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I was a leftie demonstrator (for one day only)


I WOULD wager that few people have taken part in a rowdy protest outside an Army barracks – while serving in the British Army. Perhaps I should explain. 

It was the mid-1980s, the febrile milieu of CND, Monsignor Bruce Kent and the Greenham Common peace women, the ‘woke’ of their day. The obsession of all self-respecting lefties – and, of course, the BBC – was cruise missiles. A would-be regular soldier, I had been ‘back-squadded’ during basic training owing to illness. Convalescence and weeks of heel-kicking would follow before starting afresh with a new intake.

During the hiatus, my fellow back-squaddies and I were given routine tasks: guard duty, kit-cleaning, serving in the officers’ mess. One day, out of the blue, the drudgery ceased. We were taken to a secret location and informed that our newly declared fealty to HM Armed Forces was no more – at least for a day.

Agog, we heard that we would assume radical new identities. Out went khakis and rifles, in came donkey jackets and placards. In short, we were reinvented as bolshie anti-nuclear activists, bringing the anti-Nato ‘front line’ to the very gates of our base. The idea was to test resilience, lest barracks like ours became actual CND targets.

Though we hadn’t signed up for drama school, bemusement soon gave way to enthusiasm. After all, we now had licence to go undercover and cause trouble for our superiors. Passive obedience would be transformed into militant mischief. And our victims wouldn’t have a clue who we were.

The next morning, suitably attired, 30-odd hardened ‘campaigners’ duly converged on the entrance to the base. There we honked horns, banged drums, sang protest songs, and generally hassled personnel entering or leaving on foot or in vehicles. We certainly made a nuisance of ourselves: pedestrians were harangued; windscreens were blocked by our signs; anyone winding down their windows was given an extra ear-bashing.

I was content to let the memory of this event fade, like other vignettes of my short, inglorious Army career. Yet today it seems vaguely worthy of recall. I venture to think it gives me some insight into the motivations of left-wing, planet-saving fanatics such as those of ‘Just Stop Oil’.

Though I despised CND and all it stood for, I revelled in my new-found persona. It was the element of disguise and surprise, and the camaraderie. It was ‘performing’ a higher cause in front of a live audience. Above all, it was the sense of control derived from provoking one’s fellow human beings.   

Officers and drill sergeants who had recently barked orders at us were now visibly discomfited by the same men. Some were angry, others cowed or embarrassed; none could ignore our presence. The power relationship had completely shifted: the puppets were now the puppeteers, the bullied the bullies.

If the adrenaline rush was palpable for mere role-players, how much more intense must it be for ideologues? But then again, the strange (and disturbing) part was that after a while it didn’t seem like acting. Our excitement – in and of itself – somehow lent the whole endeavour authenticity. Base human instincts take over, even in a fake herd. You somehow end up believing in the creed which rewards you, or at least suspending disbelief.

Did anything dampen our enjoyment? Amid the din, I remember one or two comers and goers maintaining a poised demeanour. Peeved at not eliciting a reaction from them, we turned up the verbal heat. But if their serene smile endured, they scored a small victory. Perhaps they were in on the charade. Or maybe their stoical non-response should be a template for ours today.

I wasn’t privy to the report into this covert operation. I suspect there were lessons to be learnt, such as meeting force with greater force. What I do know is that I took on the ‘Establishment’ for a day, though a budding member of it. And, for reasons I’m not proud of, I relished every moment. 

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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