From the BBC website: Professor MacMillan went on tour recording her Reith Lectures – entitled The Mark of Cain – in June 2018, beginning in London and concluding in Canada.
The BBC Reith lecturer and Bruce Kent have in Canada in common. In his (English) school in Montreal, he was enrolled in the Cadet Corps at the age of 12, wearing uniform and blowing a bugle – an unforgettable image.
Bruce Kent reviews the first lecture in Peace News, from which these extracts are taken:
She credits war with too much social progress. Yes, women, or some of them, did get the vote as a result of the First World War. But was that the only way? The Boer War actually delayed the creation of a British national old age pension scheme.
Professor MacMillan seems to suggest that the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine which came with nuclear weapons had a stabilising effect. Perhaps, but for how long? Robert McNamara, at the end of a life devoted to promoting US policy, said that we were saved from nuclear disaster, not by good judgement but by ‘good luck’.
My main difficulty with this lecture comes from what it leaves out – and I know it was just the first of several in the Reith series.
The experts I have come to accept – such as the scientists behind the Seville Statement on Violence (1991) or the late professor Robert Hinde, an eminent biologist much involved in Pugwash – do not conclude that we are biologically programmed for violence and war. (The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs are international gatherings of scientists concerned with disarmament and peace; they started in 1957.)
US president Eisenhower warned us, long ago, about the power and influence of the military-industrial complex. Anyone who has been to the annual London arms sales exhibition will know exactly what he meant.
Ours is a military culture educationally and culturally. To appreciate that, one only has to see the members of the royal family in various military uniforms on the Buckingham Palace balcony watching the RAF fly-past.
From my perspective, the ideas, movements and people that have created the protocols and institutions to prevent war are much more significant than Macmillan suggested. Though they do get a mention in the question and answer session afterwards, her first lecture makes no reference to the creation of the League of Nations in 1920 or of the United Nations in 1945. Whatever its failures, and there are many, the preamble to the UN Charter could not be clearer. It was created to ‘… save succeeding generations from the scourge of war….’
One reason for the UN’s failure to achieve such an ambitious aim is that the people of the world know so little about it or about its many successes in the fields of public health, education and literacy and labour conditions.
(Ed adds: these successes are recorded in the late John Ferguson’s book Not Them But us: in praise of the United Nations, left.)
Very few could even name the person or persons representing their country at the UN security council or the general assembly. In all the discussions about the European Union, mention is hardly ever made of its first purpose after the horrors of the Second World War – to end wars between its members, as MacMillan acknowledges.
The biggest omission in the lecture was any reference to those many heroic people who have promoted wider ideas of internationalism and constructive peace.
The conscientious objectors of the First World War are only now beginning to get the respect they deserve. Henry Richard MP, the 19th-century peace apostle of Wales is now emerging from the shadows. Pope Benedict’s opposition to the First World War is now better known but how strongly he was rejected by ‘right thinking’ people at the time. This is a good time to remember Sylvia Pankhurst bravely speaking peace in London’s Finsbury Park in the middle of a bloody war in front of hostile crowds.
I end with a positive suggestion. Get a copy of professors Rotblat and Hinde’s excellent book War No More – Eliminating Conflict in the Nuclear Age (Pluto 2003) and read it after reading the first Reith lecture. They make a useful constructive pair.
Bruce Kent is a co-founder of the Movement for the Abolition of War.
Margaret MacMillan’s first Reith lecture, ‘War and Humanity’, was recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre at Old Broadcasting House, London, on 4 June and broadcast on 26 June 2018. A transcript and recording are available at: www.tinyurl.com/peacenews3192