Tribune leader, 17 January 1992
It is almost incredible that the Tories have decided to make a big issue of Labour’s defence policy in the election campaign. Almost, but not quite.
Although fear of the Soviet threat is no more, it has been replaced in the popular mind by a vague sense of unease at what the former Soviet republic will be like; and, in the wake of the Gulf war, many people are worried by what nuclear-armed Third World dictators might do. The military industries, despite large-scale redundancies, in the past year, remain major; employers and workers in those industries are worried about their future. There are probably also a few votes in pandering to nostalgia among older members of the electorate for the days when Britain really mattered in the world.
The Tories believe Labour to be vulnerable on defence, despite its policy U-turns in the past four years, on several grounds. First, they think that Labour cannot live down having so recently advocated unilateral abandonment of British nuclear weapons. Then there is the detail of Labour’s current policy. The party leadership might now say that a Labour government would retain British nuclear weapons as long as other states kept theirs, but Labour would not build the fourth Trident (unless it turns out cheaper to build than to cancel) nor develop a British tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile. Labour conference, although disowned by the leadership, has consistently voted to reduce arms spending to the “average European level”.
So how should Labour respond to the Tory assault? It certainly should not trim any more. Further “minor adjustments” in Labour’s position, particularly on the fourth Trident, would be a very bad idea. As Tribune has argued tune and again, there is now no significant nuclear threat to Britain that anyone can convincingly identify as a justification for “deterrence”: the “independent deterrent” serves no function apart from deluding the British public that Britannia still rules the waves. Three Tridents are three too many; a fourth might-stave off the collapse of VSEL in Barrow-in-Furness for four years, but in the long run far more jobs would be saved, and still more created, if the money earmarked by the present government for the fourth Trident submarine were diverted at once into funding a comprehensive arms industry conversion programme. The same goes for the European Fighter Aircraft and several other large-scale military spending projects.
In the Labour Party’s current mood, however, such arguments are unlikely to dissuade the leadership from moving still closer to the Government on defence. What might dissuade it are electoral considerations. The party’s shifts on defence policy since 1987 have been motivated by the belief that affluent working-class voters were particularly turned off by namby-pamby, middle-class nuclear pacifism. Now those voters are back on board – but Labour has lost a great deal of credibility among those who were broadly in favour of nuclear pacifism. So far, most have stuck to Labour but if the leadership goes any further, it risks losing even their grudging support. Party strategists should remind themselves just how big CND was in the mid-eighties – and remember that the explicitly anti-nuclear Greens took 15 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European elections. Of course, times have changed, and defence policy is unlikely to be the sole determining factor in even the most ardent CNDer’s choice at the general election.
But with the polls as tight as they are, for Labour to throw away the (already wavering) nuclear pacifist vote could be to throw away the chance of office.