Although there were bodies such as the Youth Peace Assembly before the Second World War (the picture is of a 1937 demonstration), it was in 1950 when the British Peace Assembly (BPA) was first established.
An affiliate of the WORLD PEACE COUNCIL (WPC), it was itself called the British Peace Committee (BPC) for its first quarter of a century (for clarity it is referred to as the BPA throughout this piece).
WPC had been created the previous year as an international movement to promote peaceful coexistence and nuclear disarmament. WPC global headquarters were in Paris from 1949, when it was known as the World Committee of Partisans for Peace. It moved its global headquarters first to Prague in 1951, and then to Vienna until 1957, followed by Helsinki, and it is now based in Athens.
BPA’s first chairman, James Gerald Crowther (1899–1983), was a pioneering exponent of the social relations of science. A regular correspondent of the main newspapers of the day, he appeared in the Guardian and the New Scientist for the half century from the 1920s. His popular books include The ABC of Chemistry (1932) and Science at War (1947). Crowther played a key role in the establishment of the post-war United Nations Organisation for Education, Science, Culture and Communication (Unesco) via the WPC.
An All-Britain Peace Conference organised by the BPA in 1950 brought together 830 delegates representing 2,233,080 members of various organisations, including several national trades unions. Whilst the first Secretary of the BPA was a Communist, Bill Wainwright, the organisation has had the longstanding support of prominent members of the Labour Party. A key figure in the late 20th century was Gordon Schaffer, along with Liberal Party member, Mrs Verdun Pearl.
Christian sponsors included Reverend O. Fielding Clarke, Reverend C. C. J. Butlin, Reverend Alan Ecclestone, Reverend T. E. Nicholas, Reverend L. J. Bliss, Reverend Alex Reid, and Reverend E. Charles, but the most famous was the Anglican Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson.
As well as being one of the founding members of the BPA, Johnson (pictured left) was a member of its National Council, spoke at its public meetings, wrote in its publications, launched a yearly appeal for funds, and even conducted a church service after BPA conferences. There were 8 Christian ministers of religion on its first General Council, while messages of support were frequently received from others such as the well-known Methodist, Donald Soper.
During the first months of its existence, the organisation’s main priority was to collect signatures for the Stockholm appeal in favour of a total ban on nuclear weapons. Nearly 300 million people world-wide signed up. The text of the Appeal read: “We demand the outlawing of atomic weapons as instruments of intimidation and mass murder of peoples. We demand strict international control to enforce this measure. We believe that any government which first uses atomic weapons against any other country whatsoever will be committing a crime against humanity and should be dealt with as a war criminal. We call on all men and women of good will throughout the world to sign this appeal.”
In Britian, the campaign involved distributing leaflets, organising local meetings, staffing street stalls, and knocking on doors. Over a million signatures – then 2% of the entire British population – were collected in three months, making it one of the most successful petitions of the twentieth century in our country.
The Second Congress of the World Peace Council convened in Sheffield Town Hall in September 1950. See above.
The Labour Home Secretary and the intelligence services tried their utmost to sabotage it by refusing eminent scientists, artists and philosophers entry visas to Britain, although Pablo Picasso managed to get through the net and go for a much publicised haircut! But proceedings were so disrupted that the congress was moved to Warsaw.
In the 1950s the BPA campaigned against US air bases in Britain, against German rearmament, and germ warfare. It was opposed to Britain’s possessing its own nuclear weapons, but it stressed the need for international agreements between the world’s major military powers.
BPA welcomed the development of the campaign against nuclear disarmament in Britain and has never aimed to replicate or overshadow the unilateralist movement. But the 1960s did suggest a new direction for BPA, as does the modern era. Back then, the BPA went through several phases of development.
In 1974, still known as the British Peace Committee, BPA was superseded by the All-Britain Peace Liaison Group (ABPLG), which was responsible for the Forum to End the Arms Race for World Disarmament, held at York in April 1976.
In April 1980, the Group re-emerged as the British Peace Assembly (BPA), with Jim Lamond as President. The Labour MP for Oldham until he retired at the 1992 general election, Lamond was also a vice-president of the World Peace Council, and founder chairman of the British-GDR Society.
This signaled not only a tighter link with British trades unions but a wider aim in the context of Britain’s role as a former imperial power. As Romesh Chandra, its President, wrote in January 1981: “detente by no means implied that the oppressed and exploited were deprived of their legitimate right to fight, with arms in hand, for liberation from national and social oppressions”.
The BPA participated in the WPC’s main international events during the last years of the 20th century, such as its world peace congresses, two thousand strong, held about every three years.
Although still focused on global peace and nuclear tests in the late 1980s (see poster, left), in 1987, the British Peace Assembly bi-monthly journal, The Newsletter: Facts the Media Ignore (July/August 1987) raised the issue of germ warfare once again.
The WPC then became influential in the Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations in Consultative Status with ECOSOC, known as CONGO and British supporters payed a role for a time.
WPC is also a participant in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and UNESCO, amongst other global fora.
In 1989, BPA organised a conference on conventional and non-nuclear disarmament at what was then South Bank polytechnic college, moving into a more low key research and international liaison approach until recently, with the development of this site and a core organising team.