Wherever I went in the world, people would ask about Bruce

Dr Rebecca Johnson shares some personal memories of Bruce Kent (1929-2022)

Thursday, 23rd June

Bruce Kent CND General Secretary Kate Hudson and Rebecca Johnson in 2008

2008: Rebecca Johnson, right, with Bruce Kent and CND’s current general secretary Kate Hudson

Bruce Kent died on June 8 after a long, illustrious life dedicated to human security, the abolition of nuclear weapons, war and injustice.

Many obituaries have highlighted Bruce’s background and faith-based service as Monsignor in the Catholic Church, and it is certain that his strong faith was a driving force in his life.

I didn’t know him as a monsignor, but as a warm and witty man who loved walking the length and breadth of Britain to talk to people about why we must Ban the Bomb.

He wanted to connect and listen to people’s fears, hopes and ideas, and discuss with them the ways in which each and every one of us can raise our voices and prevent nuclear deployments and war.

I first met Bruce in October 1982 when he visited the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (where I was living). A few weeks earlier our caravans and tents had been forcibly evicted, and then the skies opened up with day after day of rain.

Bruce arrived with a brolly, bearing whisky, chocolates, and jokes about 40 biblical days!

Some of us were facing trial and imprisonment for running onto the base in August and occupying the sentry box.

Bruce had heard about our “crazy plan” to bring thousands of women to encircle and blockade the entire nine-mile perimeter of the US nuclear airbase at Greenham Common in Berkshire.

We wanted to raise awareness and end the plans to deploy new “ground-launched cruise missiles” that were supposed to hide in the countryside.

Over cups of tea around our sputtering campfire, we explained our ideas for bringing thousands of women to Greenham on the December anniversary of NATO’s decision.

Bruce asked how he could help. We talked about men finding ways to support us to mobilise as many women as possible to “Embrace the Base on Sunday, Close the base on Monday”.

On Sunday December 12 there was this famous CND leader, cheerfully making Marmite sandwiches for the kids and wheelchair users and stepping back from his usual public role to insist that the media should talk to Greenham women about the actions going on.

Our friendship started then and there. Over many years we have plotted and shared many sandwiches and cups of tea at nuclear bases and in all sorts of meetings, from draughty church halls to Hyde Park and Trafalgar squares.

I was privileged to witness many sides of Bruce Kent. His deep faith was the spiritual spring that fed his compassionate campaigning and commitment to human rights and non-violent activism for peace and justice.

Many’s the time I watched Bruce crack an audience up with funny asides and acute commentaries on military mendacity and political pomposity. At the same time he welcomed all to the table and avoided being ideological or judgmental.

From my first stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in Holloway in 1982 until a few weeks before he died, I used to receive postcards from Bruce that made me smile.

I was one of many, for he liked sending politically relevant cards, often to express thanks and encouragement, and sometimes with pithy comments about dangerous developments and lunatic policies that caught his attention.

This Bruce was impatient about thoughtless leaders, political failings and bureaucratic impediments.

In parallel he was kindly, courteous and inspiring when talking with people from all walks of life, even when they interrupted his snooze (as I saw happen on a long train journey) or when his hand was grabbed and held onto by someone earnestly bombarding him with questions after a speech.

As well as his stalwart activism with CND, where he served at various times as general secretary, chair and vice-president, Bruce was particularly attached to the Movement to Abolish War, Pax Christi and the International Peace Bureau.

Wherever I went in the world, people would ask about Bruce.

Together with many many peace campaigners we collectively achieved the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, then the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and, at long last, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This TPNW is the global nuclear ban treaty that was finally agreed after a long multilateral disarmament process in the United Nations.

It prohibits the use, production and possession of nuclear weapons under international law and contains clear obligations on what has to come next.

The TPNW entered into force in January 2021, and on what would have been Bruce’s 93rd birthday, a host of governments, nuclear experts, peace and justice campaigners and elected parliamentarians and mayors have gathered in Vienna for the First Meeting of States Parties.

We have banned the bomb. And governments are now talking about eliminating these abhorrent, immoral – and now illegal – weapons of mass annihilation.

My heart goes out to Valerie, his wife, and the many people who shared his life and work.

Implementing the global nuclear ban treaty feels like a fitting way to remember this kind and brilliant campaigner who contributed so much towards peace and nuclear disarmament.

• Dr Rebecca Johnson is a vice-president of CND.

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