Expert View: Campaigning - you can keep principles intact

Since I first became involved in campaigning, I have been struck by how often campaigners regard radicalism and effectiveness as mutually exclusive.

Succeed or have principles, they seem to say. Radicals reinforce this notion as strongly as compromisers, often implying that a successful campaign must have sold out.

The latest campaign to disprove this notion has shifted both public opinion and political reality in the past two years. Campaign Against Arms Trade insists UK arms exports will not be seriously reduced while arms companies enjoy huge influence within government. In 2006, this influence led to the Government persuading the Serious Fraud Office to drop a corruption investigation into defence manufacturer BAE's arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

Caat discussed a joint legal challenge with Corner House, an anti-corruption NGO. As someone who's sceptical about the legal system, I was cautious about announcing anything until we were sure. But it was clear the media were excited by the issue and we would lose momentum if we waited. The day after the investigation was dropped, we announced we were meeting lawyers to discuss a judicial review. We found ourselves in the unfamiliar position of leading the news rather than following it.

Over the coming months, our usual supporters were joined by right-of-centre commentators and even Tory MPs. At times there was a temptation to dilute core commitments for the sake of alliances. Looking back, I think our integrity helped us make allies. Sticking to principles while building strategic alliances over specific campaigns seems to be crucial for effective radicalism.

Besides our legal case, the Control BAE campaign included local activism, parliamentary lobbying and media engagement. We built strong contacts with business and legal journalists. A few supporters worried that Caat had abandoned its traditional commitment to nonviolent direct action in favour of the courts. We are against neither; the point is to choose the most effective approach in each context.

Although our triumph in the High Court was overturned by the Lords in July, public awareness of this issue has increased several times over and encouraged a growing hostility to the arms trade.

Never doubt that a principled group with limited resources can take on the Government and shift public opinion. Sustained by the encouragement of thousands, we've combined a passionate cause with practical results. This is not only bad news for the arms trade; it is good news for any campaigning group.

- Symon Hill is media coordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade.

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