The legacy of Greenham Common has outlived Margaret Thatcher

On the day of the Iron Lady's funeral, David Cameron recalled her stand against the peace camp in the 1980s. What he didn't mention was that many Tory women found it inspiring

There was one moment during the impeccable choreography of Margaret Thatcher's funeral cortege arriving at St Paul's that felt eerily unseemly: the coffin, with its union flag shroud, draped in white flowers, on a gun carriage behind a posse of elegant horses. Nothing could make a gun carriage beautiful.

Thatcher remembered war as her finest hour. David Cameron, interviewed on the Today programme before her funeral, recalled not only the Falklands war, but her stand against the women's peace camp at Greenham Common, which was close to his childhood home.

So what does he recall about the camp? The Cruise missiles warehoused there? The regular arrival of monstrous regiments of women messing up the Tories' Chipping comfort zone, taking that space – embracing the base – to defy the location of Cruise missiles?

This was iconic English countryside, blessed Berkshire, hunting and shooting country. Cameron's family lived in Peasemore, and it is said that his father used to take him hunting. The Berkshire set didn't like peace women. But Cameron may not know that they were in a minority.

Greenham was one of the west's most intoxicating theatres of political protest in the 1980s. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had resolved to locate nuclear missiles ever closer to the Soviet Union. The Nordic countries were appalled. Britain's Labour and Liberal parties were opposed.

Greenham Common was not a Falklands or an Orgreave. I interviewed scores of Tory women during the 80s, for my book The Iron Ladies, and all of them had an opinion about the women's peace camp. Some were horrified at the idea of respectable mothers leaving their families for squalor and for politics. Many, however, were touched by those women – as women.

A Birmingham Tory voter admired them so much that, to the bewilderment and chagrin of the men in her family, she decided to cut off her long hair and got a bob – she called it her Greenham haircut. It was the ingenuity and non-violence of the camp that many Tory women found inspiring. And it was the adornment of a place of danger with the memorabilia of attachment and love – kids' clothes, photographs – that touched them, too.

There was also among many Tories an English nationalism that manifested itself as anti-American: if Thatcher was later to proclaim that "America and Britain saved the world", it was not an opinion universally endorsed in her own party.

Cruisewatch and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) augmented the Greenham women's vigilance and tracked the missiles as they were taken on manoeuvres around English country lanes. All of this belied the notion that Cruise made Britain safe – if women could penetrate the camp and peaceniks could find, blockade and generally discombobulate the military manoeuvres, then surely the Russians would have no problem finding them.

Mikhail Gorbachev – he who gave Thatcher her Iron Lady moniker – was pressing negotiations to reduce the number of nuclear missiles menacing the world. In 1983, when 70,000 people linked arms in a human chain around the 14-mile perimeter fence at Greenham, those negotiations foundered. But the peace camp's impact on public opinion was profound – 67% of British women, and 62% of Tory women voters, opposed Cruise.

Five years later, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Cruise was doomed.


Beatrix Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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