Tribune, 26 May 1989

The new defence policy that emerged from Labour’s policy review has been hailed by the centrist media as a step towards political realism. But it’s not at all realistic if nuclear disarmament is genuinely Labour’s goal, writes Paul Anderson

And so, after months of deliberation, the Labour leadership has decided to jettison the party’s policy of British unilateral nuclear disarmament. Labour’s National Executive Committee has backed a policy review group document that drops the party’s promises to abandon the British Independent nuclear deterrent” and remove American nuclear bases from Britain.

According to the new leadership position, a Labour government would adopt a policy of “no first use” of British nuclear weapons; would build three Trident submarines rather than the four now planned; and would somehow get Britain’s Trident and Polaris submarines into the second round of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

If this failed, a Labour government would go for a bilateral deal with the Soviet Union to get rid of Trident and Polaris in return for Soviet concessions.

A Labour government would oppose NATO’s plans to modernise its short-range nuclear forces, and would encourage the inclusion of such weapons in the Conventional Forces in Europe talks. And it would attempt to get NATO to abandon its current “flexible response” doctrine by adopting “no first use”.

In the meantime, it would shelter under, the American nuclear umbrella and refuse to promise not to “press the button”.

What is most striking about the new policy is that it simply has not been thought through. The shift in policy is justified by its proponents solely by vague gestures towards the popular sense that “things have improved since Mikhail Gorbachev took over”. Nothing has been looked at dispassionately or in detail.

Most obviously, the idea of putting Trident and Polaris into START 2 is a breathtakingly stupid policy if disarmament really is Labour’s goal.

START 1, which must be concluded before START 2 begins, has only just begun. It is bogged down in disputes over sea-launched cruise missiles, Star Wars and mobile missiles. These will be resolved only if both super-powers are prepared to compromise. But while Gorbachev is flexible, George Bush shows every sign of adopting a hardline war position – like that taken by Ronald Reagan until the Iran-Contra scandal forced him to engineer the foreign policy triumph of the Intermediate Nuclear Pones treaty. As things stand, START 1 might deliver an agreement made a couple of years; but the smart money says it won’t.

If that smart money is right, saying that Trident and Polaris wffl be negotiated away in START 2 is obviously ridiculous. But even if START 1 is a runaway success, there is no guarantee that there will be a START 2, let alone that the Soviet desire to have all the nuclear powers represented in the second stage of START will be accepted by the Americans. And if the Americans do accept non-super-power participation in START 2, it is difficult to see the French, Israelis, South Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese rapidly coming to an agreement to reduce their strategic nuclear armouries. “Ah, but…,” say some of the Labour Centre-Left, “multilateral talks are not the whole policy. Robin Cook got the NEC to agree that if multilateral negotiations were delayed and showing no sign of pro-ducing an agreement to remove Trident, a Labour government would go for a bilateral disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union towards the end of its first term. Surely that deals with the problem?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Mr Cook’s amendment is a small dose of sanity in an otherwise barmy scenario, raising the question of why time should be wasted pursuing a course of multilateral negotiations that everyone knows would get nowhere (if they ever started). At worst, it is a recipe for prevarication. How long would a Labour government wait before deciding that multilateral talks were unlikely to open? And if they opened, how long would it take before making a decision as to their success or failure?

A week might be a long time in politics, but four or five years is a very short time in international diplomacy, particularly where arms negotiations are concerned.

If, as the review group report states, Britain’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t really constitute a deterrent, and if the Trident programme is “wasteful, unnecessary and provocative”, why bother with the tedious business of building three Trident submarines (not enough, incidentally, to constitute a deterrent as defined by establishment military wisdom), then trying against the odds to get a multilateral START 2 process going, then trying against even bigger odds to secure a consensus among the nuclear powers for disarmament?

If disarmament is the goal, why not say either that Trident would be abandoned and the rest of Britain’s nuclear arms (including the tactical weapons not mentioned in the policy review report) would be scrapped unilaterally or that the whole lot would go in return for Soviet arms reductions?

And if disarmament is not the goal, why bother with the rhetoric about the uselessness of the British deterrent?

By contrast with the “independent deterrent”, American nuclear bases in Britain are not popular with the electorate – and at least some of them play an important strategic role, hosting F-lll nuclear bombers which are an essential component of the NATO flexible response doctrine. By the early nineties, there will be many more F-llls in Britain, armed (if all goes to plan) with new air-launched Cruise missiles (brought in to compensate for the ground-launched Cruise and Pershing missiles destroyed under the INF treaty) instead of free-fall bombs. Then the F-llls will be replaced by more modern aircraft, and their air-launched Cruise missiles upgraded.

By the late nineties, American nuclear forces based in Britain, augmented by American sea-launched Cruise nuclear missiles on submarines and surface ships in the North Sea and eastern Atlantic, will fulfil much the same military and political functions as Cruise and Pershing did pre-INF treaty, with the difference that they will be easier to fit into “deep-strike” strategies.

This is a rearmament programme, by far the strategically most important part of the grand NATO plan for nuclear modernisation to restore the capability lost under INF, which includes the already-controversial new deployments of short-range ground-launched missiles and artillery in West Germany. Accepting it means accepting that the “window of opportunity” opened by the INF treaty has been closed.

Labour is, of course, saying that it will not accept it; but it is not clear what its “opposition” to modernisation means. On the least radical interpretation, the new Labour document could mean that a Labour government would simply register a protest vote in NATO about the new ground-launched systems in West Germany, attempt to change NATO strategy towards “no first use” and try to get short-range missiles negotiated away in multilateral negotiations – but otherwise do nothing.

That would be fine if there were a good chance of NATO dropping modernisation and changing its basic strategy. But the reality is that we’re a long way from any such situation.

To be sure, the West German Government has been dragging its feet on the ground-launched systems planned for its territory, first getting NATO to agree to postpone a decision on deployment of the new weapons until after the forthcoming West German general election, and then breaking NATO ranks to demand early East-West negotiations on short-range nuclear forces in Europe. The West Germans now seem to have convinced the Americans that such negotiations should: take place after conventional arms cuts are successfully negotiated.

Bat it would be foolish to consider that this means that modernisation will not happen. There is no guarantee that all the relevant negotiations will be completed in time to stop deployment of new short-range ground-launched missiles in West Germany. Even if they are, that does not necessarily mean an end to modernisation. The West Germans are concerned only with one small part of the NATO programme: they don’t care about the possibility of new aircraft and air-launched weapons in Britain or sea-launched nuclear forces in the North Sea and the eastern Atlantic. In fact, most members of the current West German Government would rather like the new sea-launched and air-launched systems to be deployed: they are traditional Atlanticists, after all, and the new systems would be an excellent way of preserving the American nuclear guarantee to Europe and the basic NATO doctrine of flexible response without the embarrassment of over-visible ground-launched missiles right in the back yard.

A “third zero” on short-range ground-launched systems in Europe as a result of multilateral talks would, of course, be welcome; but it would hardly be the sort of deathblow to NATO’s strategy that Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric over the past few weeks has tended to suggest.

Most of the military functions performed by existing or planned short-range ground-launched nuclear systems could easily be per-formed by sea-launched and air-launched systems. And, given the extent of institutional support for flexible response in NATO, it is more than likely that they would be.

Not just the deployment and structure of Western armed forces but research, development, manufacture and procurement of arms flow from the strategy. The whole military-industrial complex has an interest in no change. Add to that the strategy’s important political function of being the touchstone of loyalty to the Western Alliance, and changing NATO strategy begins to look like moving a mountain.

Rather than being faced with a situation where it can lie back and float with a disarming tide, there-fee, a British Labour government is (barring major political changes in continental Europe) more likely to be confronted with a scenario in which modernisation is racing ahead, flexible response is as secure as ever and the West Germans are quite happy with their lot.

In these circumstances, registering a protest vote in NATO meetings and negotiating to change NATO strategy would be hopeless gestures. The only interpretation of “opposition* to modernisation that would make a serious contribution to disarmament would involve refusal to allow port facilities for new sea-launched nuclear systems and refusal to let British forces in West Germany operate the new ground-launched systems.

But it is difficult to see how this could be put into effect without closing the American nuclear bases in Britain, or at very least subjecting American nuclear forces in Britain to a degree of scrutiny that the Americana would consider an unacceptable price to pay for remain-ing.

A Labour government would have to insist that not one extra F-lll or free-fall nuclear bomb arrived at an American airbase in Britain, not one air-launched Cruise missile was allowed into the country and not one ship or submarine armed with sea-launched Cruise missiles was allowed to dock.

That would mean precisely the intrusive monitoring of American armed forces that the Americans have always refused (for example in New Zealand).

And what if they were to refuse it in the case of Britain under a Labour government? If Labour were serious about its policy, would it have any alternative but to say: “Sorry, but you’ve got to go”? It might be objected that this is much too pessimistic a scenario. By the time Labour came to power hi Britain, a government dominated by the Social Democratic Party might be in place in West Germany. A centre-le3ft coalition might have replaced the current centre-right coalition in the Netherlands.

Add to that anti-nuclear governments in Norway, Spain, Greece, Denmark and Belgium, and assume that Italy and France would acquiesce, and surely there would be a good chance of a new pro-disarmament consensus among NATO’s European members that not even the military establishment and the Americans could scupper? A dramatic swing to the Left across Western Europe is certainly a prospect to relish, and not just for defence policy reasons; but it is not a certainty. The West German SPD and the Dutch Labour Party are by no means guaranteed to come to office in their respective forthcoming elections. Even if they do, it is likely that their hands will be tied by the exigencies of coalition with centre or even right parties. Moreover, like any other national political party, the German and Dutch socialists are primarily con-cerned with their own national political agendas: although they might be in favour of changing NATO strategy and encouraging detente, they would not necessarily make such aims their priorities. In any case, Labour should not base its policies on hoping for the best. The question of what Labour would do in the event of the failure of its initial attempts multilaterally to negotiate away NATO short-range nuclear weapons and change NATO strategy needs to be addressed if the party is to have a credible disarmament policy.

The policy review report adopted by the NEC leaves this question open and recent pronouncements from Neil Kinnock, Gerald Kaufman and Martin O’Neill suggest that the reason is simply that the leadership wants nothing to do with anything except multilateralism.

Should it fail, Labour will accept, albeit reluctantly, the status quo. The strategy is almost certain to back-fire because voters don’t trust politicians who abandon their convictions in desperate attempts to boost their electoral popularity – particularly when the new clothes they put on don’t fit anyway.

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