Paul Anderson, Tribune, 17 July 1987

According to all the political commentators in the “quality” press, Labour lost the election because of its defence policy.

For the pundits, whose ideas were formed at a time when it seemed that the “special relationship” might last for a thousand years, the idea of Britain opting out of being an “independent” nuclear power was nothing less than incoherent; and the idea that American nuclear bases should be removed was a threat to the Atlantic alliance, which of course had kept the peace for 40 years.

And there the case has rested. During the cam­paign, nobody apart from Denis Healey — in a cou­ple of low-key, deliber­ately unpublicised speeches – bothered to
take on the pundits and their “expert” informants with a coherent defence of Labour policy: the line from the public­ity boys at Walworth Road was simply “if anyone mentions de­fence, change the subject”.

Labour’s defence policy was treated merely as an embarrassment during the campaign – and since election day we have heard little to suggest that it will be treated any differently in future.

All this is little short of a scandal, because the reality is that Labour’s defence policy is not a crazed ultra-left han­gover from the terrible days of insurgent Bennery, an inevitable vote-loser included in the manifesto only to keep the loonies from rebell­ing. It is actually a rational response to what is happening in the world today.

The superpowers are on the verge of wide-ranging arms control agreements, particularly on nuclear weapons in Europe: they are being held back by Margaret Thatcher and her right-wing West European allies.

The Americans are thinking increasingly of withdrawing their troops from Europe. NATO is less united than ever be­fore on a whole range of issues, from Star Wars to chemical weapons. There is a giant “window of opportunity” opening for radical change in trans­atlantic and east-west relations.

On a more populist level, the “special rela­tionship” between Bri­tain and America, long a sick joke for the cognos­centi, is becoming laugh­able for anyone who watches President Reagan and his merry band of soon-to-be-convicted criminal associ­ates on the television news. No one with a brain cell left in opera­tion sees a “special rela­tionship” with Reagan and his cronies as re­motely credible.

Still closer to home, Tory over-spending on the military budget is soon to result in massive, almost random cuts in defence provision.

Perhaps even more im­portant, Britain is no lon­ger a world power – it is a medium-sized European power – and it is well past time for giving up the delusions of imperial grandeur that the British “independent deterrent” represents.

Making a decisive break with the idiocies of Tory defence policy is, in short, perfectly sensible, indeed necessary.

Yet the Labour lead­ership decided to play the “more-Atlanticist-and-more-patriotic-than-thou” card against Thatcher. Labour tried to portray itself as the great friend of America, even after Reagan intervened in the election campaign to support the Tories. (It was left to Edward Heath, of all people, to condemn that particular intervention: the Labour front bench released much hot air in an attempt to explain that Reagan could not have really meant what he said.)

The Labour campaign, insofar as it had any­thing to say about defence policy, emphasised that increasing conven­tional arms expenditure was just what nice Presi­dent Reagan wanted, that British commitment to NATO was uncon­ditional, that Labour would be even better at hamming the Battle of Britain than the Tories.

Perhaps that was the best way of limit­ing the damage in the light of the low-key pre-election defence cam­paign mounted by the party. But why was the pre-­election campaign so low-key? After all, the 1985 Labour conference called for a defence cam­paign and Walworth Road promised for ages that a real effort would be made to put the par­ty’s viewpoint to the peo­ple.

Yet all that happened at the end of last year was the distribution of a handful of glossy packs to journalists and other spe­cialists, while a film on the horror of nuclear war was shown as a party political broadcast, all in the space of about two weeks.

The party policy docu­ment on foreign affairs, essential to make any sense of the defence poli­cy, was given such a half-­hearted launch that it was difficult not to be­lieve that someone, somewhere had decided that it would have been better had it never ex­isted.

The point is this: after 1983, nobody expected that Labour could sail to power with a radical de­fence policy. But many party members expected that, with Neil Kinnock as leader and the old right marginalised or converted, the powers-that-be in the party would make sure that Labour did its bit to persuade the electo­rate that its defence poli­cy was credible (which indeed it is).

That did not happen. The defence campaign mounted by Walworth Road in late 1986 was too little and too late. Throughout the last par­liament, the defence front bench team was too incoherent, too low pro­file, and too little in con­trol of the defence policy agenda to have any im­pact.

Labour told people that the international situa­tion was still the same as in 1949, but that we would defend Britain with only conventional weapons. Voters natural­ly felt that if the threat to the country had not changed, there was little reason to change the basis of defence policy.

In short, we cocked up. Next time, we’ve got to get it right. And that means starting now – not by abandoning the anti-nuclear stance, however much the Labour right would like to, but by making a priority of put­ting the case for a non-nuclear defence policy, in the context of a changing international situation, coherently and convin­cingly to the electorate.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.