I originally had the idea for this story in 87 just before the election because all my CND friends were saying that getting a Labour government elected was all that counted. I wanted to emphasize that electing a labour government might be an opportunity but not success. Now of course this is so obvious that it hardly needs stating but the storey stands on its own as a coment on the nature of power.
Cath, the general secretary of CND, was exhausted yet exhilarated. All morning had been a rush with one peace group ringing to ask about transport, yet another requesting a facilitator for a last minute nonviolence preparation workshop, not to mention the media, hungry for statements and interviews. She smiled to think how she had once naively believed blockades organized themselves.
Hard work for something you believe in is dangerously addictive but she knew she needed a break even if only for a few minutes. Now she would just enjoy the feeling of dreams coming true.
"Phone call for you Cath," said Steve breaking into her thoughts.
"I'm not answering any phone calls in my tea break," answered Cath lazily.
"I know it's your teabreak Cath but this phone call is really important."
"They all are," said Cath dryly.
"This one's from the Minister of Defence."
"Oh tell him we'll only accept unconditional surrender," quipped Cath.
"Cath ..." said Steve disapprovingly.
"OK, OK, I'll take it." Cath knocked back the grape juice she had been drinking and followed Steve through to the office and picked up the receiver.
"Hello Cathrine Anderson here."
"Oh good it's James Stoke."
"I think we should talk."
"Well I'm listening."
"No, I mean face to face, so we can really discuss what's happening."
"Minister do you realize how much work it takes to organize a five day blockade. I haven't the time to meet you."
"It's about the blockade I want to talk to you about - that and the main demand."
"Britain's withdrawal from NATO?"
"You mean Britain will withdraw from NATO and so we can call off the MOD blockade."
"I'd be a very happy man if I could tell you that but it's not practical politics."
"Things like that have a way of being impractical right up to the moment when they become the only possibility."
"That won't happen this time."
"Please," said the minister, "at least hear what I have to say." Cath felt uncertain. She was sure there was nothing worthwhile that the minister would have to say yet wasn't negotiation rather than confrontation one of the principles of the peace movement.
"OK, I'll see you."
"Good how will you come?"
"Can you get to Embankment tube in an hours time?"
"I'll meet you there and we can walk to the ministry from there."
"Bye." As Cath gently placed the receiver back on the phone she had the unsettling feeling that she was walking into a trap. That feeling stayed with her as she left the CND offices for the journey across London. By the time she had changed to the Northern line for the last part of her journey that feeling had grown to a certainty. She was no nearer to working out what that trap was but she knew now what the bait had been.
She remembered the exhilaration she had felt when it had been announced that she had been elected general secretary of CND last december. Only a few months before that she had been no more than an unknown activist in Campaign Atom helping to organize nonviolent direct action against the american bomber base at Upper Heyford. It had been an uphill struggle then. The leadership of CND wanted to give the new labour government a chance and wanted to dampen things down. Cath and her friends were equally convinced that no government, not even a labour one, could be trusted and that the withdrawal of the American bases would only come through popular pressure.
It was back then that Campaign Atom decided to nominate Cath as General Secretary. Nobody expected her to win, least of all herself. She was a protest candidate against the obstruction of the leadership of CND. If she got a respectable vote perhaps the leadership would realize the direct action wing could not be ignored.
Then things began to go their way. The US refused point blank to withdraw the bases. More and more people began to get involved in the nonviolent direct actions at the bases and the numbers of arrested grew. So much so that it began to get embarrassing to the labour government and they withdrew police protection. It soon became clear that the american military police had a lot to learn about minimum force. Many demonstrators were injured but that merely swung public opinion onto the side of the demonstrators and encouraged more people to make their witness.
One morning, the day before the start of the CND, conference, four hundred demonstrators broke through the wire at USAF Lakenheath and onto the runway. The demonstrators were cleared by the american military with their usual zeal. But this time they went too far. One of the demonstrators, Andrea Taylor was left on the runway suffering from severe concussion. She died in hospital in the early hours of the next morning.
Cath heard the news the that morning as she arrived for the start of CND's national conference. She'd felt stunned. She had always thought of herself as an anarchist yet now she realized that she had taken for granted that politics would be conducted in nice safe limits. The world was suddenly a very different and frightening place. It was latter in the day that her mood changed to a determination that CND could not be allowed to desert those on the front line at the bases. It was only then she began to realize that she was no longer a protest candidate for general secretary - she was now the only candidate that anyone took seriously.
Cath was embarrassed how pleased she had been when it was announced that she had won on the first ballot by a massive margin. She mistrusted ambition in anyone. She tried to tell herself that she was pleased because her election represented a radical shift in CND but she knew that wasn't true. She felt the exhilaration of success, her success.
The train had arrived at embankment so she got off. But she didn't let herself be pulled along by the crowd towards the exit. She found one of the benches and sat down - she needed to collect her thoughts. Yes she knew now her motives for coming and she wasn't sure she liked them. She remembered the biography of Ghandi she had read the year before. In 1929 he had been imprisoned as the civil disobedience campaign got under way. Then as the campaign began to bite the British had been forced to negotiate. Cath remembered how she had felt a thrill of excitement as she read how Ghandi was taken from his prison cell and driven to meet the Viceroy to negotiate. Overnight he was transformed from outcast to the one person that the British were forced to negotiate. Yes that had been the Ministers bait. She was flattered that she was now considered the key person in events.
But she also knew the outcome of the negotiations. Ghandi was tricked into calling off the campaign and when a year latter it became clear that the British were not prepared to concede independence he discovered that the disobedience campaign could not be as easily restarted as it had been called off.
Cath got up and began to walk towards the exit. The Minister would try to get her to sell out. Knowing that in advance should make it easy not to be fooled.
The minister was waiting for her at the ticket barrier.
"Hello Cathrine. I'm glad you could come."
"Please, James is quite sufficient."
"Are you meeting me as James Stoke or as the minister of defence?", Cath asked. The minister didn't reply.
As the imposing green roofed building of the Ministry of Defence came into view the Minister turned to Cath. "It must seem odd to be welcomed into this building today when in a weeks time you will be blockading it."
"Even more odd for me. In the sixties I was arrested here."
"Pity you left us."
The Minister looked away. "It may be hard to believe, especially after what I will tell you, but I am still with you."
They didn't speak again until they had entered the building and the minister had led Cath along the corridors to a small conference room
On the wall hung a CND poster. In the middle stood a large oak table surrounded by six chairs. To one side was a smaller table with an electric kettle and a number of cups on it.
"Tea, coffee?" asked the Minister.
"'Fraid I don't drink either."
"Fine thanks." The Minister picked up a carton of orange juice and a glass from beside the table opened it and poured it out.
"You're wrong if you believe I've sold out," he said handing Cath the glass. "I'm as determined as ever to see the US bases go."
"But it's we who have to do the job."
The Minister looked at Cath sadly for a moment and then sat down. Cath followed suit.
"The bases are still there," he said quietly, "despite your efforts and despite seven people dead."
"Killed by our NATO 'ally'."
"Or by the foolhardiness of people who haven't got the patience to await the outcome of our negotiations."
"Yes, and it will be your foolhardiness that will result in the violence at the blockade next week."
"There will be no violence - we have taken every precaution. We've organized preparation workshops. We've..." Cath broke off feeling a chill that cut deep. "You weren't talking about violence from our side were you."
"No." The minister reached out and pressed and electric button that was attached to the table. Cath stared at it until she heard the door open behind her.
"Chief Superintendent Collins, Cathrine Anderson," said the Minister introducing them. The policeman nodded formally to Cath. "The Chief Superintendent will be in charge of operations during the blockade." The policeman hung up a map showing the MOD and it's surroundings onto the wall. Cath was never sure what the maps purpose was. The policeman didn't refer to it once during his talk.
"We estimate," began the policeman, "that about 25,000 will be involved in the blockade." About a quarter of our estimate thought Cath to herself but perhaps we are being overoptimistic. "If even half that number are ready to be arrested," the policeman went on, "then we have a problem that cannot be managed by the usual methods. It is clear that we must break the the blockade so completely on the first day that it will be called off by the organizers."
"How?" asked Cath. This was unbelievable, not even a velvet glove just the naked iron fist. Did they think such crude threats would work?
"There will be too many too arrest so we must drive them off using minimum force."
"And does 'minimum force' include kicking a few heads in?"
"Not a few - many heads."
"Even if we use no violence?"
"That is correct but if the demonstrators do use violence we have some troops, trained in Ulster, on stand-bye."
"How many fatalities do you expect." Cath's voice was barely louder than a whisper."
"Hopefully not more than one or two on the first day."
"And the second day?"
"We anticipate that the organizers will call off the demonstration after the first day."
"You've got to be crazy. If anyone dies it will be impossible to call off."
"We shall use the minimum force needed to clear Whitehall," said the policeman coldly. "We shall increase that level of force until we have found what that minimum is."
"Thank you Chief Superintendent, that will be all." The policeman nodded formally to the minister picked up his map of the MOD and left.
Cath was too stunned to say anything for a long while. "Why?" she finally managed.
"Because, as they see it, you leave them no choice."
"No. Why are you doing this."
"Don't call me Cathrine."
"... the generals made their position clear. They will tolerate the removal of US bases. They will even tolerate nuclear disarmament. They will not tolerate withdrawal from NATO. If the government tries to do that there will be a military coup."
"Why not say this publicly."
"If I did what would happen? The numbers at the blockade would double. The violence greater. In the aftermath Britain will be so polarized that the labour government will be irrelevant. The military will sweep us aside and with us any hope of disarmament. Don't jeopardize all that we are doing just because you want a little more."
"Why are you so sure that I won't react the same way - becoming more determined that the blockade should go ahead."
"Because you will not be making a personal decision. How you decide could lead to other people dying. I don't believe you want that on your conscience."
James Stoke wasn't sure how he had expected Cath Anderson to react but the look she gave him was far worse than anything he could have imagined. It wasn't hatred or even contempt. More a revulsion. He couldn't help being reminded by the look on his daughters face when she had overturned a stone in their garden to discover an especially unpleasant slug.
They didn't speak as he led Cath back through the corridors to the exit. If only he could tell her what he was really feeling. If only he could tell her how he had already lost control of events. The police and the military hadn't requested the repression they had merely informed him what they intended to do. This meeting with Cath had been a concession that they had reluctantly granted.
Withdrawing police protection from the bases had been the governments fatal mistake. Yet who could have guessed that the US would handle the demonstrations in such a heavy way. Perhaps the Americans had intended things to end this way - using violence to polarise Britain completely to make the labour government irrelevant.
If anyone died on the blockade he would resign and join the demonstrators. He hadn't told anyone that. He wished he could tell Cath Anderson that but if he did she would be less likely to call off the demonstration. CND couldn't possibly win against the police and the military combined. The only hope was that she would call the action off.
When Cath left the MOD building she was barely aware of her surroundings. She walked to the tube station in a daze. There she rang the CND office.
"Hello it's Cath Anderson. Can I talk to Steve?"
"Hang on a moment." It was about a minute before she heard the phone being picked up again.
"Hi Cath." Has the enemy surrendered yet?"
"Don't joke about calling them the enemy its never been more true."
"A frank and fruitful discussion eh?"
"More sugar on the surface, venom underneath and the sugar was very thin. Look it's really taken it out of me - do you mind if I don't come in again today? I know I'm needed but ..."
"I'm too shaken up to tell you now - but Steve?"
"We better start preparing for the worst. Worse than the bases. Don't say anything publicly, we don't want to draw the wrong people, but we ought to start warning groups who are coming so they can think through how to respond to violence."
"OK," said Steve quietly. "Will we see tomorrow morning?"
"Of Course, Bye."
Cath pressed the redial button and punched out a new number.
"Oh Jane is that you?"
"Can we meet?"
"Cath we've got a real rush on at the moment. Every political group under the sun wants special leaflets done or their latest pamphlet out in time for the blockade."
"There's no one else I can talk to." Cath knew how brittle her voice sounded.
"OK - the other collective members are going to moan like crazy but I'll promise to make it up in overtime. Meet you back at my place?"
Half an hour an hour latter Cath was making her way from the Oval tube station to Jane's squat. The pavement was cracked and many of the houses were bricked up. Slates from the roofs littered the gutter. In many of the windows were posters and a good half of those advertised the MOD blockade. It felt good to be in friendly territory.
Cath had no trouble in finding Jane's house - the front door was painted bright blue with fluffy white clouds. She knocked on the door. From inside she heard the staircase complain as someone thumped down them. The door opened.
"Hi Cath," said Jane. "I've only just got in." Cath smiled weakly and then Jane led the way back up the stairs to her bedroom. They sat down on the mattress next to each other.
"So what's it all about," said Jane.
"It's the blockade."
"You mean you've got me to leave work early to discuss politics?" Jane's tone was incredulous rather than irritated.
"No pease, wait till you've heard the whole story."
"OK, I'm sorry - I'm all ears." Jane smiled as if to make light of Cath's problems but Cath could see the concern that lay behind it. Cath then described her meeting with the minister leaving nothing out.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Cath finished.
"Are you asking me?" said Jane. "Because if you are you must know already my answer."
"I'd like to hear it anyway."
"Then do exactly what you would have done before. Pretend you never met the minister and never heard what he told you."
"But if I don't call it off someone is going to be dead."
"Six people have died since you've swung National CND behind the direct action at the American bases."
"That was different. Then I was only supporting what was already happening. This blockade was initiated by National CND."
"Due to pressure from the grass roots."
"But it needed me to push it through for all that."
"OK Cath, what would happen if you called it off? You'd split the movement. Some people will take action anyway and the recriminations will split CND.
"We've got a momentum at the moment that means we can succeed. By calling off the blockade you'll destroy that momentum. It wouldn't just damage the campaign against NATO it will damage the campaign against the bases as well."
"I wish I'd never met the minister. I'd had the feeling it was a mistake to go. But I did go and I can't pretend I don't know what is going to happen."
"But Cath you can't call it off."
"Yes I know - that's why I asked you for advice rather than anyone else. I thought have you tell me would make it seem less bad."
"Sharing the responsibility?"
"Something like that," said Cath sadly looking down at her hands. "But it hasn't made it any better."
"Because it's your responsibility and there's no way you can run away from that. If you let the blockade go ahead someone may die. But perhaps this will be our only chance to stop the arms race before we end up in a nuclear war. Calling off the blockade may mean millions will die."
"That's what being a democratic leader is all about. You've taken on responsibility for all of us but you don't have any power." Jane clasped Cath's hands. "I wish I could help."
"You could give me a hug," whispered Cath. Jane pulled Cath into her arms and held Cath's head onto her shoulder. Cath no longer felt numb. She felt a pain that cut deep into her chest. But at least she didn't feel so terribly alone.
Jane closed her eyes. She felt Cath's pain as if it were her own but that was not her only emotion.
She had not known until that moment whether she would be on the blockade. Now knowing she would be there filled her with fear but joy also.
This was the generals last card - the act of those who had already lost. She hadn't said that to Cath, partly because Cath knew anyway but more because it wouldn't have helped. The blockade would show that nonviolence was stronger than hatred and after that, Jane had no doubt, nothing would be the same.