On the 50th anniversary of the CND Ed West talks to Bruce Kent about the ex-PM's conversion, the arms race and why the Pope needs better PR
nifty years ago this Sunday the first modern mass movement came to life with a public meeting at London's Westminster Central Hall. There, 5,000 people took part in the inauguration of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And yet, although the CND has inspired groups such as Amnesty and Friends of the Earth, it is often forgotten how much the global movement owes to Christianity.
Bruce Kent, who as Mg Bruce Kent was the leader of the group, says there was always a strong faith-driven caucus. "CND's first chairman Canon John Collins was very Christian. Bertrand Russell obviously wasn't," he recalls. "But there's always been a strong Christian element in CND. That's still true today."
Not far off his ninth decade, Mr Kent (as he has been known since he left the priesthood) is still active, both globally and locally. When I speak to him he's about to head off to a justice and peace meeting at his local parish of St Mellitus in Tollington Park, north London. And, at 78, he's also actively involved still in the Movement for the Abolition of War, chairman of an inmates' rights charity called Progressing Prisoners Maintaining Innocence, and active in Amnesty and CND.
He grew up in a comfortable British middle-class household, although both his parents were Canadian, and he inherited his Catholicism from his FrenchCanadian mother. "I also have an Irish great-grandmother, from Tipperary," he says with a laugh when told this is usually a requirement.
After Stonyhurst and evacuation in Canada dining the Second World War, he did his national service in the tank regiment. This included six months in Belfast, although this wasn't the eyeopener one would imagine.
"It was a great learning curve later on, because I realised that though Belfast looked peaceful, it was under the surface far from it. There was a great sense of injustice and discrimination, but we were completely innocent of that. I knew a great deal about Henry VIII but nothing about Irish, history. Nevertheless, I always realised afterwards that peace is much more than people looking tranquil.
"Looking back and at other incidents of injustice I suppose the Canadian bishops used the phrase that 'structural violence is also violence'. People aren't being shot, but if they're still oppressed it's a form of violence. The rest of the time I spent in Worksop with about 100 tanks, keeping them clean and running around the airfield, preparing for World War Three.'; After Oxford he entered semi nary and was ordained in 1958.1t was only around this time that he became involved in the peace movement. "I joined Pax Christi as a young priest in about 1958 and I initially was quite bored listening to papal announcements being read at meetings."
His awakening came when he came into contact with Spanish and Portuguese conscientious objectors. "These boys were being forced into prison if they didn't go and fight in Africa," he remembers. "I couldn't understand why these nice Catholic countries were not following Catholic teaching by allowing conscientious objection. I suppose after that came [the champion of nuclear disarmament] Archbishop Thomas Roberts and nuclear weapons, and then a trip to Nigeria during the civil war. It was kind of a slow progress.
Kent joined the CND in 1959. a year after its formation. -CND was very exciting and challenging for young people. although I wasn't that young. There was an atmosphere that if only we could get Britain to take a sensible position then the rest of the world would follow. Young people felt I wasn't all that young myselfon the cusp of history."
And yet, ultimately, it could be said that it failed, in the sense that Britain did not disarm, and nor did any other state. Does he have any regrets?
"I would have made it clearer that CND was not only concerned with the unilateral disarmament of Britain's nuclear weapons, but a general disarmament in which getting rid of Britain's nuclear weapons was part of the package," he answers. "There was a slightly hopeful view in the early 1960s that if only Britain did something then the two major powers would change course. It didn't really take into account the dependency Britain had on the United States, nor on the wealth of British nationalism. In public opinion terms we didn't calculate how great that was."
It was easy for the media to paint Mgr Kent as a tool of the Soviet Union, and as press attacks became more vicious it made his position in the Church difficult. Most biographies of Kent state that he resigned from the priesthood in 1987, although this isn't strictly true. "I did not resign, I retired,he insists. "I've kept that distinction clear. It was the election year of 1987 and I'd had the most fearful attacks on me from conservatives for being a priest and involved in nuclear disarmament.
"I was not being defended by Cardinal Hume. He was buying time with his critics. I knew that with the election coming it was going to get even worse, and that I was only waiting for them to tell me to get out, and if they did issue an order I wouldn't get out. 1 would call it, in industrial terms, constructive dismissal."
It was an impossible position both for Mgr Kent and, he concedes, the Cardinal, but the falling-out wasn't personal. "Not at all, Cardinal Basil Hume was a gentleman but he lived in a different world. His brother-inlaw was secretary to the Cabinet, and he was at Ampleforth and he had a strong military background. We never had a shouting match or anything like that."
Always a campaigning figure, Kent flirted with the idea of party politics, standing as a Labour candidate at the next election, in the safe Tory seat of Abingdon.
"A great mistake," he reflects. "Kinnock was changing the policies and I said: 'You don't lose votes by standing honestly on the nuclear issue.' So someone said: 'Why don't you stand?' I didn't lose any votes but I had no hope of being elected. A good experience, but I would have been a disaster. because I've got one or two focuses and MPs have to be jacks-of-all-trades." Today, Kent remains a loyal Catholic, although he says Benedict XVI is in need of a better public relations officer. "If you make hysterical remarks about Muslims, then you create international outrage. You need a PR officer who knows who carries things along. Twice I made major mistakes in the 1980s, by saying things which were true but which the press would seize upon and make something of. I was naïve. In that respect whoever advises the Pope is naïve. But he's the-Pope and I'm a Catholic, and I listen with respect."
He listens with slightly less respect to another major world leader, the man who has arguably done more for the anti-war movement than anyone else.
"Bush is a very misguided man," Kent says. "He's made some terrible mistakes and he's not very clever. Obama makes remarks that are occasionally more in my direction, but in the US there are a whole army of people behind you. there's colossal pressure from the arms companies. But when George Bush goes I will not be sorry."
What does he think of Tony Blair being welcomed into the Church? "Blair is a tragic figure. He came in with a massive majority. He could have done almost anything for the good, and he hasn't. And his great mistake was the Iraq war. It's not for me to welcome people into the Catholic Church, but I do not see why he was given red carpet treatment. He should have been received into his local church and gone through the process like anyone else."
Kent's other major great cause is Amnesty, a group founded by a Catholic, which recently has lost the trust of many Catholics because of its stance on abortion. Kent will put forward a resolution at this year's AGM asking that people who object to abortion be allowed to tick a box ensuring that their money is not used in any way to promote it.
"If you read the correspondence in the Amnesty journal there's a lot of disquiet about what's being done," he says.
Will he leave if his motion fails? "No. How would that help the tortured and cruelly imprisoned? But I will stillurge a rethink and a respect for the consciences of others at every opportunity." And yet war remains his big issue, with the danger of mass murder arguably more real than ever. "There are 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, any of which is capable of failing,he says. "We have a greater unpredictability, with India and Pakistan, and non-state actors, getting hold of nuclear material. People are realising there is no security. It's exactly what Benedict has said: that nuclear weapons are fallacious and painful." Kent remains convinced as ever that the idealistic youth of half a century ago were right. "I do think we have an opportunity, and I hope the Church gets behind it, to get abolition on to the agenda for the 2010 conference. I think what CND has said over the years is getting truer and truer."