Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 August 2001

I wasn’t planning to have another go at our dearly beloved Foreign Secretary this week – but no one else has written the response that his last piece in these pages demanded (When-oh-when are you dozy Tribune-reading klutzes going to wake up to the fact that Britain’s relationships with the United States and Europe are a little more important than whether you vote Liberal Democrat in Tory seats in the south-west of England? I just ask.)

In case you missed it, Jack Straw’s most recent column in Tribune (July 27) was an impassioned defence of “Son of Star Wars”, George W Bush’s hare-brained plan for a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system to protect the United States against, well, no one we can identify with certainty at present, but it might at some point include Iraq, Libya and North Korea.

So much is wrong with Straw’s case that it’s difficult to know where to start. When I first read his piece, I was gob-smacked by his phoney faux naif tone: it’s amazing that no one seems ever to have told him that a man in his position claiming to be a clueless chump comes across as a clueless chump.

But what really sticks in the craw is his crass dismissal of anyone who thinks there is a better means of organising defence policy than either missile defence or nuclear deterrence, the threat of “mutually assured destruction” that has kept the world in a state of neurotic terror for S3 years. “Who opposed MAD in the cold war and prefers it now to missile defence?” he asks rhetorically. ‘The answer is some of those who say we should have nothing to do with missile defence. It’s not a very convincing answer.”

This is, of course, a dig at his predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who was sceptical about Bush’s plans and was once, in his European Nuclear Disarmament days in the 1980s, an eloquent critic of deterrence.

But this is about more than settling scores in the Cabinet. The truth is that, regardless of what you think of deterrence, ballistic missile defence is a dangerous project. Not only will it cost an incredible amount of money that could be better spent. It will undermine the whole arms-control regime established over the past 35-odd years. Deploying a BMD system would be a unilateral abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, one of the key international arms agreements of the cold war, setting off a BMD-related arms race and inviting all and sundry to wreck every other arms control agreement ever signed.

The existing arms control set-up is not perfect. But, contrary to the Bush and his friends on the US right, it needs to be reinforced rather than swept away. Arms control treaties show that political means can be used to keep military technology in check. We need more of them, with greater scope. If some existing agreements are not working, we need not to ditch them but to make them effective by any means necessary, from intensive diplomacy to rigorous sanctions.

That is the line of every other social democratic government in Europe. Straw’s position is a pathetically craven attempt to win favour from the Bush administration.


Meanwhile, out of the public eye, a big change is afoot in the small world of the New Politics Network, the tiny outfit – 285 members – that inherited the mantle and riches of Straw’s old buddies when he was a student leader, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Last month, I spent a weird Saturday morning at the avowedly post-Leninist network’s AGM (held, oddly, in the Marx Memorial Library in London, with a bust of old Vladimir Ilyich looking on) at which the ex-comrades decided, pending a vote of members, to turn over the assets of the organisation to a trust.

So what, you might think. Except that the assets (mostly real estate inherited from the CPGB, originally purchased directly with subventions from Moscow) are worth around £4 million. Putting them into a trust means that NPN members will cede control of the kitty to unelected trustees – former-CP bigwigs and usual-suspect great-and-gooders – who will dish out largesse to their favoured respectable “progressive” causes in perpetuity. It’s a patronage scam of the worst kind, and as a member of the NPN – never a CPer, I joined because I really am a post-Marxist democratic pluralist and mistakenly took the ex-commies on face value – I argued at the AGM for retention of the organisation’s constituional status quo, whereby members can decide democratically where the assets go when, as seems inevitable, the whole show is wound up. Given the decrepitude of the organsiation, I said, it would be better to hand over the cash to people who are genuinely doing something worthwhile (the NPN has spent £250,000 in the past 18 months on bugger-all) and fade away peacefully.

We liquidationists were not organised, and we were beaten 19-9 in the AGM vote by a popular front of mugwumps and pensioner leadership loyalists. I reckon we’ll lose the vote of the membership too. But, as the old left cliché goes, the struggle goes on.

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