Sunday, 17 January 2016

Labour and Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament

In the spirit of honest politics, here's a confession: the issue of nuclear weapons doesn't greatly exercise me. They are hideous, obscene things to be sure. I've seen Threads, read Brother in the Land, and digested old academic studies about the consequences for Britain of a full nuclear exchange with the USSR. They're unremittingly grim, one and all. Yet, at the same time, the threat had an intangible quality to it. In the 70 years since Little Boy and Fat Man destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nation has deployed nuclear weapons in anger. The prospect of mutually assured destruction, and a little bit of luck, got our species through the Cold War in one piece. Perhaps my lack of concern rests on "it hasn't happened, it's never going to happen"-style complacency, but whatever. It doesn't get me riled either way and that's that. Yet the kind of policy Labour does have on nuclear weapons concerns me greatly.

I think the unilateralist arguments traditionally put by the left aren't terribly encouraging or convincing.The only coherent position I've encountered came from erstwhile comrades of  mine, who, from a class struggle perspective, argued for the disarming of the state by the revolutionary party as it prosecutes the fight for working class power. Yet once the party is in power it should then be willing to utilise existing stocks or develop new weapons to defend the revolution from counterrevolutionary interventions. No weapons are too good (or destructive) for the workers' militias, it seems. Also, take the SNP's "unilateralism", which got a good airing in the run up to the referendum. This is less coherent and far more cowardly. An independent SNP Scotland could be nuclear-free, and no large target for first strikes would be sat there on the Clyde. Yet Scotland is protected from existential external threats, because it'll happily sit under America's nuclear umbrella. The SNP then are giving up nukes, but not really giving up the perceived security of nukes by handing it over to the US instead. Nor are the moralistic arguments around unilateral disarmament particularly compelling. Regrettably, dumping Britain's nukes aren't going to inspire other countries to get shot of theirs. Slightly different circumstances I know, but the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan did little to boost disarmament movements in the West or elsewhere. The abandonment of nuclear weapons programmes by the ancien regime in Libya and currently in Iran isn't going to see Israel scrap their weapons, or prevent Saudi Arabia from reported attempts at buying a bomb or two.

Unfortunately, for those who wouldn't like to see Trident renewed and the weapons scrapped, the logic of their opponents is simple, if not coherent. The world is a scary place and an always-at-sea deterrent is the ultimate insurance policy. Suicide bombers aren't going to be warned off by submarines, but a future nuclear-armed threat might be. Whether it stands up to scrutiny of the international balance of forces or not, it offers illusory promises of security and latterly of prestige. And when anxiety gifted the Tories the general election, and could easily do so again, promising to clear out Britain's nuclear arsenal only heightens those fears. Unilateralism is to Labour's electoral prospects what cyanide pills are to one's respiration.

In the year the Tories are staring into the abyss over Europe, Labour runs the risk of not taking a historic opportunity to give them the shove into it. The leadership are intent on reopening a potentially ruinous debate marginal to people's concerns. It doesn't have to be like this. From my reading of the party, there is very little appetite even among the left for revisiting this issue. Yes, opposition to Trident renewal is a touchstone for socialist opinion in the party, but so is stopping council housing sell offs, protecting the NHS from private profiteering, and so on. It is an issue among a constellation of issues, and s not really salient except for a determined few. Most lefts would also recognise that scrapping Trident, abandoning nukes, and giving the savings to hospitals and schools transmutes gold into electoral lead. Good for lining one's bunker, not so good for winning town halls and holding on in Wales come May. There is, however, a compromise solution that might be temporarily acceptable (at least for the course of this Parliament) to both sides of the nuclear fence in the party.

First is the suggestion of a free vote by the PLP on Trident replacement. It will be uncomfortable, just like last time, but preferable to an even more damaging split. Jeremy himself is considering it, and he would be wise to go for that option. Second, while Labour's present policy is for renewing Trident, it is also for the stepping up of multilateral negotiations for the global reduction of nuclear weapons, with a view to a nuclear weapons-free world. Instead of focusing attention on unilateralism and the problems with that position, it's not intercontinental ballistic missile science to turn the debate into one stressing the failings of the Tories to push non-proliferation and stockpile reduction. Britain is obligated by treaty to do this, and nothing has been done. It's an open goal that could change the conversation away from Labour's woes onto, shock horror, opposing the Tory mendacity and incompetence.

This isn't an original observation, but from the point of view of the party, of the labour movement, of our electoral chances, and of taking the fight to the Tories, it's the best hope for something resembling unity over this issue.

9 comments:

Phil said...

It depends how good an argument you think "we've always done it this way" is. If you look at it with a clean slate, the range of threats that could feasibly be deterred by nuclear missiles targeted at population centres - but couldn't be deterred any other way - is really rather small; arguably too small to justify either the cost or the horrific breach of international law involved in targeting population.

I think part of the confusion here - on both sides - derives from the fact that the Right of the party really hasn't thought about nuclear weapons until now; when they're prodded they haven't got anything to say beyond "well, obviously deterrent, independent deterrent, got to have independent nuclear deterrent". The Left of the party, and Corbyn's co-thinkers in particular, have thought about nuclear weapons, a lot - what they're good for, how much they cost, what would be involved in using them. But they (we) did it back in the eighties, and we thought by now those discussions had been had.

Anonymous said...

I believe in nuclear disarmament but of the multilateral, negotiated type rather than the unilateral option.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many people putting that view forward within Labour at the moment. The Trident debate is polarised between renewal (eg Luke Akehurst's NEC campaign) or unilateral disarmament. Where is the multilateralist case being put?

The main Unions involved see Trident as a big job creation scheme so are supportive of the renewal. Even Unite, albeit reluctantly. So, I imagine Luke would see himself as aiming to get the "job creation" votes for his NEC campaign. (Btw, there''s an article in the FT about thousands of Unite members threatening to leave the union because of Scottish Unite pushing the anti Trident vote at Scottish Labour Conf.. See link.)

I just wonder if we are now moving into a "Nixon in China" moment. Namely, the Tories being seen by most of the UK as being sound and trustworthy on National Security and being the only ones seen able to negotiate with Putin etc.. They, of course, wouldn't be worried about the jobs side of the equation.

John R


https://mobile.twitter.com/PickardJE/status/688836879714791424

Gary Elsby said...

The United Nations has only ever launched one war in its name, Korea.
Macarthur was so frustrated in gaining ground but only to lose it again, he asked for seven nuclear bombs to be dropped on the North to win the day.
So outraged was President Truman, and to stop the prospect of imminent nuclear world war three (part one), he asked for his 'early retirement' (the sack).
Macarthur is credited with promoting his secretaries of whom one became the US president.

The moral of this story is that by God's grace the system of dropping nuclear bombs on innocent people below is only in the hands of Western Presidents and not the Soviets.
Can you imagine the prospect of Truman being outdone by Macarthur?
Doesn't bare thinking about.

As Jeremy says, let's have the debate.
Let's have the debate on funding shortfalls for the NHS, Social Services, education, local authorities and the military and then, if we choose to retain Trident, let's shut up about Tory shortfalls and accept reductions to pensions, child allowances, winter fuel allowances and all the rest of it.

Unfortunately, the debate is for others for I am a lost cause a quarter of a Century ago.
Scrap Trident.
Vote Jeremy.

David Timoney said...

The modern argument against replacing Trident with a continuous-at-sea-deterrent (CASD) system has nothing to do with disarmament, unilateral or otherwise, or even expense, but the fact that the system is of increasingly dubious military value due to advances in subsea technology (the basket of eggs is more difficult to hide). There is a reason why no other nuclear power relies solely on subs.

CASD has worrying echoes of the Naval delusions of the interwar years that contributed to the fall of Singapore in early-1942, which is why many experts are advocating a change in delivery system. It is the Labour right who have made CASD a totem (fighting the last war, i.e. the Cold War), which shows that their objective is symbolism rather than effective defence (a point made clear by the anecdote of Blair's fear of a Commons announcement).

As you note, there is little enthusiasm either within the CLPs or society more generally for unilateral disarmament as a priority, which reflects a difference in perceived risk between today and the early-80s (the election of President Trump would change this). This means there is the potential for a compromise that satisfies the military, the unions, and disarmers (most of whom would accept incremental progress).

Gary Elsby said...

So what is the allusive priority that does concern CLPs and the wider society which puts £100bn to one side in the first instance?
To retain Trident across the board suggests priority in the first instance.
Bogeymen stories telling of nuclear bombs is definitely a vote loser in the 1980s and is very much worthwhile under-funding an exhausted NHS for peace of mind in the 21st Century.

Or is it?
Great Britain has XXXXX nuclear weapons.
Russia has XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.
If the case for multilateral dis-armament is the Labour aim, then...

Great Britain will have nuclear weapons.
Russia will have XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.

The case for multilateralism is a daft one that includes Great Britain.

asquith said...

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3403139/PETER-HITCHENS-bearded-pacifists-right-Trident-waste-money.html

/troll

Chris Rivers said...

"for those who wouldn't like to see Trident renewed and the weapons scrapped" - this statement appears to be contradictory: those who wouldn't like to see Trident renewed" want the weapons scrapped. Did you mean to say: "for those who wouldn't like to see Trident renewed and want the weapons scrapped"? This is the problem of writing stuff at 5am.Keep up the polemic though. Even though I disagree with you on this subject.

Chris Rivers said...

"The unilateralist arguments traditionally put by the left aren't terribly encouraging or convincing." [But omits to acknowledge that decades of Labour multilateralism have achieved nothing]

"An independent SNP Scotland could be nuclear-free, and no large target for first strikes would be sat there on the Clyde. Yet Scotland is protected from existential external threats, because it'll happily sit under America's nuclear umbrella. The SNP then are giving up nukes, but not really giving up the perceived security of nukes by handing it over to the US instead." [THAT old chestnut. Nato has 28 member nations, only three are nuclear armed. Presumably all the 25 without nukes are hiding under an American umbrella too?]

"The world is a scary place and an always-at-sea deterrent is the ultimate insurance policy. Suicide bombers aren't going to be warned off by submarines, but a future nuclear-armed threat might be." [Does ANYONE really think that Britain might face a nuclear-armed threat? Seriously! Many generals don't and many politicians don't. Nuclear weapons are not an 'insurance policy'. Insurance policies are there to pay out and give you protection if an event occurs. There is no 'insurance to be paid out' if there is a nuclear war.]

"Yes, opposition to Trident renewal is a touchstone for socialist opinion in the party, but so is stopping council housing sell offs, protecting the NHS from private profiteering, and so on. It is an issue among a constellation of issues, and s not really salient except for a determined few."
[OK - whilst it has been an issue for rather more than 'a few', it's true, it's not the only issue. But it's the one that the right in Labour and the MSM generally, are focused on - and keep trundling into TV studios to attack the party about having a debate on it. They all blissfully ignore the almost unanimous agreement within Labour on domestic policies. Now why is that? Since when did Labour's Defence or Foreign Policy take centre stage over and above other policies? And what is the right in the party so scared of? Why is that faction or tendency unprepared to accept that a policy, current or not, is not set in stone and if a leader has been elected with a mandate to revisit it they should accept it too. At present Labour's policy remains pro-Trident. But that may change. Or it may not.]

Gary Elsby said...

The case won't be won by Corbyn based on insurance policies or deterrence being flawed.

The case will be won or lost based on post 1983 thinking and 2016 consideration of spending £100bn on Trident to the cost of public services decimated by Tories.
It will be foolish for Labour members to engage with bombing arguments in the first instance.

Count me in on Jeremy's argument.