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27 September 2021

From the NS archive: CND and the Labour Party

12 April 1963: Harold Wilson has a decision to make.

By Stuart Hall

“The love-hate relationship” between the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Labour Party “has been as troubled as any in the history of British radical politics”, wrote the cultural theorist, activist and sociologist Stuart Hall in 1963.  Following the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 and the Nassau Agreement, the question of nuclear disarmament and how Labour – now under Harold Wilson – would act upon it was of primary importance to the British left. Wilson had moved towards unilateralism, wrote Hall, however he continued “to put this case within the framework of a proposed rationalisation of Nato strategy”, which “goes hand in hand with a ‘conventional’ role for Britain”. Hall called for disengagement and denuclearisation in central Europe but understood that such strategies “cut right across” Nato strategy, and were “wholly incompatible with a third deterrent force in Europe”. Wilson had a choice to make.

The weeks following the sixth Aldermaston London march will be crucial for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). We shall have to make our policies more directly relevant to a world still reeling under the impact of the shattering series of events which have followed the Cuba crisis. The American commentator, IF Stone, recently described the current drift as signalling “the end of the Russo-American century”. Even if so welcome a turning-point is not yet in sight, we cannot underestimate the impact of Cuba, General de Gaulle, the Nassau Agreement and the Brussels collapse on the political balance of the Western alliance, or of the Cuba crisis and the Sino-Soviet dispute in the east. The whole political pattern is changing. We are at the cross roads.

A reappraisal of policy is made more difficult for CND this year by the new Labour image under Wilson’s leadership. The love-hate relationship between these two organisations has been as troubled as any in the history of British radical politics. Throughout its brief history, CND has been both a protest of conscience and a political movement. It has sought, paradoxically, to retain its independence of the traditional party structure, and at the same time to engage directly with the policies of parties and the government. This apparent conflict is not an issue which divides the direct action wing of the movement from the rest, but an attitude which is common to the whole CND spectrum.

Hence the wary, tentative response which CND has made to the new Wilson image. “Image” is not one of the campaign’s favourite words. Issues in politics arise from conflicts, policies and actions not from pronouncements about intentions or effective public relations. Where CND is concerned, the Labour party has a bad record on this count – take for example the crab-like retreat of the party from the “fight and fight again” speech to its present opposition to the British deterrent. If the policies and priorities are right, it is important to put a good face on them: otherwise, the image is a deception. Any attempts to summon CND, like some stage army of the good, back to the party fold when Wilson has not fully declared his policy – such as Paul Johnson made recently in an article in this journal – only serves to arouse the deepest fears and suspicions.

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This is not to deny a real change of emphasis since Wilson’s accession. The party is more militant in opposition and morale is high. The present shadow cabinet “mix” is preferable to the old guard, though it is still an odd assortment, and not particularly encouraging where CND is most directly concerned – in foreign and defence policy. The declaration against an independent nuclear role for Britain is more than welcome, particularly when it is made in Wilson’s forthright tone: on the other hand, it comes very late in the day. It is not that CND would not be happy to see in power a government which would finally bury the British independent deterrent, but this alone cannot trigger off a more positive response. CND can – I think rightly –  take some credit for creating the climate in which the collapse of Blue Streak and the cancellation of Skybolt could be read in unilateralist terms without a major upheaval in the country. On the grounds of British unilateralism itself, CND is something of a success story, and Wilson is a welcome but tardy convert. His post-Washington statement is blunt and sensible: but he has not managed as yet to be as rude about independent striking forces as Robert McNamara who, after all, is no CND-er.

Even if we limit the CND case, for a moment, to the issue of the British deterrent we can detect certain significant difference between the campaign case and Wilson’s. Wilson has moved towards unilateralism (a word robbed of its sting when preached with such candour by the US secretary of defence) via Blue Streak and Skybolt. He has collected some of the common arguments against encouraging spread on the way. However, he continues to put this case within the framework of a proposed rationalisation of Nato strategy: this goes hand in hand with a “conventional” role for Britain, and, perhaps, a British contribution to whatever emerges from the Nato multilateral formula – though it kills once and for all the Nassau myth of independence. From this point of view, Wilson’s perspective does not differ substantially from the US president’s or McNamara’s.

For CND, however, unilateralism has always been seen as a political act – not a form of military rationalisation within the alliance: an opening towards a detente in the military and political conflict a forward base, so to speak, from which Britain with such forces as she could mobilise, would try to thrust forward both towards disengagement in Europe and towards a first-stage disarmament treaty.

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Perhaps Wilson does indeed have such a perspective in view: but he has been remarkably hesitant in defining his position in terms of foreign policy objectives. A “renegotiation of the Nassau agreement” could mean everything or nothing – an attempt to kill the spread of nuclear weapons and an opening towards a minimum deterrent, or a way of solving the family crisis in the alliance and of concentrating “command and control” in the hands, ultimately, of the president. It could also imply retaining the Western deterrent (for all practical purposes, the American deterrent) at its present 900 Minuteman-plus-Polaris level, or, if the multi-national force comes into being, higher. This is not an opening to peace: it is a division of the spoils along more rational lines.

[See also: From the NS archive: Americans find a place in the sun]

What is more, it surely cannot work. Here is the real danger of trying to solve political problems by military formulae. If the control of the Western deterrent is effectively concentrated in American hands, the temptations to independence elsewhere, or the alternative of a Franco-German deterrent, will continue to exert an attractive pull on Paris and Bonn. If, on the other hand, contribution and command are, in fact, distributed more widely throughout the alliance, then Wilson’s real fears about a West German finger on the American trigger will be realised – in fact if not in name.

The actual abandonment of the British deterrent by a Labour government may well reactivate some of the dormant policies to which the party still stands committed. Thus, for the first stretch of the road, CND and the Labour party are moving in the same direction. But they are heading, at the moment, for rather different objectives. When the Nassau agreement has been reworked, and the Nato force comes into being, the global situation (from which all Nato eyes seem to have been averted ever since General de Gaulle’s intervention) will be unchanged. After six months of prolonged internal crisis the West will still confront the substantive problems of the Cold War – the division of Germany, the unsatisfactory status of Berlin, Soviet conventional strength on the ground in Europe, deterrents maintained at a very high level. Yet the situation at the moment is most propitious, not for rationalisation within the alliance, but for break-through in the Cold War.

The only way to deal with the European situation in political terms is by disengagement and denuclearisation in central Europe: this would cut the ground from under the feet of the French force de frappe, or at any rate leave it isolated on the continent; it would be a real attempt to deal with the question of West German participation in the nuclear race, and the tensions arising from the division of the continent. It would also be the most effective means of preventing spread to the n’th power in Europe. If Wilson doesn’t believe this he should read his shadow defence minister’s thoughts on the subject when disengagement was still one of Labour’s main foreign policy proposals. The awkward fact, however, is that disengagement and minimum deterrence cut right across current Nato strategy and are wholly incompatible with a third deterrent force in Europe. Wilson has now got to make his choice.

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In fact he knows he has all these options at his command. To create the climate for disengagement and first-stage disarmament would be extremely difficult, but if this is the direction in which he is moving, there is a great deal which CND could do, whilst retaining its political independence, to help bring it about. But so far Wilson, while seeming more favourably inclined to get things moving, has not called for “initiatives”. He has a disengagement plan in his portfolio, but he has not chosen to give it an airing. He has a disarmament shadow minister, but he has not, apparently, asked his advice on the question of minimum deterrents. He has the ear of Washington, but he does not seem to have poured into it any disquieting thoughts about the Minuteman programme or the dangerous “counterforce” strategy. He has said some forthright things about Berlin and the East German regime, but he has not called for a Europe-wide assault on the problems of a demilitarised zone in central Europe. He may have extended his options; but he has certainly not yet made the difficult choices between them.

Until he makes those choices more widely known, and seems more committed to the idea of unilateral initiatives, in Europe and Washington, no real modus vivendi exists between CND and the Labour party. In this field, with all its limitations, the campaign remains in a much-exposed forward position, speaking to the public at large about the real choices. This is a vital role, which needs to be extended and sharpened, if anything, in the months ahead; especially if the path which Labour chooses to tread is, under Wilson’s direction, a more winding one than the high-road through Nato which Hugh Gaitskell chose to walk. For such a role, political independence is a sine qua non. The lessons of the Wilson “turn” for CND are twofold: to close no doors, but to hold every station.

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).