I want to end 2017, and begin 2018, on an upbeat and positive note. So here’s a story about two men cutting their way through a security fence, carrying hammers, intent on causing millions of pounds worth of damage. It’s a freezing winter’s night, the date is 29th January 2017, and the place is Warton, Lancashire. A British Aerospace site where Typhoon jets are kept.
It all began at a wedding. One of the men, a Quaker, named Sam Walton, is queuing up to sign the marriage certificate, which all guests are invited to do at Quaker weddings. In front of him is an old friend, the right Reverend Daniel Woodhouse, a Methodist minister. It’s been a while since they last met.
Sam is at a crossroads. A dedicated peace activist, Sam has spent years protesting about the arms trade: going on demonstrations, holding pickets, writing letters. Recently, he’s found himself profoundly challenged. Sam had seen yet another newspaper photograph of the destruction caused by a bomb, dropped by the Saudis, on Yemen. In a corner of the photo, a piece of the bomb casing was visible, with its identifying markings. Looking closely, Sam had realised the bomb had been made in Britain.
This wasn’t news to him, however, the markings brought it sharply home. Inescapably so. More than most Sam knew the scale of Britain’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia, which didn’t just include selling bombs but also Tornado and Typhoon jets. Sam has always contended that the arms trade fuels conflict, and the Yemen is one of the worst consequences. He also believes, quite logically, conflict prevents development and progress, causes mass famines and mass rapes.
Sam couldn’t see the point of Britain supplying aid to the Yemen, while at the same time selling the arms which killed and destroyed. It’s true to say we’re all too familiar with photographs of skeletal children and adults, their bones sticking out in harrowing detail; images of grotesque injuries, and an apocalyptic devastation of property. The Yemen is now facing a massive cholera outbreak. In 2016 a UN panel accused Saudi of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets.
Most of us look at the tragic images and immediately turn away, feeling both wretched and helpless. Not so Sam Walton. The photograph with the identifying markings had become a personal challenge: a scorching question, asking if he was really doing everything he could. In answer, Sam had come up with a plan.
At the wedding, as the two friends catch up with each other, he tells Dan the Reverend about it all and his plan. Far from arguing him out of it, Dan is eager to join in. Sam warns him the consequence might be a 10year prison sentence. ‘Prison? I can do prison,’ said the Reverend.
The Reverend, Daniel Woodhouse, had himself been engaged in soul-searching, wondering what his ministry should truly be. He knew about the horrors caused by the arms trade, knew what was going on with Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, and knew the British government weren’t going to change their policy any time soon. Like Sam, he’d also come to a watershed point.
Sam’s plan consisted both of daring and homage: 21 years previously, on 29th January 1996, four women, known as the Ploughshare Four, had cut through the perimeter fence of the British Aerospace site at Warton, made their way to hanger 358, damaged a fighter hawk destined for the Indonesian government which they believed would be used to kill the people of East Timor, and left a video in the cockpit publicly taking responsibility. In a brilliantly argued trial, the women maintained they had used reasonable force to fulfill their legal duty, to prevent a crime under the Genocide Act.
Sam and Dan researched through public records to work out the details, and went for ‘long walks,’ which just happened to take them to the perimeter fence of the base, where they looked for the best place to break in. What they couldn’t find out though, was in which hanger, the planes for Saudi Arabia were kept. As luck would have it, they came across a plane spotter. In the spirit of being sociable they engaged him in conversation. In less than ten minutes they had the information they needed.
On the night of 29th January 2017, having broken through the fence, feeling strangely calm, Sam and Dan walk across a floodlit runway, and make it to the hanger. As a sign of respect, one of the hammers they’ve brought along, belonged to the Ploughshare Four. They can’t believe their luck when they find the outer doors open, but then come up against locked inner doors. The nose of a plane is visible through the doors’ Perspex window. Getting out their bolt cutters, they start to cut their way through, and find there’s no way of doing this quietly. Steel on steel makes quite a racket.
Within a few minutes Sam and Dan are confronted by security staff. They put down their equipment. Standing against a wall, security staff barking at them, Dan loosens his scarf, revealing his clerical collar. A visible reaction goes through the security staff. Sam offers to show them where they cut their way through the fence.
Arrested and tried in court, Sam and Dan argued their action was for the Greater Good, as their intention was to save innocent lives and prevent war crimes, by physically disabling the warplanes.
In his summing up, the judge accepted their logic: fewer planes, meant fewer bombings and less destruction of civilian targets. Going on to conclude: “I heard about their belief of BAE’s role in the supply of aircraft to Saudi Arabia. I heard about their beliefs regarding events in Yemen, that they included the death of civilians and destruction of civilian property, and the basis for their beliefs that this amounted to war crimes.” He continued: “I heard that they had tried other methods of protest and letter writing in the past. I heard that they had not taken this decision lightly given the scale of the destruction they believed was occurring in Yemen.”
Sam Walton, the Quaker, and the right Reverend Daniel Woodhouse prevailed in their argument, and were acquitted.
Who knows what 2018 will bring in terms of vitriolic rhetoric, brinkmanship and new conflicts, so let’s bear in mind that the arc of history is towards justice and peace. Helped along by people like the Quaker and the Reverend.