After Brexit and Trump, will nuclear disarmament become the next improbable possible?

Everywhere we look, the improbable has become possible and then inevitable. Brexit, which was just a glint in the eye of a small number of MPs for four decades, is now set to take place in 18 months time. The White House is now occupied by a grotesque billionaire whose candidacy was mocked from the outset.

These monumental effects happened thanks to a combination of complacency among middle-of-the-road voters and staggering incompetence by the establishment political leaders — David Cameron’s selfish decision to call a referendum in the case of Brexit and Hillary Clinton’s tin-eared campaign in the US.

But why does the (far) right-wing have to have all the fun? Surely the time is now ripe for any single-issue campaign that can tap into voters’ long suppressed worries and concerns has the potential to become a political reality.

Many such will come to mind but given the terrifying threat posed by Kim Jong-Un playing with his missiles in North Korea and Trump threatening “fire and fury”, then getting rid of nuclear weapons should be fairly high up on the list.

no one under the age of 35 will have much of a consciousness of the imminent threat from a nuclear attack

Madness, you say! Surely when a lunatic, autocratic leader in testing a hydrogen bomb in the East and a semi-house trained idiot is ramping up his rhetorical arsenal in the West, now is the last time to be talking about disarming.

But the fact is that what is happening in North Korea is nothing new. The location and accent of the “enemy” may have changed but the plot is pretty similar. The truth is that no one under the age of 35 will have much of a consciousness of the imminent threat from a nuclear attack. The whole debate has gone quiet after the collapse of the Soviet Union defused what has been an apparently constant threat.

In the 1950s, both Britain and the United States were testing nuclear weapons with — true but unbelievable now — explosions on rocky outcrops in the Pacific Ocean. In the 1960s France let one off in the Sahara desert and the USSR in northern Russia.

The rising tensions came to a head in October 1962 when the US discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba. The US blockaded Cuba for 13 days. The crisis brought the US and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. China and India then joined the race.

Ronald Reagan in the US quoted the biblical warning from Ezekiel that fire and brimstone would be rained down upon the enemies of God's people before adding: “That must mean that they will be destroyed by nuclear weapons.” Nikita Khrushchev told the Americas: “We will bury you.”

It was against that background that millions of people took to the streets and participated in protests calling for disarmament, most famously in the UK where protestors set up a peace camp at RAF Greenham Common to block the arrival of American Cruise missiles in 1981. It lasted until 2000.

Though widely mocked and vilified by the Government and their allies at the Daily Mail, it is now increasingly accepted that the mass of protests forced political change on both sides of the world. Not only was the issue of US weapons raised repeatedly in the House of Commons but also their demands filtered into the negotiations.

As David Fairhall, author of Common Ground: The Story of Greenham, writes, the Greenham woman put a “third actor” on the Cold War stage. “Whereas arms control negotiations used to take place in arcane private discussions between superpower leaders, with mind-blogging details on throw-weights and the number of multiple independently targetable delivery vehicles, the advent of the peace movement forced the core issues into the open.”

 Cometh the moment, cometh the men and woman wearing sandals

The arguments over whether the protests had an impact only on the wider culture and debate, or actually accelerated the end of the Cold War will go for years. But looking forward, the Labour surge for anti-nuclear Jeremy Corbyn at the election indicates that fear of disarmament is no longer prevalent among younger voters.

The decades-long “Atomkraft? Nein, Danke” (Nuclear Power, No Thanks) campaign by the Green party in Germany finally reaped its reward in 2011 when Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to shut all nuclear reactors by 2022 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The campaign against climate change, which has parallels with the nuclear protests, has risen from a freakish marginal issue in the 1960s to having its own giant annual intergovernmental summit where leaders make pledges to change their policies.

Events create the politics and just as Fukushima led to a fierce opposition to nuclear power so the prospect of two men fighting over a comb in Korea will fuel protests against nuclear proliferation. Cometh the moment, cometh the men and woman wearing sandals prepared to take a stand.

Impossible? I would not bet on that.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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