Brian Quail: We have more power than we think, and together we can beat Trident


Veteran anti-nuclear activist Brian Quail says two key international developments mean a world without nuclear weapons is closer than ever

ON THE international scene, there have been two momentous events recently impacting on Trident. 

First was the decision made on 7 July by 122 member states of the United Nations (UN) in New York to support a draft treaty banning nuclear weapons. Secondly, there was the award of the Nobel peace prize to ICAN (the International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons) for its work for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The former marks what must be the most important decision the UN has ever made. It means we just might have a future after all. Humanity faces its most important decision ever; either we have a future without nuclear weapons, or we have no future at all.

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It was because of its closeness to the day of decision at the UN that Trident Ploughshares chose to launch our campaign of peaceful direct action against the weapons depot on 8 July.

On the morning of 11 July, during the Trident Ploughshares camp at Peaton Wood on Loch Long, five of us lay on the road and blocked the entrance to Coulport. We did this by handcuffing ourselves together and putting our arms in tubes (“locking-on”).

Coulport holds the biggest arsenal of nuclear bombs in Europe; here, 200 nuclear bombs are stored deep under the mountains at the loch side. The area was chosen to withstand a direct hit with an A bomb, and because it is not near important population centres (sorry about that, Glasgow!).

Following the blockade, Angie Zelter and myself were imprisoned for 16 days on remand after refusing to accept special bail conditions barring us from approaching within 100 yards of the bases.

We had our trial on 12 October. The magistrate, JP Symon, listened carefully as we explained the motivation and justification for our actions. I gave a searing account of the effect on the people of the Marshall Islands of the nuclear weapon tests there, and, when challenged on the relevancy of this to the present case, explained that I was describing what Trident does when it does the only thing it is made to do.

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Angie argued that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights gave her the right to express her opinion, including by means of obstructing the activity that was the focus of her protest. Another campaigner, Sam, told the court that as a Quaker he was obliged to act on the dictates of his conscience.

The police witnesses and the defence were agreed that the protest had been conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner.

As advised by the assessor (her legal advisor), the JP found us guilty but simply admonished us, the lightest penalty that a Scottish court can impose. This was especially surprising given that in her plea in mitigation, Angie indicated that she would continue to disrupt the activities at the nuclear weapon bases until Trident was removed, and I told the JP that I did not accept the verdict.

I think it is worthwhile to reflect upon the point I made in the closing part of my address, so for that reason I will repeat it here. It is a parable from Antony de Mello, the American Jesuit.

“Once an eagle’s egg was placed in a nest box in a poultry yard. The egg hatched, and young bird grew up with the rest of the poultry. He scratched in the dirt and ate the scraps thrown to him by the chicken farmer, He grew and grew, and lived happy enough.

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“Finally, death came to him, as it does to all of us. As he lay dying, he looked up and saw these magnificent creatures soaring and wheeling high up in the sky above. Amazed, he asked one of the hens: ‘What is that?’ She replied: ‘Why, those are eagles, don’t you know, that’s what you are?’

“With respect, I ask your honour to consider the message of this parable. You could rise above the farmyard dirt of political postures and conventional atomic apologetics like an eagle, and deliver belated justice to our nuclear victims.

“There is, in fact, a precedent for the law making a courageous moral stand in advance of the government of the day. In 1778 the sheriff of Perthshire liberated a Jamaican slave called Joseph Knight, ruling that slavery was not recognized by the law of Scotland and was inconsistent with its principles (in Knight v Wedderburn. Morrison’s Dictionary 14545). His decision was upheld on appeal where Lord Kames stated that ‘we sit here to enforce right, not to enforce wrong’.

“But slavery was not abolished by parliament till in 1833. The law anticipated parliament then, why cannot the law have the courage and integrity to uphold basic justice against the government of the day now in 2017, as it did then in 1778?”

This was an appeal, not just to the magistrate in Dumbarton court, but also to everybody to realise our unimagined potential. To become fully human and face the awesome responsibility and power that we all have.

Then I thought; one student and one old man brought this machine – albeit briefly – to a halt. None of us has any idea of the power we have.

When Alastair Ibbitson and I stopped the convoy at Stirling, and I crawled under a vehicle, I had time to consider the world with my back on the ground. Above me were the drive shaft, steering links, drivers, bombs, police, army, government, industrial military complex, Lockheed Martin – all the legions of Mammon.

I was overwhelmed by all the unimaginable power and might of the state. The classic Ozymendias scene – “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair”.

Then I thought; one student and one old man brought this machine – albeit briefly – to a halt. None of us has any idea of the power we have.

Faslane base with its miles of weld mesh fencing, triple rolls of razor wire, electronic sensors, guards with dogs, and high-tech surveillance seems all powerful and invincible, but is vulnerable to human intelligence and ingenuity.

It would take only a couple of thousand peace activists to shut down Faslane, a very small number when you consider the one million in living in central Scotland.

There will be a chance to demonstrate our revulsion at Trident on 15 September next year, when we will have a mega rally at Faslane.

When you are arrested, you are taken to a cell in a police station. There are only 400-500 police cells in central Scotland, so the police are simply not able to gaol a thousand people. They can’t corral us in a park, like Pinochet did with the opposition when he overthrew the Allende government in Chile, because they are not that sort of police force – yet.

The police would be overwhelmed – peacefully and non-violently – and the base would be shut down, for as long as we keep up the action. If only…

Meanwhile, there will be a chance to demonstrate our revulsion at Trident on 15 September next year, when we will have a mega rally at Faslane. There is keen interest in supporting this from many countries in Europe. We must start mobilizing for this now, so that we can build it up to be the biggest anti-Trident event ever.
And if people want to think about joining Trident Ploughshares and supporting peaceful non-violent direct action, that would be even better. We might even succeed.

Picture courtesy of Scottish CND

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