Today in legal history: six Committee of 100 activists go on trial, for breaching Official Secrets Act, 1962.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as the Cold War arms race increased stockpiles of nuclear missiles across the world, and superpower tensions brought us to the brink of World War 3, movements arose protesting the existence of such irrevocable weaponry and campaigning for disarmament. In Britain, organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament focused on marches, petitioning and demonstrations. However, a more radical wing emerged, dissatisfied with this approach, which launched campaigns of direct actions to blockade and disrupt nuclear missile bases and the government institutions responsible for ‘defence’. First through the Direct Action Committee, from 1957, and through the more high profile Committee of 100, from 1960, this more radical wing of the anti-nuclear movement organised sit-down protests in Whitehall and outside the US embassy, and at missile bases.

Police were ordered to take a hard line against them from the start. Hundreds were arrested on the demos in central London; but the 1961 campaign targeting bases brought fiercer repression.

ON 8th December 1961, six leading activists from the anti-nuclear direct action organisation, the Committee of 100, were arrested as they prepared for demonstrations at Wethersfield NATP base and other nuclear sites. Ian Dixon, Helen Allegranza, Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Terry Chandler and Trevor Hatton were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and remanded on bail.

Their trial began on February 12th 1962.

“Despite the Attorney General’s assertion at the outset that it was not a ‘political prosecution… They are being prosecuted… on account of their conduct which…. Amounted to the commission of a criminal offence,” the trial was above all else a highly charged confrontation between the ideology of the Committee of 100 and the ideology of the state. The contrast between the refusal of the judge to allow evidence relating to the beliefs and motivations of the Committee and the overtly political nature of the prosecution’s case brought into sharp relief the already extant move of the Committee activists towards an anarchist or libertarian socialist analysis.

… Early in the trial the Judge ruled that, whilst the purpose of the accused in going to the base was relevant, their motives of beliefs were not. In his opening statement the Attorney general had outlined three questions for the jury to decide, the last of which was to decide whether the protestors’ purposes were prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State. In his submission, he had added, any interference with the defence system of the country must obviously be so. Mr Jeremy Hutchinson, who acted for all the defendants save Pottle, based his defence on three basic points: that the defendants did not intend to prejudice the safety and interest of the State by their actions; that their beliefs were reasonable and well supported by the evidence; and that their actions were not in fact prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State.

By his ruling that evidence relating to motives and beliefs was inadmissible, and his further statements that any evidence which sought to challenge the defence system of the country, and any evidence about the effects of nuclear explosions, dangers of war, etc., were also to be disallowed, the judge effectively ruled out of order the whole defence case.

The defence case rested ultimately on the moral duty of using non-violent resistance to oppose genocide through nuclear war. Parallels were drawn with Nazism and the Nuremberg judgments. (In the circumstances, Pat Pottle’s achievement in establishing that the prosecution witness, Air Commodore Magill, would, if ordered, ‘press the nuclear button’, was nevertheless a telling point in the defendants’ case.)

In an exchange with the judge, for example, Randle argued:

Every individual must finally decide whether millions of lives are threatened by a particular act, and in that situation I think they have the right to make that decision… There were people in Germany during the Nazi regime who were ordered to commit what have since been defined as crimes against humanity. They would have ben going against the law of their country by disobeying their order. I feel they have a moral duty to disobey that order in that situation.

Judge: As far as I can see it means this doesn’t it, if you disagree with the law you break it?

Randle: Not in general, only in particular situations… Where I think it is flouting basic human rights I will certainly disobey it, and I feel it would be a moral obligation to disobey… I feel that the use of nuclear weapons is always contrary to basic human rights. I cannot see any situation in which they would be justified against human beings.

Randle went on to put forward the Committee’s objective of filling the jails so that the Government ‘would have to face up to the logic of being prepared to commit genocide, If they are prepared to do it against people they must be prepare to do it against us. That is the position we want to put them in.’

There was a conceptual, ideological and cultural gulf between the Attorney-General and the defendants that was unbridgeable. Sir Reginald [Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General] appeared genuinely baffled: ‘What he [Randle] said amounted, did it not, to this: “we have decided what laws we broke, after very careful consideration… And where we see fit, we break the law.” It really is an admission of rather an astonishing character.’

Ultimately the case turned on these rival conceptions – which were fundamental, moral, and political – and not upon legal niceties. The legal smokescreen merely disguised, somewhat ineffectively, the clash of ideologies and cultures. There was never any doubt that the judge would virtually direct the jury to find the defendants guilty. Even so, the jury was out for four hours before entering a ‘guilty’ verdict, and even then recommended leniency. The sentences were harsh… All five men were sentenced to eighteen months in prison and Helen Allegranza to one year.”

Although the six defendants acquitted themselves well in court, the trial had a disastrous effect on the movement. “Not only was the movement deprived of its most able and experienced leaders for a long period, but the deterrent effect of the sentences was certainly a major factor in the Committee’s decline during 1962. The trial brought home to the Committee its inadequacy when faced by the might of the state. It was probably this more than anything else which brought about the demoralisation which… affected the Committee increasingly through 1962 and into early 1963. The trial indicated that the use of Non-Violent Direct Action alone, on the lines advocated and practiced by the Committee of 100, was neither powerful nor sophisticated enough to challenge seriously and in the long term the power of the State.”

Many of the leading elements of both the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 identified themselves as coming from an anarchist or libertarian socialist standpoint, and this influenced their emphasis on direct action, rather than the appealing to the state that had characterised CND. Committee of 100 activists would go on in 1963-4 to investigate and release details of the secret command systems for civil defence, under the name Spies for Peace.

Well worth reading: Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1964, Richard Taylor, from which quotes in this post are taken.

A parliamentary publication on the history of the Official Secrets Act.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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