Britain's role in the new cold war

For years the Soviet Union and the US managed an uneasy balance of power. Now Russia is challenging

"A lot of the placards I make ask probing questions," says Martin Schweiger, a consultant doctor from Bradford, gripping an umbrella. "And I try to catch the soldiers' eyes as they drive out. I don't want to see the good people round here lose their jobs, but this base is the gunsight for the biggest weapons system in the world."

We're standing in the floodlit rain outside the gates of US-run RAF Menwith Hill, the largest spy base in the world. Its 26 enormous golf-ball radomes, or radar-domes, crop like acne on the Yorkshire hilltop five miles west of Harrogate. "I was trained as a doctor to prevent harm, and these weapons systems take money desperately needed for the world's health," says Schweiger and dashes to thank a policeman for ticking off a marine leaving without a seat belt.

Hopping from one foot to the other to the sound of an accordion is the veteran peace campaigner Lindis Percy. She has been arrested hundreds of times and served several traumatic sentences in Holloway for breaking into US airbases. A government file noted that "she seeks to test, check and embarrass MoD whenever she can". She has been detained the previous night, and her bail conditions forbid her from being stationary near the perimeter fence - hence the jigging.

Most members of her group, the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, are Quakers and they regularly hold services outside the base. They lack the ideological rhetoric of their counterparts in the Stop the War Coalition, but have doggedly turned out on the icy strip of pavement every week for six years. Through numerous court appearances, questions in parliament via Norman Baker MP, and the theft of documents from the bins, she has gradually pieced together the story of what the 1,400 US personnel are doing there.

Established in 1960 and operated by the US National Security Agency, Menwith Hill hosts dishes for the Echelon espionage system, which is reportedly able to intercept two million telephone calls and emails an hour from around the world. It pinpointed Iraqi positions and guided troop movements during both Gulf wars, and has been implicated in commercial espionage.

In July, the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, informed parliament that Menwith Hill would be incorporated in the US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, a global network of bases that will detect and shoot down missiles launched against the United States. The base will relay launches detected by satellite to US Space Command in Colorado. In addition, a new early-warning radar at RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors was due to be switched on in August. Five British com panies, including BAE Systems, will work on the BMD project, which has so far cost more than $90bn. Until the announcement, the government had refused to confirm Menwith Hill's role in missile defence. Percy first spotted the planning applications for two radomes for the Space-Based Infrared System used to detect missiles ("the eyes of the viper", the US military calls it), filed at Harrogate in 1997. She attempted, but failed, to get a high court injunction against their construction.

Interceptor missiles have been deployed in California and Alaska, and while Poland remains the likely host of the European leg, Browne told parliament that the option of siting interceptor missiles in Britain would be kept "under review". Last year, Lt Gen Henry Obering, head of the US Missile Defence Agency, told a press conference that Britain had been identified as a possible host; this year Downing Street confirmed Tony Blair had lobbied George Bush to choose Britain, with a hope to having the system in place by 2012.

"This certainly places Britain on the front line in any future conflict," says Kate Hudson, chair of CND. "In the event of a war with the US, any country will wish to knock out the facilities in a pre-emptive strike."

Missile defence is central to Joint Vision 2020, the Pentagon's blueprint that outlined the principle of "full spectrum dominance" - the ability "to defeat any adversary and control any situation". The neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century, whose members have dominated the Bush administration, called for such a programme "as a secure basis for US power projection around the world" in 2000.

This is what has pushed Russia on to a Cold War footing in recent months. Vladimir Putin has torn up treaties banning strategic bombing flights and limiting arms deployments in Europe, and has announced plans to restore mass production of military aircraft. In February, he spoke icily of the need to end "the world of one master, one sovereign" asserted by Washington, and this summer sent submarines to lay claim to a chunk of the Arctic.

This is not purely sabre-rattling for domestic consumption, but a direct response to the distortion of the nuclear balance of power that kept Cold War tensions in check. That equilibrium had been sustained by the Brezhnev-Nixon Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, restricting defence systems. Bush withdrew in 2002. Launching a nuclear first strike could soon become a lot safer for the US. "The age of balance is over," says Kate Hudson. "This will be the realisation of a long- standing US goal - first-strike capacity without fear of retaliation."

The United States maintains that it needs the defence system to protect it against threats from "rogue states" such as Iran, which it claims is pursuing in tercontinental ballistic missile technology. Defence analysts are sceptical. "North Korea was neutralised through diplomacy, and Iran is up to 20 years from delivering a nuclear warhead. Both countries could be flattened by Nato. It beggars belief that the US would need this," says Ian Davis of the British American Security Information Council.

The siting of interceptors in central Europe is particularly provocative to the Kremlin, coming after the leaking of a Pentagon report in 2002 that included Russia and China on a "nuclear hit list". Putin has pledged to overhaul Russia's 2,000-piece nuclear arsenal, and promised a similar air defence system against Europe. A senior Russian general bluntly warned the Czech Republic that hosting US radar would be "a big mistake".

One more occupation

With a military budget one-twentieth that of the United States, Russia cannot hope to assert the influence it once had. What is significant, however, is its return to Cold War strategies. "For Russia, missile defence is the final humiliation," says Davis. "First-strike scenarios may seem fanciful, but it's the thinking that prevails in the Pentagon and the Kremlin."

Back in Harrogate, there is popular suspicion of the base; the MP's caseworker tells me our telephone conversation is probably being listened to in Maryland. But well-paid Americans bring £65m a year to the town's economy; many send their children to local schools. "The base is very ugly, but the only complaints I get are about these protesters on day trips from Leeds," says John Fort, a local councillor.

People living in the shadow of missile defence installations in central Europe aren't so relaxed. In March, the Czech village of Trokavec voted against hosting a US early-warning radar. Despite strong support from the government, public opposition to the programme in the Czech Republic runs at 70 per cent."It's at the top of the popular political agenda," says Ivona Novometska of the No Bases movement. "Our politicians are extremely pro-US and still see Russia as some red devil. But after the revolution we were promised no more foreign soldiers on our soil, and the Czechs are starting to feel missile defence is one more occupation."

Despite the general enthusiasm of Europe's governments to sign up, it could be the United States itself that postpones "full spectrum dominance". In July, Congress slashed funding for an interceptor system in Poland. The technology behind "hitting a bullet with a bullet" is proving more elusive and expensive than first envisaged.

But Lindis Percy may be hopping outside Menwith Hill for a while yet.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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