History gallery: The Committee of 100

Freedom Newspaper’s first ever full-page picture spread from 1961 offers a unique record of the famous Committee of 100 anti-war march of February 18th that year, which began what was to become the modern British anti-war movement. 

Led by anarchist fellow-traveller Bertrand Russell, who resigned from CND to set it up, the Committee of 100 ran from 1960 to 1968, and was the first major example of mass peaceful civil disobedience used as a method of disruption and campaigning in Britain. Unsuccessful on its own terms, it catalysed what was to become the peace protest movement of the 1960s-70s and was enormously influential on it. In particular, the non-hierarchical methods by which the committee worked found their way into all aspects of later peace activism.

Interspersed among the photos is part of an accompanying editorial article critiquing the event, which drew around 4,000 people and caused enormous upset in government circles. The main featured picture is of leading Committee of 100 figures (from left to right) Michael Randle, Vic Richardson, Michael Scott and Bertrand Russell.

This photo set is being uploaded as part of the Freedom Newspaper digital archiving project, which aims to put some of the 130-year history of anarchism, as reported by Freedom Press, into public hands.


Dress rehearsal — or show down?

So far as “forcing the government’s hand” on the issues of Polaris bases in Scotland the sit-down on February 18th can be written off us a failure. But then who among the demonstrators really expected the government to take notice of the Committee of 100 when it could virtuously point to the political “Left” for support in its nuclear weapons policies? So no political illusions. But us a spontaneous, human demonstration it was an overwhelming success. When 2,000 people say they will turn up to take part in the sit-down and in fact more than 4,000 as well as thousands of supporters turn up, in spite of a press silence which was significant, then all concerned can feel well satisfied with the result of this first demonstration.

Marchers on their way to the protest
Part of the crowd hold a two-hour sit-down protest

Without underestimating the work put into the initial organisation by Michael Randall (Secretary) and the Committee members, what must have struck any observer, hostile or friendly, was the informality, the “unorganised” nature of the demonstration which contrasted so favourably with those tight-lipped, party organised, regimented demonstrations with which we, of an older generation, are all too familiar with and disgusted by. What an impressive sight it was in Whitehall as the column of sit-downers, flanked by supporters, spread itself it seemed to the full width of Whitehall and advanced like a great wave towards Parliament Square. With the noise of traffic temporarily silenced one suddenly was aware of the sound of thousands of shuffling feet and voices in conversation, occasionally punctuated by the hysterical appeals from the loudspeaker of the one van and one Vespa counter-demonstration of the Empire Loyalists. At Parliament Square they were joined by seedy youths marching Indian file and advertising their wares: Mosley’s newspaper Action. As the column reached the Square it seemed as if the main concern of the few police on duty was to divert the traffic, but as soon as the demonstrators began to take their places on the pavement, hundreds of police suddenly emerged from their hideouts in the side streets to encircle and contain the sit-down to the pavement around the Defence Ministry. But as the human chain wound itself round the three sides of the huge, ugly building, so the wall of police became merely isolated posts in a fence without wires.

Officers line up to “contain” the protest

Two sides of the building were already filled and the column from Trafalgar Square was still advancing, when four fire engines, bells clanging, suddenly descended on Great George Street. Serious-faced fire-chiefs consulted with serious faced police-chiefs — as if they hadn’t discussed it all beforehand! — and we can imagine that other police-chiefs were observing closely the reactions of the squatting demonstrators. We observed them too; no one stirred, a few jokes were made about the wisdom of bringing a raincoat to such demonstrations, and ten minutes later the fire-engines with their police-aides slunk off, their bells muffled, their hoses dry, to look for a different conflagration.

Members of the fire brigade had been told to be on hand, in case the police required them to turn their hoses on the crowd.
An officer looks on as Quaker scientist Jack Mongar speaks

The Jaundiced eye of the Press

The Press reacted with indifference or hostility, and in the case of the Sunday Telegraph with alarm. Neither the Sunday Times nor The Observer, nor the Guardian and The Times on the Monday, committed themselves to an editorial comment. The Pictorial came out with one of its pungent comments which just shows that even if Mr. King inhabits the lofty heights of monopoly his reporters have their ears to the ground.

The Sunday Pictorial certainly believes that their ideas are wrong, but we defend their right to be wrong … At least the demonstrators feel strongly enough about an urgent issue to DO something. One trouble with politics these days is that they are too limp and unexciting. Few people care deeply enough to get out and crusade for what they believe to be right. There are too many “don’t-knows”, “don’t-cares”. At least Earl Russell and his Whitehall Warriors can claim that squatting on the pavement is better than sitting on the fence.

Members of the crowd listen to speeches

The Sunday Telegraph on the other hand issued a warning of the danger (to the authority of the State of course) in allowing such demonstrations to take place without opposition. Bertrand Russell and his friends were not charming eccentrics nor the dedicated representatives of a persecuted minority. On the contrary they belonged to a “highly organised political movement” which in a few years had achieved “immense political success by normal methods of persuasion”. Aldermaston and similar outings were now O.K. demonstrations. But, warns the Sunday Telegraph if many more of these — now numbering many thousands — who support Lord Russell’s views were to adopt his methods national safety as well as public order would be seriously in danger.

No man can be denied the right to resist violently or non-violently the policies which his conscience instructs him to resist; but no-one who chooses this course can claim that society should not oppose him. Demonstrations like yesterday’s must be restrained with just a little and just as much force as is necessary to stop them spreading into a public danger.

The Sunday Telegraph is right, and as if to confirm its fears, at the Press conference called by the Committee of 100 last Sunday, Bertrand Russell declared that the demonstration of February 18 was only a “dress rehearsal” for future “more positive” action “such as the authorities cannot tolerate. And in last week’s Peace News Michael Scott shows that the implications of civil disobedience have been understood, at least by him, when he writes:

“We shall resist not only the threat of war but the evils of oppression and criminal neglect of the great resources of the earth through exploiting and restrictive practices. We shall resist these abuses whether within the systems of so-called Communism or of capitalism and colonialism.”

In other words, when one embarks on civil disobedience one is not simply seeking to persuade government on a speech issue such as unilateral nuclear disarmament; one is challenging the authority of the State, the system of government.