An influx of rookie MPs entered the House of Commons after the post-war 1945 General Election. One of the new intakes was the celebrated playwright, Benn Levy who’d won the Eton & Slough seat for the victorious Labour Party. This was someone more used to collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock rather than Herbert Morrison, yet he would bring a touch of West End razzmatazz to the fabled halls of Westminster.
This blog article was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer. Continuing our series on the history of Jewish MPs this blog will be drawing on documents taken from Levy’s personal papers held in our Archive. They detail his prominent role in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It was to be a short-lived Parliamentary career lasting only one term. Levy’s political legacy was his endeavour to come together with other like-minded individuals to face up to an atomic Armageddon with a humanitarian message that’s echoed through the ages.
Under a Nuclear Sky
In the spring of 1957 Britain began Hydrogen bomb testing on Christmas Island in the Pacific. The catastrophic consequences of a potential H-Bomb led to a group of liberal intellectuals taking up the protest baton. Amongst them was Benn Levy no longer a member of Parliament but now serving in a leadership council behind the newly established CND. This team included philosopher Bertrand Russell and fellow theatrical J.B Priestley who’d written in the movement’s policy statement that the arms race was an ‘idiotic game of bluff’. The unsung hero of those formative years was Secretary Peggy Duff who provided an administrative bedrock to proceedings and kept all the egos involved in check.
Somewhat removed from party politics the CND became an attractive proposition to the nation’s disillusioned youth. However, some of the middle-aged leaders were hopelessly out of synch with this new generation’s psyche. In the correspondence above Benn Levy had suggested that female student fundraisers should wear flowered chiffon dresses and red lipstick to entice monetary contributions at Flag Days. The clued-up Peggy Duff replied that the idea was ‘delightful’ with the caveat that bulk cosmetic purchasing was an expense they could do without. Subtle diplomacy was her forte.
If change was going to come, then the CND had to put their best foot forward. Their inaugural meeting at Westminster’s Central Hall in February 1958 attracted a five thousand strong crowd with the majority being locked out. Benn Levy spoke on this occasion and like the other founding fathers came to the realisation that the ‘short sharp campaign’ of lobbying they had envisioned wasn’t destined to be the chosen path. For pressure group now read protest movement with all that this entails.
The first organised large-scale demonstration took place the following June in London. A leaflet distributed to promote the event stated, ‘in the centre of Britain’s capital city we will march together in protest at this monstrous future’. Levy’s backstage communiques showed that the Committee were determined to extinguish any youthful exuberance that may trigger disorder. Thus, jazz combos were permitted to play but skiffle bands were discouraged from any en-route impromptu performances. The final stretch of the procession from Parliament to Trafalgar Square was choreographed to be walked in silence for maximum dramatic effect. Less publicised was an all-female rally staged at nearby Church House where actors Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans took the platform.
Sign of the Times
When you think of the CND movement the first thing that tends to come to mind is their iconic logo that was very much THE sign of the times. It had been unveiled in early 1958 and by September’s Ban the Bomb Week was pride of place in any publication issued by the organisation. Gerald Holtom, a professional artist, and Twickenham branch member designed the image to improve upon the cumbersome signage that he saw at earlier demonstrations. The central motif symbolised human despair with the circle representing the world and the black background denoting eternity. Letters sent to Benn Levy throughout this period were invariably emblazoned with an amateur biro penned version of Holtom’s bombastic design.
Ban the Bomb Week was a nationwide initiative that sought to dismiss the narrative driven by critics within the media who portrayed the CND as essentially London-centric. Levy wholeheartedly embraced grassroot regionalism travelling extensively sometimes accompanied by his wife actress Constance Cummings to areas such as Aberavon to assist the local volunteers. Later that month thousands of supporters descended on Scarborough to doorstep the Labour Party Conference heaping pressure on their young leader Hugh Gaitskell to make public a commitment to unilateral disarmament.
Rite of Passage
For any budding late-fifties beatnik, the annual CND pilgrimage to Aldermaston became something of a rite of passage. This unassuming Berkshire town housed the UK’s leading weapons research centre where the homegrown nuclear bomb would be developed for destructive means. The March to London over the Easter weekend in 1959 held extra significance as it was an election year. Promotional material directly rebuked Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his vilified Defence Secretary Duncan Sandys. Gallup polls declared that the ‘Ban the Bomb’ mission had a record-high approval rating of 30% though this figure was far greater across a younger demographic.
Benn Levy alongside the movement’s chairman Canon Collins ceremonially started the march which fortunately was not plagued by seasonal bad weather that had hindered previous years. Levy had persuaded a reluctant CND hierarchy to hire the services of documentary filmmaker Lindsay Anderson to chronicle this epoch-making moment. Anderson’s film highlighted the broad church of peaceful protestors as a steel band version of the Saints Go Marching In provided the soundtrack. Two days and fifty-three miles later they arrived at Trafalgar Square as the multitude soared to twenty thousand matching the attendances of similar rallies that took place in West Germany.
Every Penny Counts
Thin air alone couldn’t finance the running costs for a mass protest movement. Despite the high profile of some of its major patrons, the CND wasn’t blessed with a benefactor willing to write lucrative cheques to aid the cause. Benn Levy and Nancy Duff were entrusted to keep the ship afloat which was a precarious exercise. Transaction sheets from Levy’s files show that at the beginning of 1959 the CND account held £913 and seven schillings as numerous outgoings squeezed that respectable total to the limits. What was imperative to their financial well-being was the sale of books and the all-important badges proudly adorned on many an activist’s duffel coat.
The prize for who wrote the most influential tome was a heavyweight battle of the minds between Levy and Bertrand Russell. In terms of sales, Russell was the outright winner. An internal Literature Report from 1959 noted that Russell’s apocalyptic themed If Man is to Survive sold 9,735 copies over a five-month span while Levy’s Britain and the Bomb shifted not too shabby sales of 2,485. A letter to Levy from Mr Le Vay of the Dulwich Youth Group suggested that Britain and the Bomb went ‘too easy on the Russians’.
Then & Now
Being part of the zeitgeist wasn’t enough for the CND to have an influence upon party manifestos for the 1959 General Election. Accusations of the movement being too holier-than-thou in their philosophy was gaining traction. The North West CND Bulletin published that winter considered the prospect of popularity waning due to the absence of a civil disobedience programme. As a new decade dawned a fresh direction was needed. It was the end of the beginning and the start of the barricades.
At this juncture, Benn Levy stepped away from the frontline after suffering a heart attack. Withdrawing to the Oxfordshire countryside where he bred Friesian cattle till his death in 1973. Canon Collins, the St Paul’s Cathedral radical departed after disputing the direct-action trend turning his attentions to anti-apartheid campaigning. Bertrand Russell the last of the original torchbearers remained famously being sentenced to two months imprisonment for a breach of the peace at the grand old age of eighty-nine.
Researching the birth of the CND Movement via Levy’s Papers the author of the blog was moved by the good nature of their protests. Particularly the idea that all sectors of British society are emboldened by an uplifting communal spirit to achieve the same common goal.
LEV/40, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 1954-1958, Parliamentary Archives
LEV/41, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 1959, Parliamentary Archives
The CND Story, edited by John Minnion & Phillip Bolsover
CND at Sixty, Kate Hudson
Oxford Dictionary National Biography Vol 33, Benn Levy, written by Eric Shorter
Film of the 1959 Aldermaston March, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0r6Hw_-VuE