Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Banning the Bomb

Most people have heard of the Greenham Common peace camp. I spent most of 1983 living at two peace-camps in Scotland. At the height of the movement in the mid-1980s, there were about ten peace camps around the UK, including three in Scotland, and all but two of them were mixed sex. However, Greenham Common got most of the attention, not least of all because it was in leafy Berkshire near London. Unfortunately, Greenham Common - and therefore the movement - became dominated by radical lesbian feminists of a very mystical mindset.

I spent most of my time at Faslane, and it was a strange social experiment. Psychologists could have had a field day studying that place. Even though it officially had no leaders and no rules, it was a deeply authoritarian atmosphere at the camp. You could not begin to be taken seriously unless you were vegetarian, preferably vegan, and had been arrested, and preferably gone to prison. And women had more inherent authority than men. Those who had never been arrested were regarded as somewhat lacking in commitment, and there was certainly peer pressure on newer members to get arrested as a kind of rite of passage. People who were only lacto-vegetarians were looked on with tolerance, but they were regarded as slightly lacking in commitment. Meat eaters were generally beneath contempt, and it was pretty well impossible to consume meat on the camp. One or two individuals even toyed with fruitarianism, but they were regarded as rather extreme. It was good enough just to be a radical vegan. Ideally, you should think of something to boycott that no-one else had previously thought of. Examples included honey, on the grounds that it exploited bees, and sheep's wool, except that which had been collected by hand from twigs but not from barbed wire fences. The only acceptable form of transport was hitch-hiking. If you revealed that you had taken the bus you would be derided as a ‘plastic’.

We were a bunch of holier-than-thou, unctuous little Puritans, and I, I'm embarrassed to say, was as guilty as anybody.

Accommodation was in caravans, and they all had names. There was one called the ‘Women’s caravan’ which men were forbidden to enter. There was another one inhabited solely by men, and this was universally referred to as the ‘Wimps’ caravan’, and women were not banned from entering it, although they generally chose not to.

I remember spending my time promoting ‘Women’s Peace Actions’, demonstrations in which only women were allowed to take part. Men would occupy supporting roles like catering. I recall overhearing a woman saying “It’s good to see men cleaning up our shit for a change”.

After one of these I was hitch-hiking back to Glasgow with my then-girlfriend. A van stopped belonging to a group called ‘Flamin Women’ who were also on their way home. They offered to take my girlfriend, but refused to take me, because I was a man. She, the cow, accepted and left me standing there. What kind of ideology would produce this kind of behaviour? To leave a 17 year old boy standing on a road in the middle of nowhere?

I remember inviting some of my female SWP friends to attend these things and they always refused. “We don’t like these all-women events because they divide the working-class”. I always had some grudging respect for that view. Now I have a lot of respect for it. The whole point of these things was to divide men and women against each other.

The standard pattern of protest was to lie down on the road to block the traffic, get arrested for breach of the peace, refuse to pay the fine and go to prison. Those who did this liked to make martyrs of themselves. The court would be packed with supporters, and a constant presence would be maintained outside the prison while the martyr was inside. On one occasion, a woman was due to be released. The gates opened, and out she walked, to a cheering group of supporters. This was a Scottish winter, and she had been in a nice warm cell, while we were standing outside in the cold. Her first words were “Why are there men here?” I learned then that you cannot even support feminists. They regard men as the enemy, and this belief is intractable.

Fairly early on, I got arrested myself, only once. I was promised that I would have a lawyer, the court would be packed with supporters, there would be a large group of defendants, and all my fines would be paid for me. I had myself sat in the public gallery during several such trials and seen police officers lying in the witness box with my own eyes. In the event, the trial was put back months, I was refused legal aid on the grounds that I had no stateable defence, and I appeared alone in a court, empty but for one of my female friends, to defend myself against six police officers called as witnesses. I was fined forty pounds, which I paid in instalments from my benefits. At that point I abandoned the peace movement, largely because it had abandoned me. A lot of the young men I was with were doing the same.

The peace camp movement was a product of the economic and political climate in Britain at that time. It could not have happened without mass unemployment, a housing shortage and a benefits system. People lived there often because they had nothing better to do. I went there out of idealism, but a proportion of people there were newly-released prisoners looking for a cheap place to live, or those who might otherwise be homeless. It was a period of my life which only lasted about a year, but it taught me a few lessons.

It was only years later that I found out that Greenham Common had started life as a mixed camp. This BBC news story is the usual biased, fawning crap. It casually states that "In 1982 the camp became women only", but it doesn't tell us why. In fact, there was an internal coup by radical lesbian feminists, and all the men were expelled. Not a lot of people know that.

The Women’s Association

At university, it wasn’t long before I came across the Student Union Women’s Association. It was operating a clever political scam. The level of funding that student societies received from the university depended on the number of members. The more members, the more funding. The Women’s Association had somehow managed to operate a closed shop. Every female student who enrolled in the university was automatically made a member of the Women’s Association. They would each receive a note telling them so, which almost all of them would ignore. A tiny number of them would choose to involve themselves. If the Women’s Association had only been allowed to count those who actually bothered to join, they would have been a tiny minority fringe group, with far fewer members than any of the sports clubs, or the Real Ale Society. Instead, however, they claimed to represent the interests of about 10,000 students, and so were a powerful political force. The fact that most of those 10,000 students were barely even aware of the Women’s Association’s existence, and never showed the slightest interest in it, was neither here nor there. Which female students was it who chose to involve themselves? Of course, it was dominated by a handful of radical lesbian feminists. They were the ones who were motivated to join, and they, therefore, were the ones who controlled the purse strings. By means of a simple constitutional trick, the closed shop, they managed to wield a completely disproportionate level of political power within the students’ union. No-one dared to challenge their authority, because that would be misogynistic. Why would anyone in their right mind seek to undermine a noble venture like the Women’s Association?