part of the NPT but it hasn’t done that at all. It’s gone back on it.’

    Ken Livingstone has always supported the anti-nuclear movement. What do you think of him?

    ‘I’m very much in favour of Ken. I hope he wins. Boris is an old fool – or a young fool – well, a terrible fool anyway!’

    You have a long connection with London, having edited the Evening Standard in 1942. What was it like to work there in those days?

    ‘A very different paper from the present one. It was a very fine newspaper. We were fighting a war against Hitler and the Standard played a part in that. I can’t say the same about the present Evening Standard. It’s a disgrace to journalism generally.’

    What has CND achieved in 50 years?

    ‘The most important question facing the human race is the one CND raised on that first march – why are we spending a fortune developing and storing weapons which will destroy the world? We haven’t made as much progress as we should have done, but the message is clearer now than even before. The world should listen.’

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