The Nasty Party is back. I don’t mean the one that never went away, but the Disaffected Labour Party, the gaggle of MP’s, former ministers, shadow ministers, superannuated grandees, spinmeisters and hacks, collectively throwing their toys out of the pram over the prospect and then the actuality of the Jeremy Corbyn election. It’s been a staggering spectacle of barely contained rage, aggression, and insult, surfacing even in places that are natural Toryland (for example, in the Paul Dacre rag that Alastair Campbell once described as a gutter into which no decent person should ever step). Dead-eyed Dan (Hodges) in the Telegraph, cadaverously wittering on about betrayal, implosion, hypocrisy and so forth, is one thing, but this is something else. Were it not so awful, it would be quite funny. Especially droll is the bit part played by Roy Hattersley in the pages of the Guardian, going for the jugular behind the open-neck shirt: ‘His carefully cultivated image clearly appeals to people who have grown weary of conventional politics and believe that wearing an open-neck shirt is proof positive of integrity and idealism’. Nice little exercise, that, in implied character-assassination, on a par with the other fashionable semiotic spasm around the ‘beard’: def non-hipster, more CND peace, sandals and vegetarianism, geddit?
In short, someone who cannot be ‘trusted’ with the ‘security’ of the nation. But hang on (as Tone used to say), that’s from the Tory songsheet, albeit as mere refrain and no lyrics, the cut-and-paste number repeated word for word by Cameron, Osborne, Fallon and Gove. At the heart of this stands the question of Trident. Which brings us back to Roy. Remember Hattersley, the new deputy leader of the Labour Party, alongside the new leader, Neil Kinnock, at the Labour Party conference: “Between us we can do what the party needs. We are demonstrating unity… the task is to make Neil Kinnock the next Prime Minister of England”. The man he wanted to be prime minister said in 1983: ‘there are no circumstances in which I would order or permit the firing of a nuclear weapon’, and in 1986: ‘I would die for my country, but never let my country die for me’. This didn’t seem to trouble Roy, notwithstanding the fact that Kinnock’s rhetorical flight of fancy was meaningless and his understanding of the doctrine of ‘deterrence’ deeply flawed (a necessary, if far from sufficient, condition of making sense of it is that both sides of an adversarial fence possess them). Roy didn’t bat an eyelid.
Trouble over Trident seems to have struck deep into the souls of the Disaffected, from those who say they ‘disagree with Jeremy’ to those making clear they will go to the stake for the ‘independent’ deterrent. These are the Labour politicians who subscribe to some or all of the ‘justifications’ of the so-called ‘independent’ deterrent spelt out some three years ago by Luke Akehurst in Progress. It’s a familiar litany, but turns basically on three considerations. First, jobs: the renewal of Trident is a jobs-protection scheme, at a cool 100 billion (‘what Barrow, or for that matter Derby or Aldermaston, are supposed to do to replace the highly skilled engineering jobs dependent on Trident renewal’). Second, punching (‘above one’s weight’, as Akehurst has it, thus evoking the image of a light-weight boxer being invited into the ring to spar with a heavy-weight champion; good luck, Luke, you’re going to need it). In reality it’s Trident as symbol in big-willie diplomacy, ensuring a ‘place at the table’, most notably as a member of the Permanent Security Council of the U.N, a politically bankrupt arrangement if ever there were one. Third, insurance, a policy again with a very high premium but worth every penny when heart-wrenchingly packaged: ‘I support Trident renewal because I want my children and hopefully their children to have a country in 50 years time which is still protected by a deterrent so powerful that no other power that arises in the intervening five decades, however hostile or malign, would risk bullying us with nuclear or other WMD threats’. This is the good family-man doctrine of deterrence. It echoes the Tory mantra. Here, on robotic cue, is Gove interviewed by Andrew Marr: ‘He (Corbyn) would give up our nuclear deterrent at a time when other countries, and indeed terrorists, are anxious to acquire a nuclear capacity.’ As it stands, this is just a scare story. Which countries? What’s the ‘threat’, actual or incipient? If there is one that justifies retention of nuclear weapons, then, unless – in some utterly implausible theory – the threat is to the UK alone, it also justifies acquisition by allies who don’t have them; the Conservatives, with Akehurst as cheer-leader, should be urging the nuclear arming of Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, indeed of all members of the European Union and Nato (and that just for starters). They should be militating for the shredding of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The question of Trident is also agitating sections of the Corbyn shadow cabinet. It seems in particular to be bothering Corbyn’s right-hand man inside the shadow cabinet, the new deputy leader of the Labour Party, altogether less quiescent than his 1980’s predecessor. Here is an extract from the interview with Tom Watson on the same Andrew Marr show that has been much quoted in the press: ‘“My views on Trident are very well known. There has to be a discussion about that, and I’m hoping that the party will come together around this issue. We don’t need nuclear weapons. We need to keep those people who make them in good jobs so we have defence diversification. But we need to fulfil our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty”. But Watson told Marr that he personally was in favour of the nuclear deterrent. “I think the deterrent has kept the peace in the world for half a century,” he said’. This collection of sentences is not obviously coherent. The argument from ‘jobs’ seems to envisage a displacement of funding from Trident renewal to other weapons systems (‘defence diversification’). On the question of deterrence, however, it is everywhere and thus nowhere, and hence not an ‘argument’ at all: we don’t need nuclear weapons, but we do need them, because they have kept the peace for half a century. Perhaps, in accordance with the closed circular logic of deterrence theory, they did for the restricted post-war few who had them, though only a self-blinding fool would bracket the close shaves. But ‘in the world’? Since 1945 there have been over 250 ‘major’ wars. Certainly, the world map of Watson’s peace-keeping mission won’t cut much ice in connection with the nine wars currently raging in the Middle East and North Africa described by Patrick Coburn in The Independent as wars that seem to have no end in prospect. Perhaps if, in addition to arming all Nato allies, we were to advocate nuclear-arming all combatant sides in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc, there would be peace. That would of course also mean shredding the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which according to Watson we have ‘obligations’), this time on a grand scale.
If you think it’s hard to make sense of all this, that’s because instead of the ‘debate’ that’s being called for, already smokescreens are going up (the Watson fog especially dense). It remains to be seen whether Corbyn will blow them away and finally break open the Establishment lock on the discourse of public discussion, obese with assertion but skinny in argument. His shadow defence appointments are all, to a woman and a man, pro-renewal, so the auguries are not that encouraging. But let’s hope that, at the very least, he insists on a properly informed and argued debate, in full public view. One place and time this might have started is at the Labour Party Conference, given the decision of the Arrangements Committee to consider the possibility of motion being put to a Conference vote (but at its opening Conference has kicked that one into the long grass). The Nasty Party – along with some of the trade unions – doesn’t like this at all and has done all it can to close down this possibility. Thus the inaptly named, artfully groomed and spectacularly incoherent peacock, John Woodcock, the M.P for Barrow (which is where a lot of the submarine work is to be done) tells the members of his party not to bother (‘It is important for Labour members to understand the Trident renewal will go ahead anyway’), before going on to excelling himself with a display of Orwellspeak that way outclasses the chaotic opacity of Watson’s remarks. The debate and the vote should not take place because ‘derailing the process of debate that Jeremy himself signalled, would be a perverse course of action. This is a highly divisive issue that risks splitting the Labour Party’. And so we have it: a debate that will derail debate, such that the best way to ensure dissenting opinion (of the Old New Labour kind) prevails is to crush the expression of dissenting opinion (of the Corbyn supporters kind). I know, one could hardly make it up. But Woodcock just has.
Christopher Prendergast is a fellow in French at King’s College, Cambridge, and on the editorial team of King’s Review. Currently, he is preparing a major exhibition on Samuel Beckett in connection with the 500th anniversary of the completion of King’s College Chapel. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books and New Left Review.