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In Britain, Labor Changes Its Tints-- and Its Talk on U.S. Nuclear Weapons

October 05, 1986|John Grimond | John Grimond is an assistant editor on the Economist

LONDON — Has Britain's Labor Party changed? After eight years in opposition and two electoral defeats, its leaders know that the old image of the Labor Party is not a vote-grabber. So, at their annual conference last week, they took pains to sell the electorate a new, improved version. Out goes the working-class, loony-left Labor, symbolized by the cloth-cap and clenched fist; in comes the middle-class, pastel-tints Labor, symbolized by the red rose that worked so well for France's Socialists.

Yet the Labor Party has for years had one enduring and, to many, reassuring quality: a readiness to strike postures and adopt policies in opposition that were forgotten once in office. This has been most true with their defense policy. The British have grown used to hearing the party proclaim the kind of hair-raising anti-nuclear views on defense offered last week, only to have them quietly forgotten when its leaders came to power and had to grapple with the realities of governing.

On the eve of the conference, the party leader, Neil Kinnock, again disavowed the use of nuclear weapons by a Labor government--which could come to power within 18 months--and added, "If we're not prepared to use the weapon system ourselves, we certainly would not be asking anyone else to be jeopardizing themselves by the use of that nuclear weapon."

In other words, a Labor government would ask for the closure of U.S. nuclear bases in Britain and, in effect, unilaterally withdraw from the shelter of the American nuclear umbrella. The question immediately arose: If Labor has really changed, as its leaders claim, has the old habit of saying-one-thing-doing-another changed with it? Should its leaders be credited, for once, with meaning what they say?

Yes. As American critics, including the secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, his assistant for international security policy, Richard N. Perle, and the American ambassador to Britain, Charles H. Price II, have all implicitly acknowledged by the vigor of their attacks (all timed to coincide with the Labor conference) the threat should be taken seriously. This commitment will almost certainly have a longer shelf-life than its predecessors. To understand why, it is necessary to understand how the Labor Party has evolved over the past 30-40 years.

It was, after all, a Labor government in the 1940s that signed the North Atlantic Treaty and developed the British atom bomb. It was a Labor government in the 1960s that completed Britain's Polaris submarine fleet. It was a Labor government a decade later that built the new Chevaline warhead for the Polaris missiles and laid the groundwork for buying Trident, the current Conservative government's preferred replacement for Polaris. Yet the party has been passing anti-nuclear resolutions at its annual conference for years.

During that time, Labor's Atlanticist traditions have been wearing ever thinner. In the 1940s and 1950s, Labor politicians like Clement R. Attlee and Hugh T.N. Gaitskell looked naturally westward for political friendship. But James Callaghan was the last leader who shared that outlook. His successor, Michael Foot, who took over in 1980, was not only an unilateralist in his views but was utterly out of sympathy with the United States, a country he did not know and apparently did not care for. Kinnock seems little different--he has visited the United States only once, in 1984, since becoming leader in 1983, and did not make a favorable impression in Washington. Labor's pro-Americanism, once so strong that it was blamed for the party's opposition to the European common market, has given way to a Little Englandism, in which backs are turned on foreigners of all stripes--except perhaps when Labor wants to coordinate policies with European socialists to refashion NATO.

The trend has been thrown into sharper relief by the defection from Labor of its most prominent right-wingers in 1981. For several of those who formed the Social Democratic Party, particularly David Owen, the current SDP leader, Labor's anti-nuclear defense policies were the deciding factor. The formation of the SDP robbed the Labor Party of its most forceful internal advocates of nuclear defense.

It also meant the loss of many of Labor's more realistic senior politicians. One of who did not defect, Denis Healey, a notably successful minister of defense in the 1960s, has been visibly embarrassed by the party's anti-nuclear stand and last week said it was "not inconceivable" that Britain might keep nuclear weapons under a Labor government. He was soon obliged to start backing and filling.

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