2 MAY 1987, Page 33

The battle fought and lost

Paul Barker

TROUBLESOME PEOPLE by Caroline Moorehead

Hamish Hamilton, £14.95

TIME FOR PEACE by Peter Calvocoressi

Hutchinson, £12.95, £5.95

When I was a child, I lived next door to a man who was sent to prison in the first world war as a conscientious objector. He had been, I think, a member of the ILP. He had a friendly but self-contained air, like a Quaker. He gave me a set of J encyclopaedias, also dating back to those days, which I still have. Paradoxically, they set out the sort of world against which he objected. They were published by North- cliffe. Every national or racial cliche is mongered. In China, the Boxer rebellion --- then not long in the past — was an incomprehensible revolt by the yellow race against its British and French benefactors.

Men like him are the 'troublesome people' Caroline Moorehead chronicles. They fought, we can now see, a very important battle. And lost it. The second world war is often seen as the turning point for British society in this century. In fact, the war against the Kaiser broke all the barriers that mattered. The most crucial was: how far can the state organise your life?

From 1939 to 1945, the state organised every inch of British life: far more than in any other combattant nation. (You could say it has taken us most of the years since to get over this.) The pass was sold well before 1939. The key date, and the start for Caroline Moorehead's account, was 1916. Conscription was reluctantly introduced by Asquith — and joyfully enforced by Lloyd George. The press gang in seaports was the only precedent. It was new to British life. fek cluster of men was brave enough to say no'. It is these, and their successors, that Caroline Moorehead has interviewed (where they are still alive) and documented.

She describes her book as travels among `the war resisters' and she takes the story up to (ireenham Common. But both that term, and the period covered, beg a question that I will come back to.

Pacifism cannot be separated from a view of the state. In Russia today, Jeho- vah's Witnesses are sent to the camps because they will not accept the state's right to tell them to do military service.

We should not get too smug. Caroline Moorehead tracks down one Jehovah's Witness, William Heard, to his pebble- dashed retirement in Sussex. Even in the second world war — when things had generally become much more civilised for objectors — he had a miserable time. But, at least, British officialdom threw in its hand after his third prison sentence. He was given a shilling and told to go away.

Caroline Moorehead and Peter Calvo- coressi (in a kind of Open University survey of attitudes to peace and war down the ages) underline the tenaciousness of pacifism. Without that, it could not be clung to in the face of such public hostility. Men have died for it.

The leaders were sometimes prima don- nas. When Bertrand Russell went to gaol in the first world war, it was a 'first division' sentence. His cell was cleaned by another prisoner, for , sixpence a day, and he had the Times, his own furniture, books and flowers. All the same, Russell — who is a thread through much of Caroline Moorehead's story — emerges well in the early years. 'It is not only I that am in the dock', he said, 'it is the whole tradition of British liberty.' He was right.

He was tried under the new Defence of the Realm Act: another tombstone to British individualism.

In the first world war, 16,000 British men laid conscientious objections before tribunals. Over 6,000 were arrested, and almost as many court-martialled (50 of them five times; three, six times). 819 men spent over two years in goal, much of the time in solitary confinement on bread and water. About 70 died (the figure is not certain); 39 went mad.

And yet they failed. The principle of state control was established. In 1939 a conscription law was brought in before war broke out. There was hardly a murmur. It was safe enough, now, to treat any new conchies well (William Heard, a very determined, and no doubt infuriating man, was an exception). In the Kaiser's war, only the anarchic Irish had been wholly let off the conscriptional hook.

In this new war, my neighbour's son was not only conscripted, but directed down the mines — a new twist — as a Bevin boy.

As both Peter Calvocoressi in his survey, and Caroline Moorehead (whose book is that of a first-rate reporter), bring out, pacifism changed after the first world war. Sometimes it became sillier. The Kibbo Kift movement pranced round in green shirts, like regimented ecologists. The Peace Pledge Union's campaigns seem astonishingly naive. Generally the snag was that the new 'war resisters' started to focus on objections, not to war or State regulation as such, but to wars other than a Just War. (Calvocoressi is good on the theology of all this.) Some wars, it now turned out, were all right: against fascism perhaps, or against communism. But not other wars. Some weapons were Just (machine-guns or high explosives). But others (nuclear bombs) were not. The complexity, or rather tangle, of this thinking makes Caroline Moore- head's report harder for her to shape as it gets nearer the present. But she imparts, as always, fascinating information — about Gandhi in the East End, for example, or about American conscientious objectors. For his part, Peter Calvocoressi ends up clinging to the United Nations as a philo- sophical life-raft.

I had forgotten about the Berrigan Brothers till I read Troublesome People. They and their Jonah Community in Balti- more reject everything warlike about the US state. They break into bases; they trespass on defence plants. In the face of gaol and public venom, they have a de- fiance you have to respect. If Neil Kinnock really wanted to make a point about his rejection of the American military- industrial complex, I wonder why he didn't visit them? They are the US equivalent of Andrei Sakharov.