...The assumption was that all reasonable, humane people must surely agree that nuclear weapons were inherently evil; the only real issue was whether one supported unilateral disarmament by the British, reaching for some kind of moral high-ground, or whether Britain’s weapons should be negotiated away in a bilateral or multilateral deal that would see the Soviet Union remove an equivalent number of theirs. It was an assumption that came close to orthodoxy in artistic circles. ‘Poets must be allowed to feel the full horror of nuclear warfare even more than ordinary mortals,’ observed Lord Longford, thinking of his dramatist son-in-law, Harold Pinter, though he might also have looked to the likes of Edward Bond, whose six-hour trilogy The War Plays was staged at the Barbican Centre in 1985, or Martin Amis, whose Einstein’s Monsters (1987) was a collection of short stories all concerned with nuclear weapons.
But the government was evidently not run by writers or artists. And the government was very firmly in favour of nuclear weapons, arguing that they were the only reliable defence against Russian aggression; for those believed in a potentially imminent invasion of Britain by the Soviet Union, the nuclear option was the sole guarantor of peace. After watching The Day After and similar films, Michael Heseltine concluded: ‘Whatever the horrors portrayed, the essential fact remained: Soviet nuclear weapons were targeted on Western cities.’ And his job was clear: ‘We had to win the argument and turn the tide.’
It was not a simple task, for by now even the language of the debate was against him, the word ‘peace’ having effectively been claimed by anti-nuclear campaigners as their own, much as the expression ‘pro-life’ was subsequently annexed by anti-abortionists. But Heseltine was one of the more adaptable politicians of the time and, when government research showed that the framing of terms was crucial to winning the propaganda battle, he adopted a new linguistic policy: CND were henceforth referred to as ‘one-sided disarmers’, the names of specific weapons systems were avoided, and the phrase ‘Britain’s independent deterrent’ became standard.
Whilst it remained on this general level, with its undertones of patriotism, the government’s case proved effective in arguing its case. It was less impressive when the discussion moved back to the realities of nuclear war, finding itself out of tune with the times. The 1980 pamphlet, Protect and Survive, explained ‘how to make your home and your family as safe as possible under nuclear attack’, and was roundly derided as soon as it became public, since few really believed in the possibility, let alone the desirability, of surviving a nuclear strike, even if one did whitewash one’s windows.
When a nuclear missile is found in the kitchen belonging to The Young Ones, Neil follows what he understands to be official guidance and paints himself white, while the animated film of Raymond Briggs’s 1982 book, When the Wind Blows, mocked the absurdities and inconsistencies of government advice; its central character, James Bloggs displays levels of optimism and faith in central authority that Candide would have admired: ‘Ours not to reason why,’ he says, as he constructs his safe haven, ‘ours but to, er, something or other.’
Meanwhile, the home office minister, Douglas Hurd, attempted to reassure MPs that they shouldn’t rely on American studies of the effects of nuclear attack, because ‘British houses tend to be somewhat more solid than American houses’, and then had to break off to deal with the laughter that ensued. ‘Why the giggles?’ he demanded, puzzled that his faith in the construction industry to save humanity wasn’t universally shared...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2010