Scilla Elworthy – the campaigner who has put a price on world peace

Scilla Elworthy, photo: archive of Scilla Elworthy

Scilla Elworthy is a lifelong campaigner against warfare and conflict and was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Oxford Research Group, which fostered dialogue between the UK government and nuclear disarmament activists. More recently she has been the author of The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War. We spoke after a talk she gave at the Melting Pot forum at the Colours of Ostrava music festival.

Scilla Elworthy,  photo: archive of Scilla Elworthy
You founded the Oxford Research Group in the 1980s. That was the age of the nuclear arms race. Were things clearer in those days, when you had on one side the Soviet Union and on the other the US and its allies?

“In a way they were clearer, because it was what was called the Cold War.

“But what infuriated me was the lack of democracy.

“The British government was taking decisions in secret to build new nuclear weapons systems, like Trident, without consulting Parliament. Completely undemocratic.

“I was outraged by that. I also had a young daughter and I was fearful for her future.”

Today is it harder to counter what they call hybrid war, which many people say Russia is waging on the West?

“What I would say is that the main threats we face are not soluble by weaponry.

“In other words: climate change, terrorism, migration, the rich-poor gap and cyber warfare.

“You can’t do anything against any of these with guns and missiles and aeroplanes.

“Any kind of weaponry cannot deal with this.

“So it’s obscene that we now spend – take a deep breath – USD 1,686 billion [annually] on militarisation worldwide, while USD 10 or 11 billion would provide clean water and sanitation to every child on earth.

“Also, what I discovered when I wrote this book The Business Plan for Peace… I learned and calculated carefully that to prevent war worldwide would cost only USD 2 billion.”

“The main threats we face are not soluble by weaponry: climate change, terrorism, migration, the rich-poor gap and cyber warfare.”

But how did you arrive at that figure? It seems incredible that you could put an actual number on the cost of preventing war for 10 years.

“What I did was to first concentrate on those policies and strategies that prevent war before it starts.

“I’m not talking about picking up the pieces or sending in the UN. I’m talking about preventing, like preventing cancer, preventing obesity, whatever.

“I took 25 strategies that I know – from 45 years in the business, from the top to the bottom – work and produce results.

“In other words, if you apply these strategies you prevent war.

“So I took those strategies, costed them and extended them over a 10-year period and USD 2 billion was the total.”

But even if you implemented that, wouldn’t it take just one madman, like a Kim Jong-un, or maybe even a Donald Trump, to do something that would put us all at risk of global warfare?

“Surely. You have to set in train negotiations that will engage such individuals, who have been driven to their position usually by fear, by competition, by wanting to look like a strong man, and you have to engage those people in a long, long dialogue which takes them right back to their childhood often.

“They’re driven by how they were beaten up as kids.

“And then you have to grow, from the bottom up, a world system that shows people how to make themselves safe, instead of vulnerable.”

Donald Trump,  photo: Michael Vadon,  CC BY-SA 2.0
But surely you couldn’t teach or re-educate Donald Trump to be a better person?

“I don’t believe that’s impossible. I think it’s a pretty steep hill.

“But when I look at that man what I read is a very violent upbringing, where he was made to feel small and tiny, and now he has to constantly threaten other people to feel good about himself.

“We don’t need people like that in government.

“We need to organise it so the people we elect are sane, are humane and have a strong sense of right and wrong.”

Getting back to the figure you put on armaments and the crazy amount that’s spent on them, why do voters tolerate that?

“Because the media thrives on fear and disaster.

“That means that it’s very unusual to put at the top of the news stories a really good story.

“So we don’t get airtime for all the incredible things that are happening.”

Some will say that weapons can actually work against terrorism, that there are things that can be done using armaments to at least curb terrorism.

“No. Give me an example of where weapons can stop terrorism.”

Say if you take out some terrorist leader with a missile.

“Yes, but it would be much simpler and much quicker to prevent those young men in the madrasas, wherever they’re learning to go for Jihad, to go talk to their parents about why the Koran would not sanction what their kids are about to do – that’s the way to stop it.”

Some people listening to this will, I’m sure, say that people are just aggressive, especially men, that people are acquisitive, they like to expand if they can, accumulate territory – that there’s something deep within people that drives them to behave that way.

“When I look at Trump what I read is a very violent upbringing, where he was made to feel small and tiny, and now he has to constantly threaten other people to feel good about himself.”

“Please. That’s such an old-fashioned way of viewing the world.

“We’ve had that kind of thinking dominate our education for 3,000 years.

“And now we’re on the brink of global annihilation, whether from nuclear weapons or from the impossibility for large numbers of people to survive and therefore they want to kill other people.

“We’re all threatened now.

“It’s time for us to make a shift into more feminine intelligence, available to men as it is to women.

“Feminine and masculine intelligence need to be brought into balance.

“What women would say, largely because they give birth and they’re close to the earth, is that they know what life means, how precious life is.

“Women have wisdom that never gets heard. And now is the time that women are coming, their voices are being raised.

“Without threatening anybody, they’re simply saying what we’re doing is insane.”

Are there any extreme situations in which you understand – not that you would condone it – the use of violence?

“I have asked myself this question a lot. And I think that if somebody was threatening my child, or about to burst in and fire an automatic weapon at all my family, I would want to walk out towards that person and do my best to engage them, to speak to that person.

“If there’s something I’m really frightened of, like a cobra – I lived in Africa for a long time – it’s no good to back away. You have to engage.

“So I would always try and engage with a very angry person and find out where their sense of right and wrong is.

“It’s not easy. And you risk your life to do it. But it’s better than shooting everybody.”

Today people are less ideologically driven than they would have been say in the 1980s, when you were campaigning against nuclear weapons. Many young people aren’t really interested in party politics but they do seem to get excited about single issues. Does that help you, when it comes to combating war and campaigning for peace?

Photo: archive of Scilla Elworthy
“Absolutely. The surveys that have been done of the values of millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000, is that they prioritise…

“When they go for a job interview, for example, they’ll ask more questions about people – how do you treat your people?, purpose – will you respect my purpose in life?, and the planet – how do you treat the planet?

“So they prioritise these issues over how much they’re going to be paid. That’s incredible.

“Because if they ask those questions at interview and they say, Sorry, I’m not going to accept your offer because you don’t pay attention to the needs of humans, I’m out of here, then that’s big.”

Looking to the future, are you optimistic that the human race could somehow evolve in some way and be more peaceable?

“I do think so. And I think it has a lot to do with the emancipation of women.

“Because for the first time in 3,000 years women are getting their voice heard.

“I’m surprised we haven’t had a revolution. Honestly.

“I’m surprised we haven’t expressed our vast anger at the way we’ve been treated for 3,000 years.

“But what we’re doing is very powerful but it’s not armed. We’re not taking a gun to men, because that wouldn’t work. We know it wouldn’t work.

“So what we’re saying is that we have the wisdom that everybody needs in the world. And we’d love to share it with you and with all the men who understand it.

“There are many. More and more and more.”

You’ve been campaigning for peace for 45 years or so. What do you regard as your greatest achievement in that period?

“I think there’s a lot still to do. I don’t think my achievements really are very significant.

“But what I can do is spread the word through what I write and what I speak – and share with young people how I think the world is not a desperate place.

“It’s not threatening, it’s just that the media portrays everything as scary.

“The world isn’t really like that. If you look around you’ll find a lot of very thoughtful, compassionate, listening people. Build on them”

“I’m surprised women haven’t had a revolution.”

Many people say the world is divided today, with Trump and Brexit and so many goings happening, like a turn to the right, or far-right, in some parts of Europe. Do you agree that the world is more divided now than it was in the past?

“If you think it’s divided now, come and live in the Cold War.

“It wouldn’t have been possible for me to sit in a place like Czechoslovakia and talk with you the way we are talking now.

“So we don’t want to lose that through the idiocy of people in the White House or people in North Korea.

“They’re immature, they’re victims and we can replace them with people who have good sense and compassion.”