Saturday, 19 December 2015

Labour in Luton listens to CND: it may be time for a new direction

It was good to see Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), talking to Luton Labour Party this week.

It would have been better if we’d pulled 200 people together to listen to her, instead of a fifth or sixth that number, but at least the gathering made up in lively discussion and good temper for the relative shortage of numbers. And, in any case, it’s all about sowing seeds that can grow later: the conversation may well have stimulated others, as it stimulated me, to do more towards dumping nuclear weapons. 

Especially with a speaker so full of insight, so eloquent but unaggressive in making a crucial case.

Kate Hudson of CND: insightful and convincing
This is a topical question in Britain right now since the government want a vote in 2016 on a new generation of submarines to carry the British Trident missiles. Hudson was with us to make the case for voting against renewal of the system. I knew the cost had gone up to astronomic levels, but it came as a shock when she started talking actual numbers. She reckons that with the running costs, the submarines would set us back something like £183 billion over thirty years, at present estimates – and, as she pointed out, estimates in these matters always seems to rise.

This is for a system which, as many pointed out, is fundamentally unusable. The only circumstances in which the missiles might be fired would those of all-out war between the major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, which would imply suicide by the human race. If the radiation didn’t kill survivors of the initial conflict, the subsequent nuclear winter certainly would. We have to maintain the stance that we would use the weapons, or deny them of the little deterrent value they have; arguably, it would be honest, above all to ourselves, to admit that there would be no point in ever using them, and disarm, as we committed to do – this was something of a refrain to which Hudson regularly returned – back in 1968 when we signed up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By that treaty, ratified in 1970, the non-nuclear nations agreed not to take up the weapons, in return for the recognised nuclear nations doing away with them. Not one yet has. It is perhaps time that one, at least, did.

Besides, £6 billion a year’s a tidy sum. You could build ten hospitals each year, to the most luxurious standards, and still have some change left over. Alternatively, you could increase defence spending by 13%, which would pay for an awful lot of additional soldiers and their equipment. Those alternatives defined the main positions at the meeting.

Judging by the contributions made to the discussion, the meeting was overwhelmingly against renewal. There were, however, some voices raised in dissent, who favoured hanging on to the Trident system. Even within what seemed to be a large majority, there were two schools of thought. One was firmly pacifist, and included Hudson herself, who would have gone for the hospitals or, as she argued, for greater expenditure on education: building a highly educated workforce would, she felt, put Britain in a far stronger position internationally than nuclear weapons provide.

The other school, to which I slightly shamefacedly belong, believes that we still need defence. Even that there are occasions when, as and only as a last resort, war is justified. While I feel that firing in missiles is a self-deluding as keeping the Trident system – it makes us feel we’re doing something, when in reality we’re achieving nothing – I do understand that we have to be ready to use military means against ISIS. Effective means, however, in preference to empty gestures.

Well, as Hudson also argued, one of the effects of including the cost of Trident within the Defence Budget was to impose cuts elsewhere – amounting to some 20,000 soldiers. She told us that, if we believe in the need for military resources, we could hardly feel comforted by that kind of reduction.

The picture that emerged, for me at least, underlined clearly the uselessness of renewing the Trident submarine system. Indeed, the only argument that seemed to remain standing in its favour, was that it gave Britain as a nation far greater status in the world.

Ten hospitals a year? 20,000 soldiers? These seem high prices to pay for national status, aren’t they?

Still, we in the Labour Party have our work cut out to persuade not just the voters, but even our own organisation, that this is the case. Let’s not forget that the most powerful appeal in favour for the status argument was made, at a Labour Party conference on 4 October 1957, by a man many of us admire profoundly: the father of the NHS, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Speaking against a motion on unilateral disarmament, he declared:

It is … not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed... But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. ... And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.

Commitment to nuclear weapons is deeply entrenched, even on our side of the fence. But listen to Kate Hudson and you may well come round to the belief that it’s time to break at last from Nye’s position.

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