1 Aug 2013

Greenham Common 30 years on

Am standing on Greenham Common gazing out at the old landing strip from the abandoned control tower – now for sale by the way, if you’re interested.

The estate agent tells me interest so far has included converting it into a dance studio or coffee shop.

The 1983 government papers just released by the National Archives show how senior Conservative ministers were worried that they were in danger of losing public opinion over the cruise missile deployment here.

The-then Defence Secretary Sir John Nott in his last days in the job writes to Margaret Thatcher of how he would “sleep safer” in his bed if there was joint control between the US and UK over the cruise missiles.

When Michael Heseltine comes in as defence secretary there are three high level meetings chaired by Margaret Thatcher to discuss the worrying public mood on cruise.

The problem was two-fold.

Many amongst the UK public didn’t trust US President Ronald Reagan and saw him as a warmonger but these were US nuclear missiles under US control.

Secondly,  compared with the hidden submarine deterrent, this one was all to public.

When they arrived, the land-launched cruise missiles would regularly lumber in massive convoys along Berkshire lanes to specified woods where they’d go through firing drills. What to do?

The special group of senior ministers with Lord Brammall, chief of the defence staff, in attendance, discuss delaying the arrival of the great bulky equipment until after the general election of 1983, settling on November 1983 but stipulating that word shouldn’t get out that this was in any way a  “delay.”

Sir John Nott’s suggestion of asking for dual control (buying it, in effect, because the US wouldn’t just hand it over) is discussed repeatedly in government.

One voice in the minutes – it’s not clear the way they’re written quite who, but it sounds a lot like Margaret Thatcher – says going back to the US to ask for shared control would be a propaganda victory for the Soviet Union.

Laurence Eagleburger, 3rd in line at the US State Department, tells a delegation from No 10 that the White House really didn’t appreciate ministers in the UK talking about “dual control” for propaganda reasons when they didn’t have it over the cruise missiles and hadn’t paid for it.

There was a right to be consulted before they were fired but not more than that. At one point the meeting considers (again, it’s not clear who is speaking but it a cabinet minister’s and senior military and officials present) that there were enough UK forces personnel present at the base to frustrate any US effort to deploy without UK clearance … presumably to throw themselves in front of vehicels, lock gates or hide keys?

All in all, you get a strong flavour of senior figures in the government in 1983 worrying that, as Sir Richard Mottram, private secretary at the MOD to Nott and Heseltine, told us: there could be a chain reaction in British public opinion as anxiety about cruise missiles slid into opposition to the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent.

Rebecca Johnson, a Greenham Common activist from 1981 to 1987 told us she felt the papers prove the campaign on the perimeter of the air base was having an effect on government. Mottram says government policy stayed the same, they just tweaked the presentation.

Greenham Common’s silos are still there, now sold off to a private company for storage.

The runway is grassed over and  rest of the land is a much-walked nature reserve alive with birds, butterflies and grazing cattle.

Apparently some US airmen got in contact with the local estate agent, nostalgic to hear what was happening to the control tower. Bids for redevelopment are still welcome but close in five weeks.

Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter

Tweets by @garygibbonc4