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26 January 2021

From the NS archive: We must not plead a delusion

12 December 1986: New Statesman staff respond to their editor on nuclear disarmament.  

By New Statesman

“Last week the New Statesman published a leading article which argued that Labour’s commitment to independent nuclear disarmament is so damaging to its electoral chances, and to Nato and world security, that it should be abandoned by the leadership. Having read the leader after publication, the editorial staff of the magazine expressed their strong disagreement with this view to the editor. We agreed to present our objections this week.”

***

The editorial staff of the New Statesman do not agree with the leading article in last week’s paper. We do not share the editor’s assessment of the effect of Labour’s policy for unilateral disarmament on its chances of winning the next election, nor do we share his assessment of its effects on Nato or the USA. A defence policy is also made for reasons of political democracy and morality, and we think the editorial was wrong wholly to ignore these.

Many of us do have criticisms of aspects of Labour’s defence policy. There is a persuasive argument that these should not be raised before the next election. Defence was Labour’s major weakness at the last election, not so much because of the policy itself as because the party was daily, visibly disunited about it. It was similar disunity in the Alliance that recently sent it plunging in the opinion polls. However, it is not the first job of the New Statesman to “be helpful” to the Labour Party and so the fact and the timing of this public disagreement with Labour is not the point at issue.

We think that Labour’s defence policy can win enough electoral support to, at the least, not hinder its electoral chances. For many, it is Labour’s commitment to independent nuclear disarmament which is its chief political asset. If we rely on opinion polls for our guide, we know that in the recent past a majority of electors have expressed their support for one or other part of this policy (cancelling Trident, getting rid of cruise missiles) and a sizeable minority have supported all of it. A growing number are, rightly, extremely worried about the use by the American government of its bases in the UK for purposes which have nothing to do with Britain’s foreign policy or the defence of Britain or western Europe. Popular fear of the effects of accidental nuclear explosions – civil or military – increased after the accident at Chernobyl.

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We think Labour’s defence policy could thus win majority support. Labour’s task is first to recognise popular fears of the imminence of nuclear destruction, on the one hand, and the fear of aggression and oppression from abroad, on the other. Then, to show – through a vigorous political campaign – that both fears can be reconciled by a policy whose objects are to achieve peace and mutual security at much lower levels of nuclear armament on each side. We think a vigorous campaign could, rather than being highly defensive, show the political potential of an historic break with a defence policy of threatened joint suicide, a policy which has been untouched by the two decades of “negotiation” by the superpowers.

Time for Britain to join Nato’s majority

To argue that a commitment to a policy for independent nuclear disarmament jeopardises Nato is merely to argue that no genuine change in the status quo is possible. This is obviously not true. Canada and Spain, both Nato members, got rid of their nuclear weapons. France expelled all US bases (nuclear or not) nearly 25 years ago. Greece proposes to follow. Norway and Denmark have never accepted US bases at all. Excluding the United States itself, Britain is in a minority, among Nato countries, in retaining US nuclear weapons. By joining the majority of Nato countries, Britain will help to demonstrate how the status quo can start to change in favour of greater security for both sides. Britain would be part of a far more effective force for multilateral disarmament than it can be if its government continues to insist that no change is possible unless the USA makes the first move.

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We are under no illusions that a British government could rid the country of nuclear weapons overnight, and we accept that preventing the American government from using British bases for nuclear missiles will involve a protracted period of negotiation. But the difficulty of the process is no argument for refusing to initiate it.

We think that to plead a special relationship with the USA and therefore a special influence for good over its foreign policy is to plead a delusion. Mrs Thatcher’s special relationship – which is far more special than anything a Labour prime minister is likely to achieve – has had no moderating influence on Reagan whatsoever. It did not stop his administration from invading Grenada or from using British bases to bomb Libya, or from playing a highly hazardous role in the Middle East or Central America. It has not checked the drive to create Star Wars or stopped Reagan from deliberately breaking the last Salt treaty’s limits on cruise missiles. Mrs Thatcher’s subservience to President Reagan may have earned her lavish praise from him. It has done nothing to enhance Britain’s stature or influence in Western Europe where, as the editorial points out, Britain’s future lies.

We take seriously the fear that if Britain joins those western European countries now pulling away from an institutionalised arms race this will strengthen the isolationists in the USA. But this argument is petulant blackmail from that minority of Americans who want to ensure that Western Europe services the USA’s own interest in preserving the Cold War. If we bow to it, we are saying that it is quite beyond the peoples of Britain, Western Europe or the USA to construe policies which are far more likely to ensure peace and security than those which the cliques reactionary and unaccountable spooks, arms sellers and politicians have to offer.

This brings us to the arguments which the editorial ignores. A chief criterion for defence policy is that it be open to democratic, popular involvement. “No more secret diplomacy” was one of the few popular demands to come out of the First World War. The possession of nuclear weapons and the establishment of American nuclear bases in Britain has enormously increased the secrecy surrounding Britain’s defence policy.

The growth of CND in the past eight years has been one of the few invigorating political forces in a country where so many are dispirited by the lack of political ideas and a widespread helplessness about the nuclear threat. It is the peace movements, among which CND holds a leading position, which have done more than any government to force defence into its proper position as a central issue of public policy and done more than any other body to force governments to take seriously the popular desire for nuclear disarmament. The fact that this campaign has been for unilateral nuclear disarmament certainly does not mean that people have turned their backs on multilateral disarmament. It means that citizens of this country will press their government to do what it can do independently to reduce the world’s highly hazardous accumulation of nuclear weapons and to break the stalemate on arms reduction.

We at the New Statesman are proud of the paper’s historic role in this process of helping British citizens to know about and be involved in defence policy. This paper published the first article by JB Priestley in 1957, which led to the founding of CND, and published the seminal article by EP Thompson in 1979, attacking the “doomsday” politics of current defence thinking, which led to the founding of the campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament in 1980. Politics have moved forward since those inspiring initiatives for both unilateral and multilateral disarmament – the two are not incompatible. We are opposed to those proposals which panic when historic change is at last in sight and seek to return to a bygone era of popular passivity while a handful of those in power continue to decide nuclear policy in secret.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)