Second Thoughts on the Bomb

By Kingsley Martin. Originally published in the New Statesman on 4 July 1959, selected by <strong>Br

The Labour party's pronouncement on Nuclear Arms has been denounced as 'hypocrisy' and brushed aside as a 'non-starter'. In a matter or such extreme difficulty and urgency, it is more appropriate to consider whether the proposals contain anything useful. They are, of course, a compromise, explained by pressure and conflicts of mind. But on more than one point they show a great advance in Labour thinking. Instead of pretending that Britain is still one of the greatest powers and evading our difficulties by making our actions depend on agreement between America and Russia, they envisage a Britain which accepts its actual lesser-power status and aspires to leadership of a non-nuclear group of states. There is no sting in the retort that we owe our place at the Geneva armament discussions to our possession of the bomb: France is represented, though she is not yet a nuclear power. And we shall know before any Labour government comes into office whether anything can emerge from the present protracted negotiations: it is at all events doubtful whether the British can much affect these negotiations. In any case, we may be grateful that Labour has given up the pretence that the possession of perhaps half a dozen H-bombs enables us to bargain with or to threaten America or the Soviet Union.

Secondly, the Labour Party has faced the fact that there are 12 countries with the economic and technical ability to make nuclear weapons and a further eight which could achieve a nuclear weapons programme within the next five years. The appalling danger that these countries will want to emulate Britain in becoming nuclear armed powers is obvious. The 'great deterrent' may work between Russia and America - temporarily at least, until, unchecked, it leads like other armament races to deliberate or, more probably, accidental war. The stalemate might even last a decade. But if, for instance, France, China, East and West Germany, and Japan, Australia, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and Hungary, Argentina and Brazil - to mention only a few on the list - all have nuclear weapons, no-one will believe in the conceivable success of a disarmament conference, or that any considerable period will pass before a national leader somewhere seeks to make himself great by imposing a nuclear end to some ancient national feud. And once it starts, who can limit a nuclear war?

The attempt to forestall this - perhaps the greatest danger of world nuclear war - provides Labour with an objective which is within the scope of Britain's power and which the public can believe a Labour government might honestly attempt. It has the immense advantage of switching the minds of the public from the single obsession with a hypothetical Soviet aggression to the actual problem of making something worth while out of those large parts of the world which are not yet committed to the Cold War. It does this far too tentatively and with crippling reservations. It is, for instance, dubious whether, if Britain is at the head of a non-nuclear club, it will long be able or wish to remain inside Nato. It repudiates, lest the electorate should dub it pacifist, any suggestion of 'unilateralism'. Here there is an obvious 'fudge', since its pledge indefinitely to abandon tests implies giving up reliance on nuclear weapons, which rapidly get out of date. And the document does not go into the question of how far, if at all, a Labour government could persuade de Gaulle's France or Adenauer's Germany to forego nuclear weapons. Its leaders therefore lay themselves open to the charge of making proposals which they know will be rejected and merely pretending that they intend to follow a trail not already trodden flat by Conservative governments.

You cannot in fact create a non-nuclear club unless you leave the suicide club. Labour ought never again to negotiate in the spirit of those protracted miseries which they called disarmament conferences in the early Thirties. If, like a British admiral of that period who said that 'battleships were more precious than rubies', we regard our H-bombs as assets we are reluctant to sacrifice, then other nations will talk the same kind of nonsense. There is a more hopeful approach. Most of the countries now planning to embark on atomic programmes are thinking primarily of catching up in the technological race. If they want atomic arms it is primarily for reasons of prestige. The British should first tell the world that nuclear weapons are an intolerable burden as well as a ghastly danger. No countries except America and Russia can afford them. Because we want to be a 'great power' we are already losing the technical lead which our scientists gave us. About 70 per cent of Britain's trained scientific manpower is now absorbed in making nuclear weapons. We have had, for instance, to postpone, already for more than a year, Britain's 'breeder' reactor at Dounrey because the personnel was transferred to Windscale to make plutonium. If we cease to make nuclear weapons we can export atomic technology for peaceful purposes all over the world. We have the capacity, if we leave the weapons to America and Russia, to provide ourselves and much of the world with atomic energy to put an end to poverty.

Whether the Labour Party's new policy is in fact a step forward or backwards depends partly on the real intentions of the party leaders, but more on the amount of pressure maintained on the rank and file. We have succeeded in at least partly diverting the minds of our leaders from the negative and arid thinking of the Cold War. They no longer talk as if nothing could be done except what is done by America and Russia. They may yet go on to the next stage of understanding what they might achieve if they leave the cold war to America and Russia. They have been brought along to a further step in the matter of tests. Nye Bevan spoke for everyone - even for the Tories who won't admit it - when he said that it would be a crime against humanity for us to resume the tests which have been suspended, whatever any other power did. For nuclear disarmers the right course is to work for the formation of a non-nuclear club even if France and Germany and China do not come into it. It is highly likely that the US and the USSR will themselves support the idea. Washington is manifestly frightened at the prospect of de Gaulle making atomic weapons for his own purposes; it may even become rationally frightened at the prospect of once again rearming western Germany with the latest weapons. Russia, it will be noticed, has not yet given nuclear weapons to any of its allies or satellites. Everyone all over the world is terrified not only of world war, but also of nuclear fall-out. It is impossible to calculate, or even imagine, what the effects on public opinion and governments everywhere can be if Britain announces her withdrawal from this world lunacy, and develops her advanced technique for peaceful purposes, opens her own factories for inspection and starts to trade her atomic technique to every country which is prepared to follow her example. Given pressure and encouragement, this may develop into a conservative policy, which Labour leaders have not yet thought out or, so far, had the temerity boldly to state. Given the unrelenting pressure from those who can so far overcome tradition as to understand the implication of this policy, these timid adumbrations of a non-nuclear club may become a serious and feasible programme for saving the world from destruction.

Kingsley Martin (1897-1969) was editor of the New Statesman from 1930 to 1960.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists