The nasty party is back

Chris Prendergast
September 27, 2015

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.


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Chris Prendergast