Peace History: People, Politics and Culture’

 From Jim McCluskey

On Friday and Saturday (28/29) I attended a conference entitled ‘Peace History: People, Politics and Culture’ at the Imperial War Museum. This was very much worthwhile.


The first talk was by Peter van den Dungen of the University of Bradford Peace Studies Department. Peter is the world authority on Peace Museums.

 He is a brilliant and entertaining speaker – a very switched-on man with a wide-ranging vision of what constitutes peace. He spoke about the writings and ideas of Erasmus who he considers the first humanist advocate of peace, and the first person to analyse war from the humanist point of view. He (Erasmus) wrote a number of books exposing and condemning the inhumanity and insanity of war and what he had to say is still very relevant. 


Ian Christie of Birkbeck College spoke of Peace and Propaganda on Film and illustrated his talk with clips. One of the clips was from a film made by two students at Glasgow Art School. They made it entirely from their own resources and at virtually no cost. It is extremely witty, moving, and telling and is the sort of film an organisation like MFP could produce at some stage.


For me the star speaker was Peter Hennessy who spoke on his recent book ‘The Cabinet and the Bomb’. As you will know he is one of the most respected historians in the world today, and noted for his deep seriousness and the meticulous and painstaking quality of his work. It was a great surprise that he also has a marvelous sense of humour and a joyful lack of reverence for the august subjects of his studies. Someone in the audience made an observation which (he said) pressed all his buttons and thereafter he let rip with his opinions about the quality of our present political leadership. It was clear that he held Blair and his cabinet in utter contempt (we might not have agreed with politicians of the Healey/Whitelaw era, but at least ‘they were men’). 

He was also clearly sickened by the fact that all the cabinet decisions about ‘The

British Bomb’ were taken for trivial and self serving reasons (‘no foreign secretary is every going to talk to me like that again’ was one pre-bomb foreign secretary’s reason for voting for ‘a British bomb’). Hennessy, having read all the relevant cabinet papers since 1945, said that the question of the morality of the atomic and the hydrogen bombs and the suffering they might bring did not come into it.

The only conclusion that could be drawn from this paper and the others that were delivered at this conference is that we are not going to get sane and humane foreign policies from politicians without massive and sustained pressure from civil society.

Hennessy said ‘They will never, ever, give up their nuclear bombs. They may give up their new aircraft carriers [they are already talking about doing this], they may give up the Euro-fighter but they will never give up the bomb’. Politicians see their nuclear weapons as something that gives them personally prestige and power amongst their peers on the international stage. He said this became absolutely clear to him as he immersed himself in the transcripts of the, until now, secret exchanges in cabinet. 

I wont go on about the other speakers but all were well worth listening to.