Daniel Nelson

People Power poster

People Power poster

Image by Imperial War Museunm

I was bewildered. I come from a peace-loving country. Don’t I? We take up arms only if threatened. Isn’t that right?

Gradually I have learned that my more worldly friend was right. We do go to war a lot. A war every year for 100 years: take a look at the timeline.

But there's also a tradition of resistance, as an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London sets out to show: People Power: Fighting For Peace.

The 300-plus items include newsreels and public information films, giant banners, a handwritten poem by Siegfried Sassoon, photographs, badges, music, graphics, paintings, a reconstruction of Brian Haw's 10-year protest camp in Parliament Square, audio interviews, Greenham Common fencing ("Use the threads provided here to create your own feature") - evidence from the First World War to the recent wars in Afghanaistan and Iraq and placards from the 2016 Stop Trident demos backed by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

And to mark the exhibition, a facsimile of the Protest and Survive pamphet published by the government in 1980 as a guide how to survve a nuclear attack.

In addition, naturally and inescapably the museum shop offers "a new product range", from a Blessed Are the Peacemakers tea towel to Make Tea Not War mug.

It's a wide-ranging show, with fascinating byways, such as the launching of Operation Gandhi, whch claims to have carried out Britain's first nonviolent direct action protests, in 1952; a powerful film of servicemen publicly discarding medals, their oath of allegiance and other paraphernalia ("THese are my medals. They were given to me as a reward for invading other people's countries and murdering their civilians"), and bravery medals won by conscientious objectors. Britain was the first couyntry to recoignise COs, during the First World War.

Senior Curator Matt Brosnan told OneWorld that "anti-war protest obviously isn't unique to Britain, as shown at various points in the exhibition (including the numerous American anti-Vietnam War posters; the references to anti-nuclear protest camps in Italy in the 1980s and the international nature of 15 February 2003 protests against the Iraq War), though it has always had a vocal presence in Britain. 

"Most major democratic nations that have been involved in wars or have a nuclear deterrent have groups to protest against these things. Some British peace groups were affiliated to a wider international network or group - for example, the No More War Movement became the British arm of War Resisters International in the 1920s." 

He said British peace groups sometimes inspired national groups in other countries or wider international groups such as European Nuclear Disarmament, which was directly inspired by the UK's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and whose founding statement was written by mainly British authors.

At the end, after an exhausting display of the energy, commitment and creativity of the anti-war activists, the exhibition confronts the awkward, potentially demoralising question of how successful they have been. Outright successes seem rare: Prime Minister Harold Wilson keeping Britain out of involvement in Vietnam, the 2013 parliamentary vote against bombing Syria. The exhibition strives to put a positive gloss on the peace protesters' campaigns in the face of repeated wars and military actions but I feel this section deserved more analysis and space. 

* People Power: Fighting For Peace is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1, until 28 August, £10, children £5, conc £7.  Info: 7416 5000/ http://www.iwm.org.uk/ 

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