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Beyond moral disarmament
Aidan RankinAidan Rankin is co-editor of New European
Keywords Moral responsibilty, Defence, Armed forces
When I was a schoolboy, and then a student, during the 1980s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was in its second wave. Mass demonstrations for unilateral disarmament filled the headlines and provided colourful illustrations for Sunday supplements. The Greenham Common women, with their primitive-chic communes along perimeter fences, and their media friendly wire-cutting stunts, alternately amused and appalled the British public. The Labour Party, lurching towards the left, championed "non-nuclear" defence, as did an Ecology Party about to reinvent itself as "Green". Nuclear disarmament was never a "vote-winner" in British politics and did more than anything else to split the left. But at the height of CND's influence in the 1980s, as many as 50 per cent of the population claimed to support its aims.
I was not attracted to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at that time, despite my liking for old photographs of the Aldermaston marchers, complete with pipes, polo necks and earnest expressions belied by twinkling eyes. However, I did have some sneaking respect for those unilateralists who felt that their country should set a moral example to the world. What a gloriously ironic reversal of the "Imperial mission" that was, and an admirable one, too. Had I been a young man at that time, I might have joined that movement, being aware of its contradictions yet interested and amused by them. Of late, "progressive" politics have been about opposing anything "judgmental", yet the very purpose of a reform movement is surely to make ethical judgements about society. The moral disarmers, whether patriotic or not, certainly did so. Others became unilateralists for more cynical reasons, such as an admiration for Soviet power or faith in some Trotskyist chimera of "world revolution". Notwithstanding my respect for the moral disarmers, what irritated me about their plodding, principled pacifism was its susceptibility to manipulation, its failure to observe, to analyse or to engage with criticism of any kind. For theirs was a Manichean universe of good and evil, light and darkness, where practicalities were shoved aside by half-remembered quotations from Gandhi or Martin Luther King, or half-baked historical references to Diggers and Levellers. I am reminded of this naiveté when I think of many of today's campaigners against the arms trade, who shrug their shoulders when asked about jobs. "It doesn't matter", they will say, or imply, with the same casual indifference that monetarists show to all other manufacturing skills.
There is something special, and wonderful, about non-violent resistance, but that special quality can tip quickly into self-righteousness, and from there ever more quickly into intolerance. Nuclear disarmers oppose these "weapons of mass destruction" not only because they are in themselves monstrous, but because of the society they symbolise, with its centralised authority structures, its secrecy and the distance it places between people and rulers. Yet there was very little sense at that time that the nuclear disarmament movement understood better, or respected more, the individual, than the structures they challenged. The totalitarian left among them understood less, and respected not at all. Among the moral disarmers, there were by the 1980s few who evoked love of country in the way that I admired. Most scorned such worldly attachments as a man's love for his country, his family, his friends or his home. A woman's love for her children, by contrast, was an emotion they often exploited as propaganda, but they understood it little better. The moral disarmers were political ascetics, but ascetics lacking in wisdom or knowledge.
It is, nonetheless, heartening that nuclear disarmament is back on the agenda, and that it finds champions among distinguished academics and respected film actors. It is heartening, too, that Dr Elworthy calls for disarmament negotiations "in good faith". For the problem with previous disarmament movements - even the Aldermaston campaigners of British folk memory - is that many of them acted, wittingly or otherwise, in bad faith. By identifying too readily with one political tendency, left-wing, internationalist, scornful of "traditional values", they excluded many natural supporters. For by the 1980s, and indeed by the early 1960s, it was becoming apparent to many people of conservative disposition that "something was wrong", that the post-war dream of prosperity was turning sour. The cult of the individual as consumer, along with the growing collectivisation of public policy, were creating alienation and shiftlessness. The obsession with economic growth, and the corresponding indifference towards the quality of life, were creating a society ill-at-ease with itself. Many who felt (and feel) this way about the affluent society strongly believed in defending their country and some had taken up arms to do so. Their view of defence was not crudely military (or "militarist", as the worst of the moral disarmers would sneer). It was about the defence of values, including freedom and tolerance, the defence of a familiar way of life. In its activities, and increasingly its nature, the disarmament movement was hostile to those who believed in just conventional defence but abhorred "The Bomb". Its constituency was limited, and self-limiting, and so it failed many times over. Today's Labour Government, to which Douglas and Elworthy appeal, is filled with ex-CND members, including Tony Blair. Some through idealism, others for party preferment, but to a man or woman they are now as strong rhetorical supporters of "deterrence" as Lady Thatcher.
In the wake of the Cold War, the case for nuclear disarmament becomes more cogent, more compelling than before, more capable of uniting conservatives and radicals, or states with differing social systems. This is for two reasons. First, because the end of East/West polarity obscures the purpose of nuclear defence. Second, because the mass acquisition of weapons by smaller states offers the prospect of a nuclear Wild West that is global in scale, and lacking in geopolitical checks and balances. There is a third, over-arching element in this debate. For just as an earlier generation of nuclear disarmers made the connection between monstrous weapons and Leviathan political institutions, so a stronger connection can be made today between the nuclear and ecological crisis. For we in the West impose a pattern of development on the rest of the world that leads towards unsustainable economic growth, environmental devastation and a diseased juxtaposition of poverty and plenty. At the same time, we present for emulation a model of "deterrence" that points towards nuclear proliferation. Our response to the India-Pakistan arms race last year is as hypocritical as our response to the Brazilians or Chinese, who want the same quality of roads, the same number of cars and the same range of supermarkets as we take for granted. In the light of mounting ecological crisis, we must return to, but build on, the instincts of the best of the moral disarmers that we can set a moral example and become a better society in the process. We must learn to be intellectual and spiritual consumers, rather than merely consumers of material things. This will help us to replace the doctrine of nuclear "deterrence" with the doctrine of justified defence.
Dr Elworthy is aware of these connections. Her proposals stem from the vision of a good society, tempered by reason and practical good sense. This is progressive politics at its best, as open to cultural conservatives as it is to the left. It brings forward the time when I can describe myself as a nuclear disarmer, and a supporter of strengthened Armed Forces, without receiving puzzled looks.