The transformation in Labour’s attitude to defence is positive and profound
Ladbrokes is offering 20/1 on Dan Jarvis becoming the next leader of the Labour party. Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central since the by-election there in 2011, is already doing well as a shadow minister for culture. He is an energetic campaigner, is mastering speaking in the Commons, and has a rock-solid majority of 11,000. He also has a 10-year service record in the Parachute Regiment, with service in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the by-election, the Tories came third behind the United Kingdom Independence party and the Liberal Democrats came sixth, beaten by the British National party and an independent. Barnsley has taken its newest MP to its heart.
If the bookies have to pay out on a Jarvis leadership election, he will be the first ex-services leader of the Labour party since James Callaghan. Callaghan saw wartime service with the Royal Navy, fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. His successors have been, respectively, a journalist, a Workers’ Educational Association tutor, a lawyer, another lawyer, a TV producer and a special adviser, none of whom ever wore a military uniform.
That Jarvis has got so far in the Labour party, and is being considered as a future leader, even at 20/1, is about more than his own qualities of leadership. It represents a remarkable shift in the attitude of the Labour party towards the armed services, and to the defence of the realm. Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, launched a review of defence policy earlier this year. He spoke of ‘strong, hi-tech armed forces’, and a ‘vibrant defence industry’ anchored in the doctrine that ‘we all have responsibilities beyond our borders and our security and liberty at home cannot be separated from events overseas.’ Crucially, there is no question whatsoever of the Labour party adopting a position of unilaterally renouncing Britain’s nuclear weapons, which were introduced by the Labour government of Clement Attlee.
It was not always like this. The orthodox view in the constituency Labour parties, unions and shadow cabinet in the 1980s was that Labour should spend less on defence, close United States bases in Britain and decommission the nuclear arsenal. Strange as it may seem today, this was mainstream stuff back then. Gavin Strang, writing in Tribune in October 1983, shared the revelation that ‘the Russians are not planning to invade Europe’ and called for a dismantling of the west’s defences. He ended up as a transport minister under Tony Blair.
Jack Straw’s new autobiography, Last Man Standing, describes the future foreign secretary’s activism in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, including the Aldermaston marches and a Committee of 100 sit-down protest in Parliament Square. Straw says, ‘CND was not a simple front of the British Communist party, as were many apparently broad-based groups of the time, but the Communist party was disproportionately influential in the unilateralist movement.’
CND’s triumph came in 1983, not with the removal of nuclear weapons but with its capture of Labour’s policymaking apparatus. The 1983 Labour manifesto contained the now-famous pledges to remove all nuclear weapons and bases from British soil and waters within the lifetime of the parliament.
It was the centrepiece of the election campaign. When asked if he would press the nuclear button, Michael Foot replied, ‘It would be an act of utter, criminal insanity.’ Margaret Thatcher, when asked the same question, said, ‘The Russians must know that under certain circumstances it would be fired. Otherwise, it would cease to be a deterrent.’ And that was the election campaign in a nutshell: Thatcher tough and resolute; Foot not. Few doubted the principled nature of the Labour leader’s position, but the fact that neither his deputy nor predecessor agreed with him hardly helped sell it to the public. The Tories’ advertising campaign suggested that voting Labour was the same as signing a piece of paper stating: ‘I agree that Britain should now abandon the nuclear deterrent which has preserved peace in Europe for 40 years. I fully understand the Russians are unlikely to follow suit.’
Today, Labour enjoys a healthy respect on defence issues. No one doubts that the party takes Britain’s defences seriously. CND and the Stop the War Coalition have as much influence on Labour policy as the Man in the Moon does. This position was hard-won. It took some soul-searching and tough decisions by former unilateralists such as Neil Kinnock and Robin Cook. Labour now has military veterans joining its ranks, and being openly welcomed. Jarvis will not be the last veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan in the parliamentary party. Forces families look to a future Labour government for the fair treatment they are denied under the coalition.
All of which makes it more important than ever for Ed Miliband to ignore the siren voices of those who think Trident is outmoded, outdated, too expensive, and want him to copy Foot at the next election. The only beneficiary of making the next election about anything other than the economy and public services is David Cameron.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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