23 November 2006


I was digging around in my filing cabinet the other day when I came across a copy of New Socialist magazine from November 1986 in which I had the cover story, a piece arguing that a Labour government would face resistance to its non-nuclear defence policy from America, other Nato countries and the military establishment.

Believe it or not, this caused a quite a stir at the time. Labour, ahead in the opinion polls, had high hopes of winning the next general election — and after the October 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev the party leadership was optimistic that it could make friends with Reagan. So, because New Socialist was an official Labour Party publication (remember when Labour published things?), various party spokesmen felt it necessary to issue denials that the article represented party policy, which of course brought it attention it would never have otherwise received (and, to be frank, it didn’t deserve).

Not that the small flurry of “Labour defence row” headlines mattered very much. Labour didn’t make friends with Reagan — when Neil Kinnock and Denis Healey visitied him in the White House in 1987, the US president famously mistook Healey for the British ambassador — and it didn’t win the next election. Kinnock abandoned the non-nuclear defence policy just as the Berlin Wall came down.

So why relate this trifling ancient story now? Well, it’s because chancing upon that old New Socialist reminded me of how important the politics of nuclear arms were during the 1980s, not just for me but for thousands of others. And that made me think how oddly unengaged with the politics of nuclear arms nearly everyone is today, myself included.

One reason for this is of course that the threat of nuclear armageddon is rather less immediate than it was 20 years ago. In the 1980s, we knew that if either superpower-dominated bloc started a conventional war in Europe, the other one would respond by going nuclear. Today, as far as anyone is aware, there is no one who has the bomb who is threatening to use it against us in any circumstances.

But declining fear that we will all die in a nuclear war isn’t the whole story — and for me personally it isn’t the story at all. Fear was never my main motive in getting involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and European Nuclear Disarmament. I worried a bit, but I actually thought nuclear deterrence made war very unlikely in Europe.

My problem with nuclear arms was political. The bomb kept the peace (in a dangerous way) but at an appalling cost. It gave unprecedented power to the military-industrial complexes of both blocs, was obscenely expensive, made the Cold War division of Europe an apparently immovable fixture and paralysed people with fear. Getting rid of it — through a mixture of unilateral and multilateral measures, including an enforced international anti-proliferation regime — was, I thought, a necessary precondition of confident, flourishing democracy.

I still think that, even though the Cold War is long gone and the communist police states of east-central Europe are now democracies. (Russia and most of the rest of the Soviet Union have been less fortunate.) I’m also now much more worried than I was in the 1980s that there will be a nuclear war, not in Europe but in the middle east or far east. Yet I haven’t been moved to rejoin CND by Iran’s nuclear programme, by North Korea’s test explosion or even by reports that the Labour government is about to decide to replace Trident as Britain’s “independent deterrent”. Why?

The main reason is CND’s politics. Twenty years ago, it was a genuinely broad-based mass organisation. It had more than its fair share of pro-Soviet communists and a sprinkling of Trots, but its centre of gravity was on the Labour soft left. Today, it is much smaller — and it has become increasingly indistinguishable from the Leninist far left, which blames America for all the world’s ills and supports any opposition to the US anywhere, regardless of its nature.

I could just about forgive CND for having as chair a member of a ludicrous Stalinist sect — Kate Hudson is in the Communist Party of Britain — but I can’t stomach the way it allowed itself to be led in the Stop the War Coalition by the revolutionary defeatists of the Socialist Workers Party, the Islamist reactionaries of the Muslim Association of Britain and the unspeakable George Galloway. The last straw for me was its invitation of the Iranian ambassador to its conference last year.

I’ve not learned to love the bomb — and I want to put pressure on the government not to commit itself to replacing Trident. But to turn a blind eye to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to throw in your lot with cretino-leftist anti-imperialism, which is what CND has done, is not only deluded. It is almost to invite the government and the public not to take you seriously.

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