On the 23rd January this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that its symbolic ‘doomsday clock' has moved forward to 100 seconds to midnight, “the closest to catastrophe that the scientists have judged the world to be at any point since its creation in 1947, at the outset of the cold war”.
Forty years ago, in May 1980, Her Majesty’s Government in the UK published the booklet Protect and Survive. Although the publication took place only a year after the Conservatives came to power under Margaret Thatcher, the booklet, under the same name, was actually prepared in 1976 during Harold Wilson’s Labour administration.
The publication was quickly seized upon for its apparent naivety and quickly found itself at the centre of robust political debate about the use of nuclear weapons in the early 1980s. This was a time which saw Ronald Reagan come to the power in the US, the establishment of the Woman’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common (to protest against the storage of Cruise missiles) and the resurgence of the Campaign for the Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which led to several record-breaking demonstrations in central London.
Protect and Survive had a significant cultural impact being referenced by Raymond Briggs in When the Wind Blows, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in Two Tribes as well as many others.
A short time after acquiring a copy of the booklet (which was accompanied by a number of short public information films), I was invited by a small group of postgraduates at Bristol to see Peter Watkins’s The War Game. Watkins (whose first docudrama, Culloden, featured the British Army's destruction of the Scottish Jacobite rising of 1745) for a second time in a row pulled no punches in depicting the horrors of war. Originally The War Game was scheduled to be broadcast by the BBC in October 1965. However, both the Corporation and the Government got cold feet and the film was only broadcast some twenty years later.
While climate change currently commands centre stage in terms of an existential threat to the planet, so too does the possibility of an all-out thermonuclear war. The runes are not looking good at the moment as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with countries employing cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns either to defend the status quo or to engage in more belligerent posturing.
Protect and Survive belongs to an earlier age of relative innocence. Indeed, its real antecedent was the leaflet entitled The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids published in 1938! In a post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima world, who do we trust? To connect with this month’s 'Track of The Month’, I’m reminded of these words:
“Mother, do you think they'll drop the bomb?” “Mother, should I trust the government?”