Co-op Paths to Peace and the Peace Sign

CND celebrated its 60th anniversary last month – and here is a look at the role co-operators played in its birth

The peace symbol, first seen at an anti-nuclear rally in 1958, is now a protest icon. Less well known is how the co-op movement – including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the London Co-operative Society and the Co-operative Party – played a critical role in the birth and growth of the peace movement.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the public unveiling of Gerald Holtom’s Peace Sign at Trafalgar Square on Good Friday, 4 April. Holtom’s emblem incorporates the semaphore sign for N and D.

This anniversary makes it a good time to consider the role of the co-op movement, and the ordinary people who comprised it, to make sure its efforts are not forgotten. What follows are references from several books that underscore the co-operative contribution.

“The Co-op Van would arrive with Bob Tapson. ‘The real leader of the March,’ said the Guardian, one year, ‘is the Co-op van.’ Someone else said that if you drove it across London soon after Easter, by the time you got to the other side, you would find a march behind you.”

Duff, Peggy. Left, Left, Left. Allison and Busby, 1971

“In March, 1955, a Socialists doctor’s wife in Golders Green, Mrs Vera Leff, mentioned to her local Co-operative Women’s Guild the problem of the radiation risk from H bomb tests. Women’s Co-operative Guild’s being what they are; it is probably that nothing would have happened but for another of the Guild’s members, a retired civil servant called Gertrude Fishwick … and if any single person can be said to have triggered off the chain reaction which ended in CND, it is Miss Fishwick, who died exhausted by her efforts two days before the Central Hall meeting which launched CND in February 1958.”

Driver, Christopher. The Disarmers: A Study in Protest. Hodder and Stoughton, 1964

“The National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests had its origins in the Golders Green and Suburb Women’s Co-operative Guild. At the beginning of 1955, the Guild convened a meeting of various local bodies ‘to discuss what we could do together in our own area to help towards the banning of the H-Bomb. The immediate actions of this group were, first to send a message to the Prime Minister: ‘We ask our Government to do all in its power at the forthcoming Four Power Talks, to reach agreement on the vital matter of banning nuclear weapons and ending the present experimental explosions.’ And, secondly, ‘Appeal to all local organizations and groups to help us in our continued efforts for the above policy.’”

Taylor, Richard. Against the Bomb – The British Peace Movement. Clarendon Press, 1988

“In the mid-1950s there were more than 1,600 branches of the Women’s Co-operative Guild which helped lay the local groundwork for the anti-nuclear movement, with nearly 3,000 guildswomen from all over England attending the Central Hall Westminster demonstration in 1955, and 2,500 in 1956.

“The banning of the H-bomb tests, hostility to German re-armament and to foreign bases and to arms expenditures appear regularly on Congress agenda. Three major Guild efforts were the 1955 and 1956 peace rallies and the 1958 Women’s Caravan for Peace, in which the Guild took place.”

Gaffin, Jean and Thom, David. Caring and Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women’s Guild. Co-operative Union, 1983.

“We must not let this enthusiasm be lost. The international situation is still such that extreme vigilance is necessary if we are to ward off world war three. Guild support for CND and publicity for its marches was given in the Bulletin and 11,000 guildswomen signed a petition to the government in 1957, ‘expressing concern at the continued manufacture of and testing of nuclear weapons and drawing attention to the genetic effects’.”

Women’s Co-operative Guild, December Monthly Bulletin, reporting on a “splendid demonstration”.

The Co-operative Party van attends a peace rally

“On the eve of the Labour Party Conference of 1958 (Scarborough) the Executive Committee meeting at 25 September discussed a proposal  from Ted Bedford, Secretary of the Political Committee of the London Co-operative Society, who had become treasurer of CND, that the H Bomb Campaign Committee, a Labour group, should be asked to close and merge itself into a Labour Advisory Committee of the campaign…. Its first chairman was Frank Beswick, A Labour MP (now Lord Beswick), who  was also chair of the LCS Political Committee.”

Duff, Peggy. Left, Left, Left

“The Political Committee of the London Cooperative Society was a constant supporter  of anti-nuclear groups, through staff support, funding, leaflet printing, use of meeting rooms, transportation and getting loudspeakers and other equipment to rallies.

“In April 1960, the government was compelled to announce the abandonment of the Blue Streak project, and thus, de facto, the independent deterrent. Before this announcement, the  Co-operative Party, USDAW and AEU had all passed unilateralist resolutions. Gaitskell was forced to abandon his rigid stance, and the Labour Party adopted a new policy.”

Taylor, Richard and Young, Nigel; Campaigns for Peace. Manchester University Press, 1987

“A recent study of co-operative societies  draws particular attention to their contribution to democratic institutions … participation constitutes the mechanism for the recruitment of political education of men. It provides training in democratic action and access to a forum of oppositional ideas, the toleration and dissemination of which are essential to democratic government. It offers a varied set of opportunities for the nurture and expression of politically and publicly directed energy. Democratic associations constitute the great intermediary foci of loyalties which distinguish the civil from the mass society in which nothing stands between the attachment of a man to his family and to the nation state. In this general sense, the co-operative movement has played a significant historic role in the development of British democratic institutions.”

Parkin, Frank. Middle Class Radicalism. Manchester University Press, 1968

One example of this co-op awakening is Pat Allen, a linchpin of London CND, who recalled: “My own involvement was first in Gravesend and then in Newham from 1960 onwards. By this time most other parts of London already had local CND groups … I was soon in touch with a Methodist Minister, a Co-op activist and a Labour Party activist to establish Newham CND.”

Hudson, Kate; CND: Now More Than Ever Satin Publications Ltd. 2005

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