Paul Anderson, New Socialist, November 1986

Healey is right. It is not inconceivable that US nuclear bases will survive a Labour government

On BBC’s Panorama programme in Labour Party conference week Denis Healey, the party’s shadow foreign secretary, said ii was “not inconceivable” that US nuclear weapons would remain in Britain after a Labour government had come to power. The reaction in Blackpool was immediate and hostile and within hours Healey had withdrawn his broadcast remarks.

Yet Denis Healey was surely right. It is not inconceivable that a Labour government, however robustly it asserts Britain’s nation­al sovereignty, will fail to remove US nuclear weapons from this country. The Labour non-nuclear defence policy represents the party’s largest single challenge to the establishment not only of this country, but of the western world, in its entire history; and the-removal of US nuclear bases is the most hotly-contested element of that policy.

It is one thing to be alarmed that Healey might be about to reopen the damaging divisions on defence which dished Labour’s chances at the 1983 election. It is quite another to believe that “political will” is all that Labour’s leaders would require to carry the policy through. Any belief of this kind wildly exaggerates the power of an elected government in Britain. In the run-up to the election it may very well seem prudent, both electorally and in inner-party terms, publicly to argue the case for Labour’s defence policy, but to admit to no doubts about the awesome task of carrying it through. But if Labour is serious about actually carrying it through, it has to do more this side of the election.

“National sovereignty” might well see off Caspar Weinberger so far as winning an election is concerned, but it won’t impress the non-democratic institutional forces which will be ranged against the policy. And to build up public opinion, the arguments for a non-nuclear defence policy must be set in a wider perspective than that of Neil Kinnock’s (admirable) morality and petty bilateral deals on warheads with Gorbachev.

Secondly, Labour must now begin the exacting preparations for dismantling the structures of an existing defence posture which has been steadily growing for the past 40 years. Those preparations have to take account of the fact that the principal agencies responsible for carrying out Labour’s policy will be implacably and self-righteously opposed to it.

Most analysis of the obstacles to that policy begins with the relentless opposition of the United States. The wilder scenarios propose that the US would deliberately set in train a strategy of “destabilisation” similar to that which brought down Allende in Chile. I believe that such scenarios are ill-founded; the US has less room for manoeuvre in western Europe than in its own “backyard”. In any event, the most serious obstacles will be domestic; and the most de-stabilising factor of all is potentially the policy itself.

Public opinion is the arena which matters most. Here it is as well to be sober. A minority Labour government will be lucky to do any more than cancel Trident (the enticing prospect of an alliance with unilateralist Liberal MPs just isn’t on). A “majority” Labour government after 1986-87 may have a plurality, but hardly a majority of popular support. Certainly, public support for a British deterrent and US military bases in Britain has been falling since the 1983 election, but on current trends it remains most likely that a majority of people will continue to wish to retain, or even upgrade, the British deterrent (see “One Last Chance,” by Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Husbands, NS September 1984); opinion on removing the US bases has been more volatile.

The Tories have shown over the past month how they mean to attack Labour’s policy. At its core their argument is that Labour will undo the Atlantic Alliance, the very base of the collective defence system which has kept the peace in Europe for 40 years.

Now elections are about many issues, and defence is just one (though very significant) issue. But should Labour win the next election, the same argument will be mobilised against the government’s efforts to carry out its defence policy; it will then have far more resonance as a single issue, and the Tories may well have the backing not only of Washington, but of western European capitals too.

That Panorama programme revealed, too, that you don’t need to believe in a malign media bias to see how the media will be inclined to put their weight, albeit unconsciously, behind this kind of argument too. The programme was conspi­cuously “balanced” between the political parties. But its basic premises were, so to speak, “cold war Atlanticist”. This is hardly surprising. The idea of the Atlantic Alliance, the “special relationship”, is part of the postwar consensus, and Britain’s key role in determining the cold war is as much a legacy of the Attlee government as the NHS.

It is common ground that the military themselves are divided over the merits of Trident, cruise and Polaris. The costly Trident, in particular, is unpopular with certain service chiefs, and with the Treasury too. Taken separate­ly, then, there is no consensus among the top brass at the Ministry of Defence and in the services. But Labour’s policies as a package, and especially the removal of US nuclear bases, would in their view strike a damaging, perhaps fatal, blow to Britain’s integral involvement in US/Nato command structures. There is a genuine fear in the political and military establishment that such policies could be decisive in persuading the US to pull out of Europe altogether.

In 1981, according to Dunleavy/ Husbands, the military establishment drew up contingency plans for resisting Labour’s defence proposals. If they failed to stop Labour ministers by private advice and semi-public campaigning, the service chiefs would resign en bloc and organise a service-wide boycott of the posts. This in itself could be expected to create a huge political crisis; but if Labour persisted with their policies, they envisaged as a last resort a petition to the Queen urging her to dissolve parliament. Official sources have denied that such plans ever existed; but true or false, they serve as an illustration of the military establishment’s capacity to put a determined government’s legitimacy under severe strain.

Our own political and military establishment would be joined in its opposition by the United States and other allied governments, and by the Nato chiefs themselves. Labour would be accused of breaking treaties going back to the 1954 Brussels agreement and further. They, too, would begin by exerting pressure quietly to persuade Labour to abandon the whole package and to extract significant concessions. At some stage they would go public with their warnings of the dire consequences of any intransigence on Labour’s part.

But Labour would have important bargaining positions too. The commitment to play a continuing role in Nato with conventional arms, and Britain’s intelligence gathering operations (as Neil Kinnock made clear in his speech at Blackpool), are contributions to the alliance which our allies would not lightly sacrifice.

The United States is a special case. It would be rash to predict how extreme the reaction from Reagan might be. But the US no longer exerts the economic power over Britain that enabled Eisenhower to force Britain and France ignominiously to abandon the Suez adventure in 1956. The British economy is now relatively stronger and no longer so dependent on American markets.

We could perhaps expect pressure on US multinationals to refuse to deal with British producers (to some extent the US already does so), and popular “Buy American” campaigns or voluntary tourist boycotts. But direct trade controls aimed at British goods would be problema­tic and fairly unlikely. The offensive is far more likely to be diplomatic and propagandist in character; and, as New Zealand has so far shown, if Labour can build its house solidly enough, all Washington’s huffing and puffing won’t necessarily blow it down.

It is as well to face the facts, even if they look gloomy. Labour’s only hope of making a non-nuclear defence policy stick quite plainly rests on its ability to convince the British public that it is the safest and sanest option. To do so, Labour must widen the terms of debate, as the internationalists argue, and rescue it from the unspoken cold war assumptions which still largely underlie debate on defence in this country. It is no good trying a low-key strategy: defence is too salient an issue in the public mind for that. It is not clear why Labour’s campaign on defence and international issues, planned for this autumn, has not happened. If the assumption was that the issues should be downplayed, it was a mistaken assumption.

Finally, much will depend on how exactly a future Labour government seeks to implement the policy. It would be fatal to negotiate behind the scenes with the military top brass, Nato, western allies and other interests, and conceal any reverses, as Labour governments have done in the past. A future Labour government must openly discuss the obstacles which confront its advance, and expose the processes of pressure and influence to public scrutiny. It mus^t establish its own democratic credentials from the start, and ensure that all attempts to obstruct or crush the policy are manifestly challenges either to the democratic process or national sovereignty.

Paul Anderson is deputy editor of END Journal. He writes here in bis personal capacity.

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