“Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as might have been expected.”
George Orwell, Tribune, October 1945
“If you throw away your weapons, some less scrupulous person will pick them up. If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one. This does not always happen but it is to be expected and you ought not to complain if it does happen. The second blow is, so to speak, part of the act of turning the other cheek.”
“Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”, by George Orwell, Polemic, 1947
“I am endeavouring to face you with the fact that the most important feature of this problem is not what we are doing in this country, because that lies within our control. What we have to discuss is the consequences of the action [unilateral nuclear disarmament] upon other nations with far more deadly weapons than we have. I do beg and pray the conference to reconsider its mood in this matter, and to try and provide us with a workable policy.”
Aneurin Bevan, Labour Party conference, Brighton 1957
“Yesterday’s vote against renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent by the Scottish Labour party was resounding. The vote means that that on a national level Labour is more divided than ever on the most important question it must answer about the most important duty of government – how it would guarantee national security.”
Times leader, November 2 2015
Almost 60 years have elapsed since the dramatic debate about nuclear disarmament in Brighton, a debate dominated by the position adopted by Nye Bevan to the dismay of his left-wing colleagues. Some saw the change as treachery, others as that of a belated but welcome seeing of the light. The debate rumbled on for the next few years with Labour adopting a unilateral disarmament policy in 1960 and then reversing it the following year.
These somewhat parochial matters were overshadowed the following year by the Cuban crisis. It was this that came closest to realising the melancholy forecast made by George Orwell in Tribune just after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The crisis was triggered by the attempt by Russia to base nuclear weapons in Cuba. John F Kennedy’s administration was understandably opposed to the Russian plan, and a tense few days followed as the significance of the Russian intention became clear. The response of President Kennedy was to impose a naval blockade. Fortunately for all of us, sanity prevailed, the Russian plan was abandoned and Kennedy made concessions elsewhere in the world to conciliate Nikita Khrushchev.
The question most frequently asked at the time and in the immediate aftermath was this: how close did the two chief protagonists come to the ultimate horror of a nuclear exchange? At the time, it was difficult to come to a view because of the high mendacity content of many of the reports. However, many years later I was present in Hay on Wye when Robert McNamara gave his version of events. Suffice it to say that he was in the Kennedy inner circle and in a position to know.
A member of the Hay audience put the question to him directly: “How close did we come to a nuclear exchange?”
McNamara held up the forefinger and thumb of his right hand, brought the two together and held them up for the audience to see. “About that close”, he replied.
In the absence of a precise measure of the gap between Robert McNamara’s finger and thumb, and in the absence of criteria to assess the significance of the gap, the audience was left to speculate. However, I suspect that, to quote the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo: “It has been a damned nice thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
The Cuban crisis was probably the chilliest point in the Cold War. It took a long time for relations between the two super powers to thaw – that had to wait for the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev. But progress of a kind was made, albeit slowly, in terms of reductions in the stocks of nuclear weapons and thankfully in the abandonment of test explosions.
The world is not exactly safe now but the prospects of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia are not thought to be high.
What about the other nuclear states? These include the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The here situation here is complex. All is not tranquil between India and Pakistan. Israel is in some ways the joker in the lethal nuclear pack, in that it is delicately located in the raging chaos that is the Middle East, and that, for wholly understandable reasons, is not notably transparent in declaring its nuclear hand. Which of us would trust the leadership North Korea with an old fashioned two-penny thunder flash, let alone a nuclear weapon? Iran was and indeed is thought by some to be trying to achieve the dubious status of a nuclear power but with shaky prospects of doing so.
It is against this confused and highly charged background that Jeremy Corbyn is now trying to persuade the Labour Party he leads to adopt a defence policy to rule out a replacement for Trident and to phase out the existing submarines, and, crucially, to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances.
Is he right to adopt this approach? It is probably too early to call it a policy, especially as a strident letter in The Times (November 2, 2015) from Gemma Doyle, a shadow defence minister 2010-2015, asserts that: “Labour’s position is unchanged: for renewal and for the pursuit of multilateral disarmament. There is no way of that being reversed inside the party in a democratic way before the matter is once again put to the vote in Parliament.”
That sound like a definitive statement, but then what do I know about the intricate minutiae of policy formation in the Labour Party or about policy formulation in any other party?
The question that all political parties should be considering with regard to this issue was concisely put by Nye Bevan. It is emphatically not to ask who is in favour of the use of nuclear weapons because the numbers of those saying yes are probably small to vanishing point. Is the relevant question therefore: “Would you press the nuclear button in certain circumstances, and if yes, in what circumstances?”
This question contains the essence of the debate over the use of nuclear weapons. The argument for retention remains the one, albeit somewhat cloudy, that prevailed from the advent of the Russian bomb in 1950 to the Cuban missile crisis. That case crystallised out of that same crisis. The bleak acronym MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction – emerged to cover the scenario that nuclear weapons would never be used against an enemy which possessed them because their use would be tantamount to national suicide.
How plausible is this case? Very plausible post-Cuba, in that there has been no international crisis in the past 60 years that has come close to triggering a nuclear exchange.
In addition (and very encouragingly), a vast apparatus of international controls and pressures and agreements have been developed to reduce stocks of weapons and to dissuade rogue states from seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.
It is against this foreground that Jeremy Corbyn has either to adhere to or modify his resolve that he would never press the nuclear button were the British electorate to put him in a position to do so.
What are the plausible alternative policy elements? The Labour leader’s dilemma can be resolved by considering which alternative policy or policies has/have the best chance of minimising the risk of the use of nuclear weapons at some future date and in the context of a variety of hypothetical conflicts.
Can we start by getting one or two unhelpful contributions out of the way? I was not impressed by the arguments of John Woodcock and of various trade union officials that it would be wrong to put jobs in the nuclear weapons sector at risk and that this constituted a prima facie case for their retention. I can think of no more disreputable assertion.
Similarly, the claim put forward by Gemma Doyle – that there is nothing to discuss – is fatuous. To say that this crucial issue is closed barely six months into the new Parliament and two months after the Labour leadership election which opened up all sorts of areas for calm policy debate and formulation is simply nonsense. The arrogance of Gemma Doyle recalls the intolerance of dissent in the heyday of New Labour when the aged and gentle senior citizen, Walter Wolfgang, was ejected from the annual conference for a few mild interjections.
Nevertheless, the difficulties faced by Jeremy Corby are very real. Let us turn the clock back to 21.55 on Thursday May 7, the day of the general election. Presumably, Corbyn, like many us, was looking forward with mixed emotions to the prospect of Ed Miliband in Number 10 Downing Street yoked to a reluctant and peevish Nick Clegg for the next five years. How wrong can you be?
Corbyn now finds himself expected to trot out well-thought-through policies on the A to Z of British and international politics and, not surprisingly, he has stumbled on occasions.
As someone who is even older than JC, perhaps could I, diffidently, suggest some points to consider? These are in no special order of importance.
First, which policy on the future of Trident is most likely to produce the universally desired result of a planned reduction in the risk of any future nuclear exchanges coupled with a global ban on the deployment, development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons?
Has the Labour leader fully thought through the difficulties that he will face in future interviews as he attempts to defend his admittedly confused policy? In the event of his election to N0 10 (stranger things have happened – ask Nick Clegg and Jim Murphy), Corbyn would be man with his finger on the nuclear button. But he has already stated in advance that he would not in any circumstances press it. Does this stance add to rather than reduce uncertainty and instability?
No doubt Jeremy Corbyn is more aware than most of the appalling irresponsibly displayed by Tony Blair when he, Blair, along with George W Bush, invaded Iraq in 2003 without going through the tiresome process of seeking the prior approval of the United Nations.
Corbyn is very much aware of the political case to act in concert with the UN and to avoid unilateral actions, however well intentioned. He should reflect on this and hat the position eventually adopted must recognise the need to proceed with caution and with the maximum of co-operation with other nations.
The Blair folly caused anger in many neutral nations, and the Labour Party should reaffirm its commitment to UN ideals by deeds rather than by words.
On Trident, as on a wide range of policy issues, the main action of the Labour Party will be spell out what it will do if and when it is in a position to do anything in 2020, or in 2025, or whenever.
Meanwhile, Labour must unite around a range of policies that can be used not only to harass David Cameron but also sway political and public opinion in different and more civilised directions. include tax credits, the taxing of the very rich, the need to ensure that existing steel manufacturing facilities are retained and strengthened so as to give the “Northern Powerhouse” some measure of plausibility, the need to root out corruption from its many safe houses in the United Kingdom.
There is currently a great deal of political debate (mixed with a great deal of froth) about the importance of combating global warming; solving the global refugee crisis reducing the scale of global corruption; getting on top of global cyber crime; ensuring that everyone on the planet has enough to eat, and has access to clean water; Britain’s membership of the European Union – to stay in or leave? But I can think of no issue graver and potentially more catastrophic than the possible future deployment of nuclear weapons.
Britain rightly seeks to be perceived as a force for good across the globe. This commendable aim is more likely to be achieved by working tirelessly to achieve the objective of setting realistic targets for the reduction of nuclear stocks, to enforce ruthless sanctions against countries which seek nuclear status, and to work to the fullest possible extent in the context of multilateral disarmament rather than unilateral disarmament.
Jeremy Corbyn is under no real pressure to finalise a policy on Trident or any other issue for the next four years or so – that is the prerogative and responsibility of David Cameron and the Government.
Obviously JC must not make the mistake of sinking into a Chilcottian torpor on policy matters. So what about a placatory soothing statement along the following lines?
“Following the outcome of the 2015 general election and the subsequent outcome of Labour leadership elections, the party will now follow the time honoured practice of carrying a thorough review of policy in all areas.
“This review will take into account the factors which contributed to the outcome of the two sets of elections in order to assess the case to modify policy where appropriate.
“The review will be carried in a timely fashion and in a way which takes account of the overwhelming need for the party to unite around the policies which emerge from the review.”
I rest my case.
This article first appeared in Tribune on November 22, 2015.