“We gotta stop this. It’s all wrong” – the long struggle to bring to light Bristol’s hidden role in the arms trade

As the early sun rose into blue skies on the morning of January 22nd, well-known local activist Rowland Dye dropped a banner from the M32 footbridge, not far from his home in St Paul’s. 

The banner drop was a protest against the nuclear weapons industry; the date marked the coming into effect of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This much the papers covered. But Row, who holds a PhD in nuclear medicine, had an ulterior motive. His banner sought to raise awareness about a hidden story, one that Bristolians should be paying far more attention to. 

As Row put it ‘The reason I did that banner drop off the bridge is I wanted an opportunity to talk about the nuclear bomb convoy that came through the middle of Bristol last September’. 

Row's banner drop from the M32 footbridge.
Row’s banner drop on the M32 footbridge. Photo courtesy of Rowland Dye.

Bristol’s Dirty Secrets

Four months before Row’s banner drop, had you been standing on the same footbridge you would have seen a military convoy leaving Bristol. Whilst non-descript from the outside, this convoy had a dirty secret: it was carrying nuclear warheads. 

Such convoys are in themselves nothing unusual: one leaves Aldermaston, near Newbury in Berkshire every six weeks to carry nuclear warheads up to Coulport in Scotland, where they are loaded onto Trident submarines. They do not usually travel through Bristol, however. 

And whilst the answer to why this particular convoy took a detour is not clear, what is clear is the risk it posed. As Row put it “if there was a crash and a fire, and the plutonium got spread on the wind around Bristol it’d be no small matter. It’s ludicrous.”

Row tells me that this is merely the tip of the iceberg, with much happening under the noses of Bristolians. For instance, every Wednesday at around 16:30, a train passes through Temple Meads station carrying nuclear material. The risks posed to Bristolians from this are, in Row’s opinion, just as high as the vehicle convoy of September 2020. 

But Bristol is more than a stopping point for trucks and trains; our city has plenty of permanent fixtures. According to Bristol Against the Arms Trade, Bristol and the surrounding area is home to 45 companies directly or indirectly linked with the military.

What ties this all together is the Ministry of Defence (MoD) site at Abbeywood, in Filton. This is the British military’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) procurement centre, meaning that many of the arms and munitions deployed in Britain’s foreign wars are acquired right here in Bristol. 

The Abbeywood site also houses military logistics, through which the weapons being procured are sent to army bases around the world. According to Row, this includes bases in the Middle East, for use in the war in Yemen. Further, as Row goes on to tell me, many of the pilots flying the planes that drop those bombs will have their training organised and coordinated by staff at Abbeywood. 

The MoD site is not far away from Patchway police station. In a brutal twist of fate, some of the refugees and asylum seekers who travel weekly to Patchway to sign-on were forced from their homes by weapons procured by staff at the Abbeywood procurement centre. 

Possibilities for Action and Barriers to Action

With the extent of the arms industry as it is in Bristol, what opportunities are there for people, like Row, to take action? 

There are several prominent campaigns and groups today, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), XR Peace (which is a coalition of many groups) and Trident Ploughshares, each doing commendable work to disrupt the systems that allow places like Abbeywood to function. 

Trident Ploughshares, for instance, use direct action to disrupt the nuclear arms industry, and have successfully protested directly both inside and outside Faslane, where the Trident submarines are based. 

Trident Ploughshares lock-on outside Burghfield. Image credit: Rowland Dye.

However, from a general activist perspective, there are extensive barriers to effective protesting against the arms industry.  

Firstly, too many people simply aren’t aware of the issues in the first place, and thus gaining a popular backing for protest is almost impossible. This is, as Row tells me, due to extensive propaganda around the industry. 

Row has experienced this propaganda first hand. As he told me, despite his doctorate in nuclear medicine and recognition of the good that nuclear science can achieve, “the scales fell from my eyes” with the nuclear industry as a whole when he found out that the British military was dumping radioactive waste in the Irish sea and blaming the medical industry. 

Whilst today nuclear power is certainly not as popular as it once was, with even civil nuclear projects subject to intense criticism, the propaganda has not gone away but merely morphed into a new form. 

On the one hand, we see technophilic stories such as the news that researchers at the University of Bristol have made diamond batteries powered by nuclear waste.

On the other hand, the government and press employ a tactic of radio silence on the issue, having learned from the Cold War that public knowledge of the nuclear threat only leads to panic.  

Secondly, even when there are people prepared to take action, finding points of intervention in the arms industry is very difficult as the industry is, by design, opaque. 

I asked Row where he thought the anti-nuclear and anti-military struggles lay, whether they are primarily political, economic, social and so on. ‘Finding points of intervention is very difficult,’ he admits: ‘I can’t stop nuclear weapons by changing my lifestyle’. 

But neither can we trust those in power to intervene. Row is scathing about the possibility of creating solutions through government reform or decree: ‘reformism hasn’t gotten us anywhere all these decades…Democracy doesn’t work when they don’t want it to work. It doesn’t work.’

This perhaps explains the dominance of direct action amongst anti-nuclear groups, of which Row thoroughly approves. ‘I think we can take a lot of inspiration from the Committee of 100 in the late ‘50s early ‘60s. They said, as Roger Hallam would say today, “fuck this shit”’. 

‘They would sit in the roads and bring central London to a standstill. Or they’d blockade an airbase where nuclear bombers were stationed. Thousands were arrested, scooped up and dragged away. The state had to set up temporary courtrooms in schools.’  

However, direct action is no guarantee of success, as, even if you do manage to pull off an action, it will likely get little coverage in the press. The XR blockade of the Abbeywood site in December 2020 got coverage on the day but little else. A total shutdown of the Elbit arms factory in Oldham, and another in Shenstone, received similarly scant coverage. 

According to the Trident ploughshares website, their activities have resulted in, to date, 2746 arrests – enough to make XR look mild-mannered, but receiving far less coverage than any XR protest in central London, for instance. 

Motivations

Row’s own story plays like a montage of headline activism from the last 40 years. From the poll tax protests of the 1980s, campaigning against the Bristol Development Corporation (BDC) in the 1990s, action for Palestine in the 2000s, and XR Peace and Trident Ploughshares today. 

Row holding the UN Treaty. Image credit: Rowland Dye.

Curiously, he describes how he fell into activism ‘sort of by accident’. After other organizers left the campaign against the BDC, Row was one of a few campaigners left holding it (an experience many activists will understand) and found himself thinking ‘“we can’t drop this”. That was the moment where I realised you’ve got to do something yourself’.  

‘There’s a mindset [in our society], which is that somebody else is doing something about it.’ However, ‘the moment comes where you just have to say “we gotta stop this. It’s all wrong.”’ 

I think the emphasis here needs to be on the “all” – it is not enough to change one thing to make nuclear weapons go away. The nuclear issue, Row argues, ‘links up a lot of issues which deserve to be looked at together. It’s nuclear weapons, it’s militarism, it’s war, it’s the arms industry, it’s the refugee issue, it’s the climate change aspects and much more…it’s very holistic.’ 

No one can stop nuclear weapons by changing their lifestyle. But perhaps, through grassroots action, we can change society to the point where the ideas and logics that enable nuclear weapons are exposed, challenged and expunged. 

What is the alternative? At one point I asked Row what it is like for him to walk around Bristol knowing the sites of military significance. His answer was chilling. ‘People wonder about the Nazis, how they were able to do what they did without the German people knowing or stopping it. Well it’s the same right here in Bristol today, right under our noses.’

Germany only learned the true cost of its militarism by following it through to its tragic, brutal conclusion. It took the horror of war and total defeat to make the German people realise this. 

The UK is yet to sign the UN Treaty that Row’s January banner drop celebrated. Will we realise the dangers of our nuclear and military obsession before it reaches a similar point, or will we continue until we become, as Row put it whilst standing on the M32 footbridge, ‘the last man standing at the end of the world’?

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