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A landmark in the struggle for peace

LIZ PAYNE looks back 70 years to when the World Peace Council came to Sheffield – against the best efforts of Attlee’s Labour Party 

SEVENTY years ago, from November 13 to 19 1950, a huge international peace conference was to have taken place in Sheffield, with thousands of delegates attending from across the world.  

To its eternal shame, the Labour government of the day did everything in its power to stop it. 

But, while it may have succeeded in foreshortening the meeting in Britain, a one-day event was held, despite every obstacle placed in its way. 

This has become legendary in the world peace movement and what follows is its remarkable story. 

The Sheffield conference was to have been the second World Congress of the Partisans of Peace (WCPP), whose first congress had been held in Paris in April 1949 just days after, and in response to, the signing of the imperialist North Atlantic Treaty — viewed by peace campaigners worldwide as the precursor to a US-led pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union, a new world war and nuclear conflagration.

From its inception, the world movement for peace was subjected to attempted sabotage by governments lined up with the US. 

In the run-up to the 1949 congress, French officials refused visas to hundreds of delegates from the socialist countries, hoping vainly to halt proceedings. 

The Paris congress set up the World Committee of Partisans for Peace and peace committees under its auspices were soon established in many countries. 

Within months, plans were under way for a second world congress in late 1950. The urgency of the cause of peace was recognised by people everywhere. 

The US and its allies were at war on the Korean peninsula from June 1950 to halt the formation of a united socialist people’s republic. 

Thousands upon thousands were signing the Stockholm Appeal launched in March 1950 by the WCPP demanding the outlawing of atomic weapons and pronouncing that any government first using such against another country would be committing a crime against humanity.  

Sheffield was chosen to host the second WCPP at least partly on the basis of its citizens’ commitment to peace, as evidenced by the swift gathering of 50,000 signatures for the appeal by the Sheffield Peace Committee, urged on by its chair, the radical cleric Alan Ecclestone, who had attended the Paris congress.  

The organisers and people of Sheffield made meticulous preparations to host their visitors. 

They thought of everything to make them welcome, a wonderfully generous hospitality offered by a war-ravaged and devastated city, which knew that the only future lay in peace. 

But the Labour government, at the bidding of the British Establishment and its US backers, was extremely hostile. 

At a debate in the Commons on October 19, a call was made to ban the congress from taking place altogether. 

This was rejected as the home secretary expressed concern it might tarnish Britain’s reputation for free speech. 

But the Labour government’s actions drew worldwide condemnation. Pravda described prime minister Clement Attlee as “Washington’s chief gendarme.” 

Initial consent to allow 18 charter flights to bring representatives from eastern Europe was withdrawn. 

Hundreds of delegates were refused visas and others were turned away at the border — but only after officials had ascertained details of their peace movement contacts in Britain for security purposes. 

Those refused visas included many high-profile figures. Pablo Picasso was one who made it through, after intense questioning. 

His experience made him vow that he would never set foot in Britain again.    

Despite all of this, a packed one-day meeting was held in Sheffield City Hall with crowds outside unable to get in. 

Picasso arrived by train to be greeted by a delegation including Communist Party member Bill Ronksley. 

He used to tell how flowers were presented to the famous artist and man of peace but, after the photos were taken, the welcome party had then to ask for them back to give to other conference arrivals: the welcome party had only one bunch. 

As it became clear that the full congress could not go ahead in Britain, plans were quickly drawn up to transfer the whole event to Warsaw. 

It was a fantastic feat of problem-solving and logistics and a triumph for the whole peace movement that by November 16 the event was reconvened in Poland with thousands present. 

For one person who made a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend the Sheffield meeting, it was life changing. 

Dancer and minor movie star Kathleen Tacchi-Morris was staying in Bradford with friends, when she saw an advert for the meeting. 

Being acquainted with Picasso, and invited to join him in the hall, she questioned why there were so few women among the delegates going on to Warsaw. 

Immediately, he asked her to take his place. What she saw and heard there, in the ruined city, of fascism, war and occupation changed her life. 

On her return, she founded Women for World Disarmament (WFWD), an international peace organisation in which she played a leading role for the next four-and-a-half decades. 

In Warsaw, the World Congress of Partisans for Peace was renamed the World Peace Council. 

French physicist and activist Frederic Joliet-Curie, denied an entry visa to Britain for the Sheffield meeting, became its first president (1950-58). 

The second person to hold that office (1959-65) was the British scientist and socialist JD Bernal, whose invaluable Peace Archive is housed in the Marx Memorial Library.

Seventy years on and the peoples of the world are faced with proliferation of US-led imperialist aggression, burgeoning arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, a new cold war and devastating new hot ones, as the most reactionary powers on the planet fight to maintain their waning control of the resources, labour and markets of the world. 

We know that peace and socialism are the only solutions for humanity, and we must urgently build the international struggle to make them a reality. 

As we do so, we will continue to be driven by the spirit and determination of Sheffield 1950 and by the principled struggle of the World Peace Council and all its constituent member organisations, together with the mass movements for peace in every country. 

And we will be inspired by the doves of peace and freedom, sketched by Picasso during his visit, and the Wings of Peace crayon drawing he made across the wall of his friend Bernal’s London flat in mid-November 1950, and which now hangs in the London headquarters of the Wellcome Foundation. 

Liz Payne is convener of the British Peace Assembly, Britain’s affiliate of the World Peace Council.

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