The Mad Plan: Activists Blockade Nuclear Weapons Base in Scotland for an Entire Year
For eight years Ploughshares had been organizing nonviolent direct actions against the Trident nuclear submarines housed at the Faslane Naval Base. Each of the four Trident subs at the base is equipped with US missiles and up to 192 warheads -- and each warhead can deliver around five times the destructive power of the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. There was widespread objection to the British nuclear weapons program, and several key national and international events were coming up in 2007. The moment had come to try something new.
From this meeting emerged the plans for Faslane365: a plan to blockade the Faslane Naval Base, 30 miles west of Glasgow, every day for a full year. This blockade was not envisioned as an action to be undertaken only by Ploughshares or by any one group; instead the newly formed Faslane365 Steering Group put out a call far and wide for local, national, and even international groups each to come for two days, planning their own versions of nonviolent direct action to blockade the base.
Some considered it a "mad plan," but it might just work.
Creative Nonviolence and Cups of Tea
Since the beginning of Faslane365 in October 2006, more than 118 groups have made the trip, braving rain and swarms of midges to block access to the naval base for 171 days this year. The mad plan has drawn on a network of long-haul peace activists and has also attracted hundreds of newcomers to direct action. Participants have included groups of environmentalists, Buddhists, Christians, asylum seekers, artists, writers, musicians, actors, choirs, clowns, teachers, and health professionals. Regional groups from throughout the UK and ten other countries have participated. Prominent participants have included members of the Scottish, Westminster, and European parliaments, former UN Assistant Secretary General Richard Jolly, and Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire. Nearly a thousand people have been arrested.
The many autonomous groups participating have increased public pressure and raised awareness of a diversity of issues at stake in the ongoing maintenance and potential deployment of Trident -- from human rights to climate change. All have insisted that Trident is not only immoral, dangerous, and wasteful, but a violation of international law and Britain's treaty obligations.
The Faslane365 steering group has assisted with logistics such as transport, welcomed groups with cups of tea and a gazebo at the gates against frequent rain, provided nonviolent direct action training and support with media, served as a liaison with police, and kept an overview of the campaign; but the autonomous groups have determined the scope and form of their own actions.
The blockades have been diverse and creative. Some groups simply sat in the road. Police took a few minutes to lift them. Strathclyde police recognize that protesters are peaceful, and so generally conduct their arrests without violence. About fifty University lecturers and Oxford students holding a seminar on the sidewalk, at a signal, stepped en masse into the gateway and continued the seminar -- for six hours -- but were finally arrested when the students brought a barbecue and tent into the entrance.
Other groups, determined to blockade the base for as long as possible, planned various methods to make it more difficult for the police to remove them safely from the road. These included "lock-ons" made from sections of plastic or metal pipe inside which two people clip together with carabeeners fastened to their wrists. Specialist police then cut through the tubes before clearing the blockaders from the entrance. The police seize tubes when they spot them to prevent effective blockades. Peace campers rolled a concrete-filled barrel lock-on into the road which police had to cut through with a jackhammer, taking three hours to clear the blockade. A German group walked up the main road locked together. Police prevented them from proceeding to the access road so they sat in the main road, creating a six-mile traffic jam. The Scandinavians and environmentalists set up tripods in the gateway and road, a person perched atop each one. The police had to erect a scaffold to remove the protesters. Other groups super-glued hands, to each other or to the gate. And Greenpeace blockaded Trident in its own port by anchoring the Arctic Sunrise across the sea gate. Police had to cut the anchor to remove her. These effective blockades resulted in an anti-protest protest by some local people.
Other groups' actions have been more whimsical. The Spaniards poured red paint over themselves and danced into the gate unimpeded by the amused police. There has been a Tea Party, a Silent Disco, and even a "Banana Blockade" by a bunch of bananas in tiny tinfoil lock-ons. The Faslane Highland Games staged by activists in front of the gate included "Putt the haggis," "Welly (Wellington boot) Over the Faslane Sign," and a Punch and Judy Show in which an evil Arms Dealer convinces Punch and a peaceable Crocodile to buy bombs. (Punch and the Croc drop their bombs but get a chance to start over.) The Tug of Peace strayed into the gateway, the rope the right length to close the entrance.
The Bishop of Reading gave a sermon praising peacemakers whom the world often considers troublemakers, and then led a procession into the gateway. The police, unsure how to respond to this authority figure in mitre and vestments, parted like the Red Sea but formed a cordon across the closing gate. The congregation then offered a sign of peace, shaking hands with the chagrined police.
Drawing on a rich history
Direct action against nukes emerged early on this side of the Atlantic. In 1961, four thousand people sat down outside the Ministry of Defense in Whitehall, while in Scotland activists in kayaks attempted to turn back the US submarine Proteus when it arrived with nuclear weapons at the Holy Loch. Some actions have been small and spontaneous. Once people broke into a base and got into the control room of a Polaris sub. But the many peace camps that sprang up in the 1980s also reached out and empowered people to participate in big actions. The Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp organized 30,000 women to surround the base where US cruise missiles were stationed.
Faslane Peace Camp, which celebrated its 25th birthday in June, drew on experiences from US campaigns like Seabrook which organized mass civil disobedience and incorporated tools for horizontal decision-making. In 1998, Trident Ploughshares was launched, a nonviolent, open campaign to disarm Trident. In addition to "Big Blockades," members have organized some very successful "maximum disarmament actions." In 1999, three Ploughshares activists boarded a floating laboratory which checks the "sonar invisibility" of Trident submarines and threw all the equipment into Loch Goil.
Changing Tactics with the Times
But in 2001 the High Court of Scotland ruled that citizens had no right to do disarmament, finding that deployment of Trident was not illegal under international law. Though many experts have pointed out flaws in their arguments, anyone doing major damage in a disarmament action in Scotland would not be able to use a defense of necessity and would likely face a lengthy prison sentence.
This led to a change of strategy, toward mobilizing larger numbers of people to do blockading. Few people can risk a long jail term but many are willing to do a low-risk blockade once or twice a year, especially if there is good support and training. Yet we also realized that while Big Blockades generate a sense of "people power," there is a letdown when business goes on as usual the next day. Thus arose the idea for a sustained, year-long blockade.
The decision was also influenced by three important events that were coming up this year: the British government's proposal to replace Trident with the next generation of nuclear subs, the Scottish election scheduled for May, and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Prep Conference to be held in Vienna.
The ongoing blockade contributed to making the widespread opposition to Tony Blair's proposal to upgrade Trident highly visible. Though the proposal passed in Parliament the rebellion by 88 members of Parliament from Blair's own Labour Party was significant.
But in Scotland the political landscape was different. Seventy-six percent of Scots wanted to be rid of Trident. In May the Scottish National Party was elected to govern with an anti-Trident commitment. But when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, only certain governmental responsibilities were "devolved" to the Scottish Parliament and these do not include jurisdiction over "defense." Therefore the Scottish government has no say on nuclear weapons, even though they are based in Scotland. Nonetheless the new Scottish Parliament passed a resolution calling upon the UK not to replace Trident. This was a historic vote, the first time a Scottish Parliament had voted against nuclear weapons. With both the people and the Parliament of Scotland decisively opposed to Trident, the UK government is now enforcing the deployment of nuclear weapons against the express will of a people under its jurisdiction.
Faslane365 and beyond
Still, the questions here in Britain remain. How can we translate widespread public opposition to Trident into a change in government policy? Can the government of Scotland find a way to enact the will of its people?
Until disarmament begins we intend to build on the momentum and keep up the pressure not only because it is right to do so but because we have a very real expectation based on an analysis of the political situation that we can effect the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland. Indeed we see Scotland as a place where it is possible to break the logjam and, to borrow a metaphor from Henry Kissinger, start a domino effect which could lead to the abolition of nuclear weapons.
That is why we are inviting US peacemakers to join a delegation to come to Scotland for the Big Blockade on October 1, which will mark the culmination of this year of resistance. You can find out more or sign up on the US Group page on the Faslane365 website or contact email@example.com. If you cannot join us, send us your messages of support or organize a vigil in solidarity and let us know about it. Please visit the website at www.faslane365.org and Sign the Statement of Support.