Tribune, 9 November 1990
Nuclear disarmament might not be headline news today, writes Paul Anderson, but it could easily become a big issue for a Labour government
The end of the cold war has taken the urgency out of the issue of nuclear disarmament in Britain. The fear of nuclear holo­caust that swept the country in the early eighties is long forgotten. Arms control negotiations have been relegated to inside pages in the papers.
The Campaign for Nuclear Dis­armament, meeting in Coventry this weekend for its annual confer­ence, is these days almost as much a general anti-militarist movement – opposing war in the Gulf, discussing new security systems for Europe and lobbying for the “peace divi­dend”  – as it is a campaign against nuclear arms.
Both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have abandoned unilateral nuclear disarmament against only the smallest wimpers of dissent, and both are doing their best to play down their defence poli­cies as the next general election approaches. Today, only the Greens and the Welsh and Scottish nationalists stand by unequivocally anti-nuclear defence policies.
But nuclear disarmament has not gone away forever as a mainstream political issue. Public apathy about nuclear arms rests on a sense that progress is being made in arms reduction talks – and that could easily evaporate.
Inside the Labour Party, acquiescence in the leadership’s line has more to do with wanting to win the next general election that with any real conviction. Although most Labour Party members believe that the chances for negotiated disarmament are good there are widespread worries, even among “Kinnock loyalist” MPs, that Labour will not be able to deliver even on its much reduced promises.
These worries are focussed part­icularly on Labour’s proposals on the British “independent deterr­ent”. Because it would be too expensive to cancel the whole Tri­dent nuclear missile submarine pro­ject at this late stage, party leaders say, Labour would build three of the four submarines currently planned. But it would attempt to get Trident and its Polaris predecessor included in the second round of the strategic arms reduction talks (START-2), and it would drop Tory plans to re­place Britain’s ageing WE-177 free-fall nuclear bombs with new air-to-surface missiles, either bought from the United States or developed jointly with France.
But is it true that Trident would be more expensive to cancel than to build? The Atomic Weapons Re­search Establishment at Aldermaston is having serious problems with producing the warheads for British Trident missiles. There is a real possibility that the American Tri­dent programme, on which the Bri­tish programme relies for rocketry and guidance systems, will be can­celled. An incoming Labour government could find either that it cannot build warheads without substantial extra funding or that an alternative to the Trident missile system needs to be found if the submarines are to have nuclear arms.
In the latter case, it is unlikely that Labour would go ahead (though there is always the possibil­ity of adapting Trident submarines to carry French missiles); but if it is simply a matter of letting Aldermaston have more money, there is the potential for a fierce argument.
There are also concerns that no one has given very much thought to how Britain could get in on START-2. Labour’s front-bench defence spo­kesman, Martin O’Neill, told Tri­bune in an interview published on September 28 that the opening of START-2 could coincide with the election of a Labour government and that the party leadership was “hopeful that we would be able to start talking with the Chinese and French as well as the Russians and the Americans”.
It may not be so easy. According to French diplomatic sources, the French Government will not even consider putting the force de frappe into disarmament negotiations un­til Soviet nuclear capabilities are reduced to the same level as the French – which will not happen un­til the late nineties at the very earliest.
The Chinese also show no signs of eagerness to enter into negotiations on their nuclear weapons. If Labour’s commitment to negotiated disarmament depends on START-2 bringing in all five nuclear weapons states, it is at best a recipe for very slow progress.
Labour might settle for Britain alone joining the Soviet Union and the United States in START-2. But there is considerable resistance in the British military and in the Fo­reign Office to allowing France to become the only West European nuclear power, the obvious result if British nuclear weapons are negotiated away.
But would there even be room for Britain in START-2? An argument is raging between the Soviet Union and the United States over its scope, with the Soviet Union press­ing hard for inclusion of sea-launched cruise missiles and America resisting (partly, it seems, as a means of gaining time while the crisis in the Soviet Union deve­lops). Soviet spokesmen have also said that progress in START could be held back unless the force de frappe and the British “independent deterrent” (which the Soviet Union rightly sees as an integral part of Nato’s nuclear capacity) are included in negotiations. Most commentators believe, how­ever, that the Soviet line on British and French nuclear forces is a bargaining position, which would be modified or dropped in return for American agreement to negotia­tions on sea-launched cruise.
By the time Labour enters government, in other words, the United States and the Soviet Union could have carved up an arms con­trol agenda that does not include British nuclear weapons until the late nineties.
Even if Britain manages to join START-2 at an early stage, there are worries about what a Labour government would do next. Would it negotiate away all Britain’s nuclear forces in return for the So­viet Union cutting the same numb­er of warheads? And if not, what would it do?
Labour’s leaders, facing Tory claims that their new policy is really unilateralism in disguise, are unwilling to disclose whether they have formulated a detailed negotiating position, let alone what it might be.
Just about the only indication of intentions has been Martin O’Neill’s insistence in his Tribune interview that progress on negotiating nuclear disarmament would be swift. What he bases his optimism upon is not at all obvious. Nor is it clear how widely his views are shar­ed among his colleagues.
The future of the “independent deterrent” is not the only nuclear issue that will face a Labour government in 1991 or 1992. There is also the question of Nato’s nuclear role and the American “nuclear guarantee  to Europe.” Here, there are several related contentious questions, starting with the fate of Nato’s plans to replace its stocks of nuclear bombs with nuclear tactical air-to-surface mis­siles (TASMs) and ending with the future of Nato strategy and of the alliance itself.
The TASM plans are all that re­main from a grandiose scheme for short-range nuclear “modernisa­tion” which went to the top of the Nato agenda in the wake of the 1987 INF treaty. Although no form­al Nato decision to deploy TASMs has ever been made, the American Administration has given Boeing funds to develop a version of its SRAM-II short-range attack mis­sile, SRAM-T, and preparations have been made for SRAM-T to be deployed from the mid-nineties on F-lll, F-15E and Tornado strike aircraft, many of them stationed in. Britain.
Labour has taken the line that it is opposed to deployment of TASM but would accept a Nato decision to deploy. Now, however, the SRAM-T programme has hit techni­cal snags and its budget has been cut dramatically. Next year, Con­gress could decide to abandon the project altogether.
Meanwhile, several Nato governments, including Belgium and Holland, have voiced strong opposition to TASM, and it is likely that Germany will refuse to deploy any new nuclear weapons on its territory, as a prelude to complete “denuclearisation” from the Rhine to the Oder.
The TASM seems unlikely to go ahead, although it is still supported strongly by the Nato military and by several right-wing European Nato governments – particularly the British.
The whole Nato strategy of “flexible response”, according to which a Warsaw Pact assault on Western Europe would be met by gradually escalating American nuclear retaliation, has been severely weakened by the removal of Cruise and Pershing missiles under the INF treaty and the abandonment of plans to modernise land-based short-range nuclear for­ces. If TASM is not deployed and nuclear weapons are removed from German soil, the strategy will be close to collapse.
That looks like a convenient out­come for Labour, which has long advocated a move away from flex­ible response and towards a more political role for Nato.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. A version of flexible response could still be kept alive if the Americans continue to deploy nuclear-armed aircraft and sea-launched nuclear weapons in and around Europe. And, because this is just about the only way to preserve the American “nuclear guarantee” to Europe, it has the support of most European Nato governments.
In such circumstances most of the American nuclear forces stationed in Europe would of necessity be in Britain, which would alienate many supporters. The alternative is for a Labour, government effectively to argue for abandonment of the American “nuclear guarantee”, which would bring into question Nato’s very raison d’etre.
This is something the party lea­dership -has always been at pains to avoid, partly because it does not want to upset the status quo, but also because it sees American nuclear involvement in Europe as a lesser evil than the most likely oth­er option, a purely West European nuclear alliance dominated by the French.
Today, the debate on post-cold-war security structures for Europe has barely begun in the Labour Par­ty. But as it gains momentum, it will become increasingly clear that stark choices on the American nuclear presence in Britain cannot be ducked. Like Britain’s “indepen­dent deterrent”, this is hardly going to be a burning issue between now and the election. After that, how­ever, particularly if Labour wins, it is certain to race up the political agenda.
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