Throughout the history of political protest in London in the 20th century, a familiar name appears again and again – Bertrand Russell. As mentioned in an earlier post, Russell was heavily involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and then the Committee of 100. He had also taken part in pacifist and anti-war demonstrations in the early 20th century, even being imprisoned for it in 1917. It is no surprise then, that he was enthusiastically involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) in 1966, despite his advanced age.
It is age that is of importance here. Russell was one of the few older protestors of the war, as these protests are now seen historically as representative of the beginning of major youth protest in Britain, and the creation of a generation that would worldwide be defined by their opposition to the state. Perhaps the levels of protest involvement did not reach those of the U.S. or France, but they were still significant considering Britain’s comparable lack of a vested interest in the Vietnam War.
However, the argument that youth involvement in protests in the second half of the 20th century was down to a generational desire to rebel rather than an interest in the actual issues does a disservice to the protestors. There is no doubt that there was a counter-cultural strain running through the British youth, a desire to engage in contentious politics and a deep dissatisfaction with the state. Yes, the protests against the Vietnam War were used partially as a way to oppose the Labour government and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, as the VSC hit hard against what they called ‘British complicity’ in the war. But that does not mean that people did not feel strongly about the war, or that they only used it as a screen to fight other issues.
The sheer numbers of people involved demonstrates that people must have cared about these issues to some degree at least. The October 27th 1968 protest, when 100,000 people marched peacefully in London, demonstrates certain aspects of Charles Tilly’s W.U.N.C: their peacefulness is equitable with a sober demeanour, although they lacked elder members in the crowd; they wore matching badges and held banners with the same symbols to express unity and make their cause clear; they had physical presence and numbers, causing major disruptive damage in the city centre (even if they were considerably more peaceful, unlike on more militant marches); and given the frequency of their protests (4 major protests in less than 14 months) their commitment seems clear. However, Tilly’s theories are more appropriate for early protests, so perhaps they are not a clear assessment of protests of this period.
(VSC-sponsored protest on October 27th, 1968)
Let’s consider the minutiae of the protest instead. The movement had a very well-defined protest culture, which the images above and below both demonstrate. Given that this was a protest for the freedom of Vietnam from American involvement in war, you see the repeated use of the Vietnamese gold star and red background. The badge below makes that clear, as does the large banner above.
(VSC pin, circa 1968)
The sheer numbers of protestors demonstrate their use of space and particularly their ability to cause disruptive damage to central London and hijack spaces of informal encounter, social exchange and collective belonging for their own ends. The earlier protests also brought the activists into conflict against police – the March 17th 1968 protest is the best example of this, as there were a notorious number of arrests for an ostensibly peaceful protest, as the activists linked arms to break through police lines.
The success of these protests is difficult to determine, seeing as Britain was not directly involved in the war and the VSC, by definition, stood for solidarity rather than a specific tangible goal besides the end of the war. British support for Vietnam did not stop after 1968, and the war itself would not end until 1975. But these protests do show us that British youth had the potential to fight against injustices in huge numbers, and that their methods of doing so were sophisticated and well-organised. Considering the amount of time and work that went into these protests, it seems fair to determine that there was some genuine belief in this movement, that went beyond youthful rebellion.