Swords, Ploughshares and Carriers Without Planes

When Britain was a superpower with an empire unrivalled in world history, men and women across Wales shivered at the sight of the military might which powered this international colossus.

The poet Gwenallt was imprisoned during World War I for refusing to wear his uniform and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, founded by Richard Roberts from Blaenau Ffestiniog, promoted principles for international peace years before Eleanor Roosevelt drafted the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The embers of this pacifist tradition are still alight. When it was announced this week that plans for a multi-billion pound defence academy in the Vale of Glamorgan would not get the green-light the near-universal response was deep disappointment at lost investment.

But the Rev Guto Prys ap Gwynfor, chair of the Welsh Union of Independent Churches’ peace society, said in a press release: “It would be tragic for the Welsh economy to rely on an industry that teaches people how to kill. Wales has been over-militarised already.”

Pacifism gained moral energy after the slaughter of World War I but was setback after Britain was confronted with the naked face of aggressive evil in the form of the Nazis. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most influential American theologians of the 20th century, quit the Fellowship of Reconciliation when World War II broke out and argued forcefully that the moral compromise of armed engagement is sometimes necessary.

Such ideas were embraced by the neoconservatives who were convinced that the use of force to promote democracy is justifiable, and the concept of the pre-emptive strike was tested with the invasion of Iraq.

In recent years and days we have seen a roll-back away from such militarism with a speed which would have delighted the early Welsh pacifists. This has not been the result of ideological conversion but pragmatism (the blood and treasure spent in Iraq and Afghanistan has exhausted world powers) and a response to the devastating economic storm.

It is possible a new doctrine will develop to suit these chastened times. This week Conservative PM David Cameron, the heir to the party of Churchill – the champion of rearmament – raised the surreal prospect of a Britain that had aircraft carriers without planes.

He pledged Britain would be “more thoughtful, more strategic and more coordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security”.

In this moment when a foreign policy is waiting to be written, idealists and realists alike have a chance to articulate a new way of acting justly in a dangerous world.

A Saturday column