'REMEMBERING COMMON BONDS'

Audio: What did the women's protest against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common achieve? [Click here.]

By David Fairhall

Guardian Website – 17 September 2006

Over the past fortnight the Guardian's Newsroom – the archive and visitor centre opposite the paper's main offices in Farringdon Road – has been hosting an old girls' reunion like no other. It began on September 5 with a preview of the exhibition commemorating the 25th anniversary of the mass women's protest at Greenham Common against the basing there of US nuclear cruise missiles.

An impressive number of Greenham women have turned up. Of course they came to see the exhibition – mainly photographic, plus posters, cartoons, and an authentic chunk of the airbase fencing with bolt cutters the women used to cut through it. But they were also attracted by the chance to meet people they hadn't seen for 20 years or more; to compare notes on how their lives had diverged since those great days at Greenham; to renew old friendships and settle – well, almost – old arguments about how a women's protest should properly be conducted.

Towards the end of the evening several pulled up a row of chairs to watch Beeban Kidron's 1983 film, Carry Greenham Home, projected on to the Newsroom wall, hoping to recognise familiar faces among those younger women blockading the airfield gates or struggling to resist the Newbury bailiffs. I was relieved to see a number of women clutching my book about Greenham (launched at the same occasion) but not looking too alarmed that a mere man should be celebrating their history.

That was two weeks ago. Last week the Newsroom invited five people with strong, pertinent opinions on the subject to assess the Greenham women's legacy, and the extent to which arguments disputed so passionately 25 years ago are still relevant in today's world – you can hear their discussion here (mp3, 60 minutes, 28Mb).

Representing the women (though to be Greenham-correct, no woman can really represent any other) were Rebecca Johnson, who spent five years of her life battling away at the Berkshire airbase, and Sasha Roseneil. Both have since become academics, Rebecca, running the Acronym Institute for disarmament diplomacy, Sasha a professor of sociology and gender studies at Leeds University.

They were joined by two combative politicians of widely differing persuasions – Clare Short (who has meanwhile announced her intention to abandon Blair's Labour Party at the next general election) and Julian Lewis, the Tories' shadow defence minister and long-time critic of CND's unilateralist anti-nuclear stance.

Providing mediation where necessary, and a long Cold War memory, was Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University.

Everyone acknowledged the extraordinary nature of the protest, its scale, its duration, the fact that only women took part. For Sasha Roseneil it revealed "different ways of being a woman". Rebecca Johnson heard "a whole generation of women" speaking out to "question the military basis of security".

Almost everyone (the exception was Julian Lewis, who thought the protest if anything counter-productive) believed the women contributed in some degree to the eventual destruction of the US cruise missiles under the east-west Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987, if only by exerting grassroots pressure on politicians and diplomats. Paul Rogers went further, suggesting that the INF deal between Reagan and Gorbachev might not have been reached as early as it was had the Greenham women and others like them not been demanding an end to nuclear confrontation.

As the discussion turned towards today's nuclear conundrums – the Trident deterrent force, nuclear power, and our lack of any formal control over US nuclear weapons still stockpiled on a US airbase in Suffolk – Clare Short and Julian Lewis came head to head.

The rebellious Labour MP's scorn for Tony Blair's Iraq policy is well enough known – she resigned from his government over it. Now she dismissed Gordon Brown's "ridiculous announcement" that he favoured a Trident replacement as "an incitement to others" (such as Iran) and "an invitation to proliferation".

There was, finally, unanimous agreement that such important decisions should not be taken without the informed public debate ostensibly favoured by John Reid, when he was still defence secretary, but not much conviction that it will actually happen.

[For Julian's own contribution to the Guardian Website, click here.]