Thinking about nuclear war, most of us imagines global-scale international conflicts, with impact reaching out over thousands of kilometres. Such wide scope of atomic dangers does not mean that nothing can be done to stop them at the local level. On November 5th, Manchester is celebrating the 40th anniversary of becoming the first in the UK Nuclear Free City. Actions taken by their city council prove that local resistance can help protect global nuclear peace – even when the outbreak of atomic war seems inevitable.

A 1980 decision of the city council to make Manchester nuclear-free stems from – and at the same time contradicts – the political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This period of increasing anxieties caused by possible outbreak of a nuclear war is sometimes referred to as the ‘Second Cold War’. After a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began this phase of international history, many believed that the world had found itself on the verge of yet another multinational war – which, as nuclear technologies have developed, this time could be an atomic war. 

This tense political climate of the early 1980s reflected upon attitudes and policies of the UK’s Conservative government. To prepare the nation for an outbreak of possible nuclear war, the government shortened a warning period before expected attack and allowed more money to be spent on civil defence by local authorities. Nuclear war awareness was spread also among ordinary citizens: a booklet Protect and Survive, explaining what to do in case of a nuclear bombing, appeared in shops.

These steps taken to prepare citizens for possible war met with protests of peace activists’ groups. According to them, all the government did was to confirm people in false sense of security while, in fact, a nuclear war would be far too wide-scale and dangerous to handle it by encouraging citizens to hide in home-made shelters (as Protect and Survive did). Such measures of passive individual protections recommended by the government would have no efficiency apart from (falsely) boosting people’s morale. And, even if careful readers of Protect and Survive somehow managed to survive in their flats strengthened with sandbags and boxes of earth, there would be nowhere for them to go to after - environmental damage done by the nuclear bomb would remain irreparable. Thus, the only real way to protect people from results of atomic war would be to stop it before it actually begins. This would involve rejection of any actions which could possibly lead to an outbreak of such war.

Following such reasoning, on the 5th of November 1980 Manchester City Council announced their city, a nuclear-free zone. Doing so, they declared to resign from and campaign against not only nuclear war, but also less spectacular – and already happening – uses of atomic power such as nuclear power plants or transportation and storage of nuclear waste. Nowadays these issues are widely known about, but turning to them in 1980 was a big step forward: the Chernobyl disaster had not happened yet and awareness of possible dangers of nuclear energy was not as widespread as it is today.

Standing against governmental policy, the action of Manchester City Council found wide support across the UK. Greater London Council declared their city to be nuclear-free too and this example was followed by many other cities and towns, including Bradford who declared in October 1981. Soon, their anti-nuclear statement was taken into account by the government planning their actions on nuclear danger. Under the pressure of nuclear-free cities and other peace activists, the UK refused to take part in Hard Rock – NATO nuclear war preparation training held in 1982. This event proved that people prefer to reject any form of atomic war from the very beginning rather than acknowledge it by preparing for it.

Even though Cold War in its pre-1991 form ended together with the collapse of the Soviet Union and political climate seems less tense than it was back then, a threat of atomic war is still in the air. Atomic weapons are still tested not only on the earth, but also in space. Atomic peace seems very fragile and grassroots campaigning to maintain it may be even more necessary than ever before. Remembering the example of what the Manchester City Council did in 1980, we learn how local actions can impact national- and global-scale decision-making.


Written by Weronika Tupaj, Intern.

Photo Credits: Poster- Manchester city Council 

                     Booklet- Central Office of Information.