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Ian Birchall

Labour and the bomb

(November 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 10, 15 October–14 December 1980, pp. 19–21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With a hundred thousand people on the streets to demonstrate against nuclear weapons, the Labour Party is anxious to get in on the act. Tony Benn spoke in Trafalgar Square, and gained some of the loudest applause of the day. Michael Foot, not to be upstaged, has announced that as prime minister he would return any Cruise or Pershing missiles based in Britain to the United States. (Guardian, 27.10.80) (Impounding and dismantling them would have been a little too extreme even for an Aldermaston veteran like Foot.)

There are obviously good reasons why many people in the anti-Bomb movement are looking to the Labour Party. Initial involvement in CND may spring from a purely moral – and wholly legitimate – revulsion at the threat of the destruction of humanity. But protest cannot remain purely moral. Getting rid of the Bomb is a political problem, a question of power. The Labour Party, a governmental political party likely to be catapulted back into office by Thatcher’s ineptitude if not by its own merits, is clearly a more ‘realistic’ instrument for nuclear disarmament than any more ideologically pure political alternative. It is therefore necessary to take very seriously the arguments of those who see the future for CND as lying in closer and closer co-operation with the Labour Party. For if we cannot win the argument on this question, there is an all too great danger that the defeats of twenty years ago will be repeated.

Nuclear weapons are not a morally obscene blot on an otherwise healthy system. They are an integral part of the whole social order which oppresses us.

Nuclear weapons in Britain are a byproduct of Britain’s membership of NATO and of the British alliance to American imperialism. The massive expenditure on nuclear weapons has been a key determining factor in the evolution of Western capitalist economies since World War II. The control systems inherent in the nature of nuclear weapons has reinforced the continuing tendency to ever more centralised state power. To take on the Bomb is to take on all these things. But the Labour Party – and especially the Labour left – is irrevocably wedded to parliamentary reformism and cannot take on these tasks. It is this that explains the contradictions that run through Labour policy on the Bomb.

Last month’s Labour Party conference voted by an overwhelming show of hands for a ‘commitment in the Labour Party manifesto to unilateral nuclear disarmament’; and conference also agreed to oppose British participation in any defence policy ‘based on the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons’. So far so good.

But conference also – on the advice of the allegedly leftist NEC – declined (by a massive majority of 6,274,000 to 826,000) to support a motion calling for withdrawal from NATO. Conference also, by an almost two-to-one majority, rejected a motion opposing ‘peaceful’ uses of nuclear power. (Tribune, 10.10.80)

These contradictions have led to some contradictory logic-chopping on the part of some representatives of the left. Thus Benn told demonstrators in Trafalgar Square that ‘any government needed to have a credible defence policy, but it did not have to be a nuclear one’. (Guardian, 27.10.80) And Chris Jones of Tribune 124.10.80) informed his readers that ‘if the resources we now put into nuclear weapons were diverted in conventional weapons, they could actually strengthen NATO on the ground in Central Europe, where the military planners are most worried by the Warsaw Pact’s strength.’

Banning the Bomb, defending Britain and strengthening NATO – a contradictory enough set of objectives. When the chips are down and the question of political power is posed, Benn, Foot and the Tribune gang will have to decide which way to jump.

Writing in Tribune, veteran left MP Frank Allaun says (24.10.80):

‘But Tribune readers must be warned: the battle has not yet been won. In 1960 the Labour Party conference similarly took this limited unilateral step. A year later, after intensive work by the Campaign for Democratic Socialism and Hugh Gaitskell, the decision was reversed.

‘There will be a similar attempt before our next annual conference. We must, at all costs, hold that line.’

Allaun has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. He is quite prepared to go through the whole shabby scenario again with nothing but a greater determination to win. But there are some real lessons to be learnt from the movement of the early sixties.

It was, of course, a Labour government, that of Clement Attlee in 1947 (which included Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson), that first decided to manufacture an independent British nuclear ‘deterrent’. True to the undemocratic tradition that characterises nuclear politics, Attlee did not even inform all his Cabinet colleagues of the decision.

For a long time anti-nuclear protest was muted, trapped in the frozen polarities of the Cold War. It was only after the twin crisis of Suez and Hungary had begun to create space for a non-aligned movement that nuclear disarmament began to gain momentum. Initially the momentum came from outside the Labour Party. A group of intellectuals (Bertrand Russell, A.J.P. Taylor, J.B. Priestley) found a base among a new generation of radicalised students, readers of such publications as Universities and Left Review.

It was only after Labour’s third consecutive election defeat in the autumn of 1959 that the debate was taken centrally into the Labour Party. With over four years to go before another election, and considerable demoralisation at the grassroots, both left and right factions in the party could afford a showdown. Nuclear disarmament became just one of the weapons in that struggle. At Easter 1960 a hundred thousand people joined the CND march from Aldermaston to London. And in the autumn of the same year, the Labour Party conference at Scarborough voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament, to the shock, horror and indignation of the bourgeois press and the Gaitskellite party leadership.

In fact, the base of the victory was somewhat shallow. The. constituency party votes had gone against unilateralism (521,000 against and only 260,000 for). The unilateralist victory was secured by the union block votes, especially those of the TGWU (now led, by an accident of mortality, by Frank Cousins after years of right-wing domination) and of the AEU (after a bizarre set of manoeuvres which had led, at the previous month’s TUC, to the AEU voting both for and against unilateralism). The famous Scarborough victory was, in short, a product of two factors; firstly, the emergence of CND as a mass movement of youth and students outside the Labour Party; secondly, an anti-Gaitskell feud by trade union leaders during Labour’s traditional post-electoral leftward lurch.

Having won the victory, the Labour left rested on its constitutional laurels. It did not fight effectively in the constituency parties, nor did it take the argument to the rank-and-file of the unilateralist unions. Indeed, the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, a body hurriedly set up by the pro-Gaitskellites to fight for a reversal of the 1960 decision, did more genuine grass-roots campaigning than the Labour left. The issue was further clouded by the so-called ‘Crossman-Padley compromise’ (devised by the man who became known as Dick Double-Crossman) which called for abandonment of the independent British deterrent but insisted on Britain’s staying within a nuclear NATO (a rationalisation quite acceptable to American imperialism). Foot and Cousins backed the compromise in the interests of party ‘unity’. As a result the unilateralist position was. easily reversed at the following year’s conference. (Just about the only voice in the movement to point out the fragility of the 1960 decision, and to call for a rank-and-file strategy as the only way of preserving victory, was the infinitesimal Socialist Review group.)

Other events now intervened. At the Labour Party conference in 1962 Gaitskell made an anti-Common Market speech which helped to reconcile him to the left. Then, early in 1963 he died suddenly and was replaced as Labour leader by Harold Wilson, a man who had never been a unilateralist, but retained links with the Labour left.

In the summer of 1963 the Profumo scandal revealed the decay of Toryism and made Labour electoral victory almost inevitable. The Labour MPs who had backed CND began to realise where their priorities lay. What was the destruction of all life on earth compared with the first Labour government for thirteen years?

The whole left collapsed into servile flattery of Wilson. Thus Aldermaston marcher Michael Foot could write that Wilson had:

‘Other considerable qualities too for a Labour leader – a coherence of ideas, a readiness to follow unorthodox courses, a respect for democracy ... above all a deep and genuine love of the Labour movement.

‘We are told he is tricky, untrustworthy, an addict of political infighting. Of course he is canny, ambitious, often cautious, always cool, usually calculating. And why not?’ (Tribune, 22.2.63)

Faced with the collapse of its lifeline to the Labour Party CND was left floundering. In late 1962 the CND executive issued a new policy draft called Steps Towards Peace, which effectively abandoned unilateralism altogether and stressed nuclear-free zones and more power to the United Nations. Yet such was the magnetic power of the Labour Party (plus the absence of real democratic structures in CND) that only a few people from the extreme left made any attempt at a fight against this new line. The Aldermaston March was suppressed in favour of a one-day stroll across London.

The radicalism that was left in CND was channelled into the direct action (non-violent sit-downs) organised by the Committee of 100. In itself this direct action was a useful break with the parliamentary cretinism of British politics. But without any real political framework it too was doomed to evaporate.

In the run-up to the election Wilson continued to promise that the British ‘independent deterrent’ would be abandoned by a Labour government, while stressing that this was fully in conformity with US. wishes. But six weeks after taking power, Wilson visited US president Lyndon Johnson, and his line was now somewhat different.

‘Wilson proposed an Atlantic Nuclear Force, which excluded the Germans and the French. The British contribution to the ANF, promised Wilson, would be the V-bomber fleet and the full complement of Polaris submarines, whose building would go ahead as planned. Thus the promised “renegotiation” of the Nassau agreement turned out to be a proposal to remove “the German finger from the nuclear trigger”, and the explicit promise that Britain should stop making her own nuclear weapons was clearly broken by the decision to continue with the building of the British Polaris.’ (P. Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson, Penguin, 1968, p. 212)

True, Wilson did appoint a minister of disarmament (Lord Chalfont). He also appointed a minister of defence (Denis Healey) who cut defence expenditure from 7 per cent of GNP to 6.3 per cent. But that was still the highest figure of any Western European country, and Healey’s cuts were achieved by rationalisation of expenditure, not by any effective disarmament.

So a mass movement of enormous potential was squandered because there was no alternative to tailing the Labour Party. Twenty years on it is no surprise that a Labour Party, starved of rank-and-file activists, is casting envious eyes on the hundred thousand CND marchers. Tribune headlines ‘Common Market and nuclear disarmament could be Labour’s election winner.’ (10.10.80)

But we must not let history repeat itself. There are two roads for CND -to sink into the Labour Party swamp, or to link up with the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The clear lesson of 1960-64 is that only the latter is a ‘realistic’ course.

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