Annihilating reason

Dr Strangelove, I Presume

Michael Foot <I>Gollancz, 241pp, £16.99</I

On the face of it, this book is an erudite, highly selective polemic justifying the author's consistent and principled support for unilateral nuclear disarmament and CND. To my surprise and delight, however, the substance of the writing is about India and the dilemma its leaders faced over becoming a nuclear weapon state. The largest democracy in the world deserves to have its decisions assessed more seriously than we have seen in recent years, particularly when judged against the comments, in the US and Britain, which followed the five Indian nuclear tests, in May 1998, at the Pokhran range where the original Indian tests had taken place in 1974.

Michael Foot loves India and has written and spoken sensitively about the country for many years. He approvingly quotes Jawaharlal Nehru's pre-independence observation that "Kashmir calls back, its pull is stronger than ever, it whispers its fairy-tale magic for the ears, and its memories disturb the mind. How can they who have fallen under its spell release themselves from this enchantment?" He concludes that Nehru and other Congress leaders so hated other features of the independence settlement that "if they had included a further provision that Kashmir would go with Pakistan his hand would have shrivelled rather than sign anything". He attacks US foreign policy, with the exception of the first few years after independence, for favouring Pakistan against India, and British foreign policy for following the American design and for being "especially pusillanimous".

Would that the Kashmir dispute or nuclear weapons policy were all so simple. But for Michael Foot, like his father, political passion brooks no uncertainty. Isaac Foot, a Plymouth solicitor, lost his Bodmin constituency in 1935 in the wake of Hore Belisha's call, in the name of the National Coalition, for Liberals to vote against him. He subsequently hired Devonport Guildhall to denounce Hore Belisha in the words of Lord Alfred Douglas: "I shall know his soul lies in the bosom of Iscariot."

To Michael Foot a nuclear arms race on the Indian sub-continent is the ultimate insanity, and he cannot believe that intelligent Indian leaders have allowed it to happen. He recognises that the Chinese leaders in 1962, by choosing to attack India during the most hectic days of the Cuban missile stand-off, committed what he describes as "one of the most monstrous crimes in history". Henceforth India would look to Russia as China came ever closer to Pakistan.

It fell to Indira Ghandi, whom Foot knew well, to correct the military weakness left by her father; she was in Srinagar in August 1965 when Pakistan's forces once more invaded the Kashmir valley. Six years later, when West Pakistan became involved in the revolution in East Pakistan, she authorised military intervention but did not use the overwhelming Indian victory to damage West Pakistan. But these military incidents paved the way for her to agree to the first Indian nuclear test, cynically passed off as a peaceful nuclear explosion related to possible future hydroelectric projects. It was also the 1971 war that prompted Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, as prime minister, to start Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

In 1977, when Michael Foot was in the Labour government, President Carter, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and President Giscard d'Estaing made a serious attempt to block that Pakistani programme. A very personal diplomatic effort was made, too, by Callaghan to persuade the then Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, to agree to a nuclear-free zone on the Indian sub-continent. It would have been helpful to have had a comprehensive test ban (CTB) in 1978, when the British government tried hard to achieve it. It might have done so but President Carter understandably decided that the strategic arms-limitation talks (Salt) had to have the higher priority (it was felt it would overload Congress to add a CTB, which was being resisted by the nuclear defence scientists).

Mention is made in the book, correctly, of how after the death of Indira, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, made a considerable commitment to persuading Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to act on their responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The nuclear weapon states never curbed vertical proliferation - the making of more sophisticated nuclear weapons. As a result, there was no incentive for other countries to curb horizontal proliferation, that is, the spread of nuclear weapons.

Foot does not, however, face up to the defence realities on the Indian sub-continent once the west had failed to stop Pakistan acquiring the essentials of the bomb. It was not fear of US, Russian or Chinese nuclear weapons that fed the nuclear arms race; rather it had its own regional dynamic, rooted in the failure to negotiate a settlement over Kashmir. From 1974 to 1998 Pakistan and India each knew that the other was acquiring nuclear weapons. Each feared the other might use them so they opted deliberately, however unsatisfactory and dangerous it was, for nuclear deterrence. The same choice was made by the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China once the US exploded a bomb at Hiroshima. Only confidence building and painstaking, multilateral, negotiated reductions in nuclear weapons will rid the world of the nuclear threat.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed in April 1998, had no effect on India - because India knew that computer simulation and other techniques meant that the original five nuclear weapon states no longer needed underground nuclear explosions to manufacture new weapons. It is questionable whether India or Pakistan actually needed tests for military purposes; the explosions were more a decision taken for domestic political effect.

As they see it, it is humbug for the nuclear weapon states to force them to sign the NPT if it means their pretending that they have not been for some years nuclear weapon states. Pakistan was not attracted to the Israel syndrome, namely to pretend that they were not a nuclear weapon state through never drawing attention to their possession of nuclear weapons with a public explosion.

Foot brings out these issues through some judicious and instructive quotes from respected Indian journalists, and he weaves the disparate threads of his narrative together in a stimulating way. The publisher was, however, unwise to add as a filler 40 pages covering three separate appendices, a review of a book on nuclear weapons, extracts from Hansard and an essay by A J P Taylor. The book stands better without them.

As for the references to CND and to Labour's 1983 manifesto with its unilateralist defence policy - the longest suicide note in history - I have said enough elsewhere. The 1998 Labour government defence white paper thankfully buries that period of political folly. The electors of Devonport, to whom in part this book is dedicated, also decided this issue in 1983 and again in 1987.

Lord Owen, a former foreign secretary, was co-founder of the SDP

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage