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Published: November 22, 2015 Last modified: November 22, 2015
Marshall Islanders shine light on nuclear hypocrisy
Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were among the real parents of the British Independent Nuclear Deterrent. Churchill was the Tory PM who gave all the technology to Roosevelt, whom he naively trusted even as Washington drained the UK Treasury dry, but it was the 1945 Labour government of saintly memory, confronted with US refusal to reciprocate Britain’s wartime handover of nuclear secrets, that decided to implement an independent nuclear programme, despite the empty coffers and Labour’s ambitious social and economic agenda. Seeing the fate of Socialist comrades across Eastern Europe, they knew they could not trust the Soviets, and recent history, including the nuclear deal and the catastrophically abrupt end of lend-lease arrangements, taught them they could not rely on the Americans. NATO was Bevin’s baby, famously intended to keep the Germans down, the Americans in and the Russians out. But the other part was a British bomb. As an active member of CND, with loads of frequent blister miles from Aldermaston, I was always bemused by the active Communist Party members who campaigned with seemingly total sincerity against the British nuclear weapons, but regarded the “worker’s bomb” as a benign and defensive thing. But there was a genuine dilemma: Britain had been an offshore island bereft of support before in recent memory. There was in some way a case for an independent nuclear deterrent, even if it was only a tripwire to ensure back up in case of major threats. But while we had “the bomb,” the means of effective delivery were missing. Once the Blue Streak missile programme was abandoned under Treasury pressure the Tories turned to Washington, which was happy to have the British pay for a fistful of Polaris submarines. But like the successor, Trident, there has always been considerable doubt about just how independent that deterrent is. Could we actually independently target and fire missiles without US acquiescence? So the current debate is more complicated than a mere issue of upgrading Trident. There is the issue of whether Britain needs an independent nuclear capability, as Bevin and Attlee wanted. Trident, new or upgraded is not necessarily the answer to that question. The other issue is, of course, whether we can afford it, which also feeds back into that question. There are few Keynesian benefits to buying off-the-shelf US technology, with strings attached or not. At a time when austerity is pushed as the answer to everything, why does it not also figure in the nuclear equation? Do we want an independent nuclear deterrent, or do we simply want to contribute to the American arsenal like the loyal sepoys we seem to have become? Can we afford an independent deterrent, especially one as expensive as Trident? Then there is the question of our international standing. The Republic of the Marshal Islands, dubious beneficiary of much of the US’s fusion bomb testing, has a case before the International Court of Justice against Britain specifically for its failure to honour its signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The case argues that although the NPT allowed the Soviets, the US, China, Britain and France, to keep their nuclear weapons while prohibiting other signatories from acquiring them, those nuclear powers on their part agreed to good faith negotiations to disarm, and committed themselves not stop the arms race. At the UN the British government consistently votes against resolutions on effective disarmament and refuses even to countenance multilateral negotiations on disarmament, while it is clear that replacing Trident would breach the treaty obligation to stop the arms race. Indeed the Trident system as an upgrade for Polaris was probably in breach of the treaty. Britain’s behaviour has consequences. India, for example, consistently used the bad faith of the nuclear powers on disarmament as an excuse for developing its own nuclear arsenal. Labour has traditionally had an internationalist and multilateralist approach, and even Tony Blair thought it was important to try to get the UN to back the invasion of Iraq. The case unfolding at the The Hague and the deliberations at the UN should at least inform the Labour Party’s debate on Trident. Nye Bevan did not want to go into the conference chamber naked. Successive British governments have refused to go in at all!
Published: December 19, 2015 Last modified: December 15, 2015
There are shades of euphoria from supporters of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change announced so triumphantly at the beginning of this month. “Universal” and “legally binding” are epithets brandished in its favour. Well, up to a point.
The mere fact that there is an agreement, of any kind, understandably warms the hearts of the many committed people who have for years tried to effect a change. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, has made it a major issue since he took office – and he and Gordon Brown played a major part in turning the previous Copenhagen talks into a holding operation rather than a complete disaster. So trying to count the ways in which Paris is a more limited success than the headlines suggest, let us accentuate the positive.
The mere existence of a global agreement accepting the reality of man-made climate change is a big step forward. It rebuts untold millions of dollars poured into public relations by oil and coal producers with direct mercenary interests, not to mention conservative kooks who have decided that the whole idea of global warming is a communist plot to subvert entrepreneurial activities.
If the Shadow Chancellor can quote Mao, so can I. One of the lines in the Chairman’s Little Red Book was that ideas can become a material force, and without endorsing the rest of the Maoist oeuvre, that is very true. In that sense, the Paris Agreement is a turning point in international sentiment for combating the unfolding ecological disaster, ideological leverage in the coming struggle.
The right have become experts at having their will triumph, both positively and negatively over the years, which is why they have fought this outcome so hard and so long. Even relatively rational politicians in America and elsewhere, faced with the wrath of the carbon fuel lobby have temporised about the reality of global warming. Saudi Arabia, continuing the constructive role that it plays in so many spheres, has spent enough hiring the mercenary PR companies to fight its oil-soaked corner globally for it to have resettled several threatened low lying atolls by now.
That is why the Paris agreement at the beginning of December was such a landmark event, despite all the compromises and weaselling that went into it. The simple fact of acceptance of reality, no matter how belated, is a great leap forward in the face of the industry lobbyists.
Gaining recognition of that premise made other forms of progress possible – like the Pacific mini-state of the Marshall Islands who campaigned to ensure that there would a review of the targets within five years instead of 15. However, the review is desperately needed. The targets are hopelessly inadequate and it is a small consolation that the signatory countries recognise when the agreement effectively postpones the reaction needed now until the second half of the century. It is as if we stood in a burning city and congratulated ourselves for noticing the flames and temperature, but decided not to set the fire brigades on the case for a while longer.
In that sense, the Paris agreement is an egregious example of the fun and frivolity that the city was once so famous for. Having evaded the targets set in Kyoto, Bali and other resorts, the nations of the world have now set a non-binding set of targets that they will probably ignore and evade again.
While considering the triumph of the will, one can see in this agreement how the faith-based solutions of the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era still haunt us. A carbon tax, on the fuel used could be one of the most effective inducements to encourage investment in more efficient energy use and generation, and thus emissions. However, reflexive right wing (and now “centre”) recoil from the very idea of taxation – which would put cash in the hands of governments for the public good –- has been subsumed by the idea of alleged market mechanisms and trading emissions.
The agreement is deeply flawed, weak and ineffectual. But it lays down what should be done – at a minimum. It is up to the rest of us to risk a few virtual carbon-emissions by holding the feet of governments to the burning coals, making sure they keep their promises.