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?

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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