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For more than a quarter of a century, at least since the failure of the Suez Canal venture in 1956, Britain has been preoccupied with a sense of its national decline. To some extent the country’s demise as a world power was inevitable. Britain was bound to (divest itself of its empire; to have attempted to hang on against all the forces of history would have been a far worse course. Nor could Britain possibly have maintained the almost equal partnership with the United States that it thought it enjoyed when the two countries found themselves fighting side by side in the Second World War.
That such a transformation in international status has had a disorienting effect is hardly surprising. When Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Truman, remarked in 1962 that "Britain has lost an empire and not found a role," British susceptibilities were hurt to the quick. To be attacked unfairly is one thing; to be told the unpleasant truth by an old friend is much more painful.
This fall in prestige and world power was accompanied by a drop in Britain’s relative economic performance, a deterioration partially masked by a rise in absolute living standards for most of the period. Most British people, nevertheless, are uneasily aware that other countries have been doing much better. A quarter of a century ago Britain still had one of the highest standards of living in the world; now it is one of the poorer members of the European Community.
From time to time elegant arguments are constructed to suggest that the British really prefer things this way, that lower material rewards are the price for the idyllic British way of life. They may be. But they are not a price that the British are happy about paying. Everything of consequence that has happened in British politics in recent years—Thatcherism, the Labour Party’s lurch to the left, the birth of the Social Democratic Party, public fervor in the Falklands War, the defeat of the 1984-85 coal miners’ strike, the Westland controversy and the British Leyland fiasco—has to be seen against the background of frustration at national decline and poor economic performance. The British may have ceased to achieve, but they have not become content to fail.
If they were, Margaret Thatcher would never have been elected prime minister. The essence of Thatcherism, even more than its attachment to any particular political principle or economic dogma, is an instinctive resistance to national decline. Mrs. Thatcher’s behavior presents a curious mixture of spirit, realism, tantrums and not infrequent errors of political judgment—but above all of spirit. She is determined that Britain should not lapse into mediocrity with graceful gentility.
Her fundamental purpose has therefore been to break away from what she judged to be the failed policies of all previous postwar governments, whether Labour or Conservative. With the sole exception of the first two years of Edward Heath’s Conservative government from 1970 to 1972 (which thereafter turned full circle), all had accepted the consensus established by the Labour government of Clement Attlee immediately after the war, from 1945 to 1951.
The essential elements of this consensus were a large public sector, with most of the basic industries and services under public ownership; an extensive welfare state, with a comprehensive national health service and social insurance system; high taxation to pay for these and other benefits; respect approaching awe for the power of the trade unions; and, not least, a belief in interventionist government. Where there was a problem it was up to government to provide an answer.
Prime Minister Thatcher came to office in 1979 with the intention of reversing each of these trends. She wanted to reduce the role of the state, to return as many industries as possible to private ownership, to cut public spending, to curb the power of the unions and—to use a phrase to which she is much attached—to make people stand on their own feet.
In pursuing such a strategy she was taking the Conservative Party sharply to the right and vacating the political middle ground, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that had dominated British politics for many years. It is on the middle ground, according to traditional thinking, that elections are won and lost in an essentially two-party system.
The Labour and Conservative Parties each have a core of loyal supporters. Between them lies the disputed territory occupied by floating voters, less passionate in their politics and more pragmatic in their desires. Conventional belief held that the party that was able to move more effectively into this territory, and so capture most of the floating voters without losing its own, would win the day.
But Mrs. Thatcher showed that it was possible to turn away from the middle ground and still win an election. This encouraged Labour’s drift to the left after its defeat in 1979, but it was not the only reason.
Labour could have taken its stand on the middle ground abandoned by the Conservatives. It would have been logical and in the party’s best electoral interests to have done so; under James Callaghan the party had practiced centrist policies in office. Why not continue to propound them in opposition?
But these were the policies on which Labour had just plunged to a crushing defeat. They had failed to deliver the required results, so they were discredited within the party as well as among the electorate. There was a fear that if Labour had stuck to that line it would have looked like a party peddling tired policies under tired politicians.
By the time Labour left office in 1979 it had been in government for more than ten of the previous 14 years, with the center-right in the ascendant. The party’s leading right-wingers had held high office for much of that time. It was they, therefore, who were blamed for the defeat. Many of them were exhausted and all of them had run out of ideas.
That is a serious matter in a party of the left whose more ardent members expect it to pursue radical policies. They came into politics to change society, not to manage it. The right represented the old approach, the policies that had failed to arrest the comparative national decline, and was unable to offer a new momentum. The Labour right wing had, at that time, neither the appeal nor the spirit to maintain its dominance.
So there was a vacuum within the Labour Party which the far left rushed to fill. In doing so they were able to argue with some plausibility that Mrs. Thatcher had proved that a party could desert the middle ground without condemning itself to electoral defeat.
Labour’s swing to the left had some far-reaching consequences. It made it virtually impossible for Labour to win the 1983 general election. It provoked bitter dissension within the party, partly because of the far left’s bullying and undemocratic tactics and partly because a number on the right were not prepared to accept without protest policies which they believed to be nationally damaging and electorally suicidal. Labour’s leftward lurch also provided both a motive and an opportunity for some right-wingers to break away altogether. Believing that the battle for moderation was lost within the Labour Party, and seeing the middle ground of British politics unoccupied, they created the Social Democratic Party in March 1981.
The principal leaders of the new party, who became known as the Gang of Four, were Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. All of them were former cabinet ministers; Jenkins and Owen had held high office—Jenkins, chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary as well as president of the European Commission in Brussels, and Owen as foreign secretary.
As always on such occasions, there was a mixture of personal and political reasons why some Labour right-wingers went with the new party and some stayed with the old. Different people respond differently to the tug of party loyalty and obligations. Callaghan would no doubt have felt it invidious to have left Labour so soon after being party leader and prime minister. Denis Healey had just been elected deputy leader. There was also a difference of judgment, which has persisted to this day, as to whether the Labour Party was truly a lost cause for people of moderate opinions.
Soon after the SDP was established it came together with the small but long-established Liberal Party to form the Alliance—a strange political entity that is more than a pact but less than a merger. While they remain two separate parties, with their own leaders, they fight elections as if they were a single party and are committed to form a joint government if they win sufficient seats in the House of Commons.
These various developments transformed the British political scene. No longer is it a two-party system. The Alliance would claim that it is now a race among three parties. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a two-and-a-half party system. While either the Conservatives or Labour are regarded as capable of winning an overall majority of seats, only the most intensely partisan Social Democrat or Liberal believes that there is the slightest chance of the Alliance doing so in the near future.
Yet the old simplicities have gone. The next election offers other possibilities beyond the familiar choice between a Conservative or Labour government.
The birth of the Alliance offers dissatisfied Conservatives and disillusioned Labour supporters the opportunity of casting a serious vote for a different party without having to go right across to the traditional enemy. The Liberals had long been there, of course, but since the 1920s they were so weak that they were never able to overcome the taunt that a vote for them would be wasted. It is not so easy to make that charge stick against the Alliance that won nearly 26 percent of the total votes cast in 1983, only two percent behind Labour—though the British electoral system puts third parties at such a disadvantage that the Alliance captured only 3.5 percent of the seats in the Commons against 32 percent for Labour.
The effect of this new lineup is to make British politics more volatile and prediction more hazardous. British politics used to be noted for the discipline of its parties and the loyalty of its voters. Even before the arrival of the Alliance, that loyalty had been breaking down. The propensity to vote for smaller parties and to switch loyalties between the two main parties had already increased markedly by the late 1970s. But the occurrence of this phenomenon has been increased significantly by the presence of the Alliance.
Within a changing political system the policies of the individual parties have changed as well. For most of the past five years only the Alliance has been able to lay any credible claim to the middle ground. But that is a limited advantage when the territory is still associated with the failed policies of yesterday.
Both the other parties deliberately sought fresh approaches. In the case of Labour the swing to the left was signified at the 1983 general election by the party’s program in the critical fields of economic, industrial and defense policy. It did not ask the voters simply to be allowed to continue where Callaghan’s Labour government had left off in 1979.
But it is naturally the change in the role of the Conservatives that has had most impact on Britain, because they have been in power for the past seven years. Traditionally they have been a pragmatic party that has prided itself on managerial efficiency. They were the people who knew how to govern. Suspicious of dogma, eager to prevent any fashionable doctrine from being taken too far, they specialized in improving British society but not in transforming it.
Under Prime Minister Thatcher the Conservatives have become a party of radical reform. She has not wanted just to manage the status quo, because she associates it with decline rather than stability. Britain has evidently appeared to her rather like a person sliding slowly downhill with arms and legs bound together. The bonds have to be broken before anything else can be done.
This is what she has been trying to do: free the economy from unnecessary restraint; allow market forces to operate; make industry more competitive; offer greater incentives; make the blood flow in limbs that have been unused for too long. Such a regime must by its nature be uncomfortable—rather in the way that no good football coach offers his team a quiet life. But the relationship works well only when the coach and team are equally motivated.
That is why, no matter how long she remains prime minister, the Falklands War of 1982 will always be seen as her finest hour. It was not only that her nerve withstood the ordeal—a more severe test than is remembered now, for when the naval task force sailed from Portsmouth the success of such an operation 8,000 miles from home was by no means assured—it was also that prime minister and country saw the challenge in the same light and with the same intensity. The Argentine invasion of the islands they call the Malvinas provoked such strength of feeling in Britain because it was interpreted as a challenge to national pride and as an opportunity to prove that Britain was not really in decline. The test was almost welcomed, because it was tangible. At last there was once again a commonly recognized threat and a national purpose.
Against less dramatic challenges, the government’s record in arresting national decline has been more mixed. That is so partly because of the difficulty of achieving economic reform in the midst of the world recession that coincided with the government’s early years in office, partly because of the innate British resistance to sudden change, and partly because Mrs. Thatcher is an instinctive politician who does not always work out how to give practical effect to the dictates of her instincts.
The government has received most criticism for the record level of unemployment, running, according to the British method of calculation, at 3.2 million or 13.3 percent of the working population. Much of Britain’s unemployment can be attributed to international conditions, but some of it is also a measure of British industry’s failure to compete. Because unemployment has been so high it has been all the more difficult to curb public spending. But that is not the only reason why government expenditure now represents just as high a proportion of the national income as it did when the Conservatives came into office in 1979.
Direct taxation has not been cut by as much as the prime minister would have wished because she has time and again found her cabinet colleagues unwilling to curb public spending sufficiently to do so. They have resisted sometimes from conviction, sometimes to suit their own convenience as departmental ministers, but often because they realize that public opinion is more concerned with the quality of public services such as schools, hospitals and roads than with paying lower taxes.
If public expenditure had been controlled more stringently, it would have been possible to cut the rates of direct taxation more sharply, while still keeping within the government’s targets for public-sector borrowing. Even as things stand, the rates have been cut substantially for the highest taxpayers. In the budget announced in March 1986, Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson was also able to announce the second reduction since 1979 in the basic rate of income tax—down altogether from 33 to 29 percent.
But the government has not as yet managed to cut income tax rates as much as it had hoped. This year its plans were destroyed by the collapse of oil prices. The overall effect of lower oil prices may be healthy for the British economy if it prompts sufficient international expansion. But the immediate consequence for an oil-producing country such as Britain is to reduce the government’s expected revenue for the coming year by £5 billion or more (approximately $7.5 billion), so as to remove the possibility of the kind of tax concessions that the chancellor had intended. Perhaps his full expectations will be realized at last next year; for the moment the record on direct tax cuts is one of partial achievement and frustrated hope.
The Thatcher record on inflation is also mixed. If one looks at the situation in Britain alone it is a success story: from ten percent when the Conservatives took over in 1979, it rose to 22 percent a year later but was down to 5.5 percent at the end of last year, with the chancellor predicting a further fall to 3.5 percent in 1986. But this is still higher than the rate in most of Britain’s principal competitors. West Germans, for example, are wondering whether it will be possible, with the fall in oil prices, to bring inflation down below one percent this year.
The rate at which the British economy is now growing compares favorably with that of other countries. In 1985 output rose by 3.5 percent, which was the highest rate of growth in the European Community and higher than in the United States—though such percentages disregard the fact that Britain was expanding from a smaller base. The rate of improvement in productivity is also encouraging. Since 1979 productivity in manufacturing industry has gone up at an annual average rate of 3.5 percent, which has been second only to Japan among the leading industrial nations. Once again, though, one should remember the point from which such comparisons start.
The principal economic achievements of the Thatcher government cannot, however, be measured by such statistics. It is impossible to quantify the effect of changes in structure and attitude, but they can transform the conditions in which industry and commerce are operating. They, therefore, are at the heart of the Thatcher program for national regeneration.
In privatization the government has been even bolder than it initially promised. More than 12 state companies have had 50 percent or more of their shares sold to private ownership—among them such major companies as British Aerospace and British Telecom, as well as specialist manufacturers such as the Jaguar automobile company.
British Gas and British Airways are among those state companies that are expected to be privatized before the next election. It has been calculated that if the government maintains its schedule, the proportion of the gross domestic product provided by state industries will by then have dropped from 10.5 to 6.5 percent.
The criticism that is heard most frequently from those who do not disapprove of privatization on principle is that the government is not increasing the level of competition correspondingly. In the case of British Telecom already, and of British Gas in due course, public monopolies are simply being converted into private monopolies. The same stricture would apply to the British Airports Authority and the water industry.
Yet even a transfer of monopoly ownership from public to private hands may significantly increase the number of individuals holding shares. That was certainly the effect of the British Telecom sale. This accords with another of the prime minister’s purposes, what she terms "popular capitalism." First the government enabled tenants of municipal housing to buy their property at advantageous prices. Now it is taking various steps to encourage wider share ownership.
With the United States in mind, the government believes that when more people have a stake in the capitalist system there will be more incentive to profit, and Britain will become a more competitive society. But the fruits of such a trend will inevitably take some time to emerge.
More immediate results are evident from the most dramatic change that Mrs. Thatcher has brought about: the diminished power of the trade unions. This has been achieved partly by legislation and partly by defeating the miners’ union in the crucial strike that lasted a full year from the spring of 1984.
This victory was of great symbolic as well as practical importance. For at least a decade every British government had run scared of the trade unions in general and the miners in particular. The last Conservative government, under Edward Heath, was brought down by a miners’ strike in 1974. One of the principal reasons for Mrs. Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 was that the country had been disrupted by a series of industrial disputes under the Callaghan Labour government, during what became known as the Winter of Discontent. Early in 1981, even she had compromised rather than confront the miners.
So when a pitched battle with the miners did at last take place it was seen as a test case of the government’s resolve and of union power in the new industrial climate. Even then the government might not have won but for the changes that had been made in the meantime in the law governing trade unions.
These changes required a union to hold secret ballots among its members before it was legally entitled to call them out on strike, and for the election of senior union officials. Restrictions were imposed on picketing during a dispute and on secondary action against anyone not directly involved in a particular industrial conflict. Teeth were given to this legislation by enabling the courts to sequester union funds if the law were violated.
These legal changes and the defeat of the miners have between them gone a long way to shift the balance of power between unions and employers in other industries as well. Given the inhibiting effect that the unions had been exercising on managerial initiative, this new trend is an essential step along the path to Britain’s economic regeneration.
One of the most critical questions now is whether this trend will last. It could not have developed at all without a new spirit of realism within the unions as well as in the country at large. What nobody at this stage can know for sure is how much of this realism within the unions has been engendered by high unemployment. Will the spirit of moderation last when, as everyone hopes, the level of joblessness is brought down to more acceptable levels?
There certainly is a greater sense of realism in the country now than when Mrs. Thatcher came to power. The change in the tone of public debate has been in some ways her most important though least tangible accomplishment. There is more appreciation of the need for competitive efficiency, for industry to make profits and for money to be earned before it is spent.
There is less patience with abuses of trade union power. The miners had much less public support this time than in their dispute with the Heath government in 1974. Opinion polls on the later occasion consistently showed substantial majority backing for the government, even though there was some impatience toward the end when many people felt that a settlement was being delayed unnecessarily.
Altogether, then, we see in Britain a more tough-minded approach. But this does not mean that public opinion has accepted the whole Thatcherite prescription. Nor has there been a full resurgence of national self-confidence. Dramatic demonstration of the doubts that remain came recently in two episodes which in turn dominated British politics for months: the protracted political battles over whether American companies should be allowed to control Westland, the only British-owned helicopter manufacturer, and British Leyland, the last major British-owned automobile manufacturer.
Both disputes aroused such passion because they related to much deeper issues than the ownership of two companies: issues about Britain’s place in the world, British industrial vulnerability and the proper relationship between government and industry. Both controversies have been widely interpreted as demonstrating the strength of anti-American sentiment in Britain. That is mistaken. They revealed not British dislike of Americans but British fear of American strength.
In a recent opinion poll, as many as 66 percent agreed that they liked Americans, while only 16 percent disagreed. But substantial majorities thought that American influence was too great on British industry, the British economy, defense policy and television. Even British morality was thought to be too much under American influence.
The fear of being overwhelmed by American industrial power was at the heart of the Westland crisis, which provoked the most open running battle between British cabinet ministers within memory and led to the resignation of two of them, Michael Heseltine, secretary of state for defense, and Leon Brittan, secretary of state for trade and industry.
The point at issue was whether Westland should be rescued from the threat of bankruptcy through a substantial minority shareholding by the American company Sikorsky, in association with Fiat of Italy, or by a consortium of purely European companies. The Westland board had itself approached Sikorsky and continued to believe that this deal was the best available commercially. The European consortium, however, was not inspired by simply commercial considerations. The companies—Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm of Germany, Aerospatiale of France, Agusta of Italy, British Aerospace and the British General Electric Company—were persuaded to join by their respective defense ministries, who feared that if American manufacturers once got a foothold in the European helicopter market they would soon be dominating it. In a spirit of self-defense these ministries reached a tentative agreement to coordinate their military helicopter requirements, which would then be met only by helicopters produced and designed in Europe.
This agreement to establish a blatantly protectionist cartel was not confirmed by the British government, and the future of Westland was finally determined in February 1986 with the victory of Sikorsky. On practical grounds the government had chosen the American rather than the European route in a contest that had come to assume a symbolic significance for many people. It represented the conflict that has been taking place within British minds and hearts for the past quarter of a century between the continental European and the American relationship. One of the principal reasons why Britain is still not quite sure of its role in the world is that it has yet to resolve this conflict or to balance these relationships.
The military helicopter cartel remains the policy, however, of the German, French, Italian, probably the Dutch and possibly the Spanish governments. Although Heseltine overplayed his hand politically as defense secretary when the crisis developed, his argument in support of the European consortium received a good deal of support. It was widely believed that Britain could not stand up to the might of American industry without special defensive measures.
A reasonable argument could be made for regarding Westland as an especially difficult case, because the American market in defense procurement is so highly protected. Free-market forces can hardly be expected to operate in defense procurement within NATO on one side of the Atlantic but not the other.
No such consideration applied, however, in the controversy over the future of British Leyland that came to torment the government almost as soon as the Westland issue had been settled. The government would like to sell BL, which is publicly owned, as part of the privatization program. It therefore opened negotiations with Ford over the automobile section of BL, Austin-Rover, and with General Motors over the other parts of the BL empire, the trucks division and Land Rover.
As soon as these negotiations became public knowledge there was an outcry in which a good many Conservative members of Parliament joined. The Ford negotiations were swiftly terminated. The economic case for a deal with Ford was open to argument because it might have restricted competition in automobile manufacturing within Britain. But that argument was an excuse rather than the real reason for pulling out of the negotiations so abruptly. The negotiations with General Motors also broke down because the government was not prepared to give the company control, or the promise of control, of Land Rover. Deals that the BL board and most informed outside opinion believed were in the best interests of the company and its employees fell through because of public fear of British industry being overrun by the Americans and reduced to the condition of mere "metal-bashers," with design, research and effective control all passing across the Atlantic. So political anxiety triumphed over economic logic.
The episodes were revealing in a number of ways. They indicate the defensiveness of spirit that remains one of the weaknesses of Britain even after seven years of Thatcherism: in these instances, the desire to retain British control of a troubled company rather than concentrate on seeking an expanded role in the international market.
Prime Minister Thatcher’s personal authority has been damaged. Without the earlier Westland fracas she would probably have managed to drive at least the General Motors negotiation through a reluctant cabinet and party.
Yet only a few weeks later she was prepared to put her authority on the line by giving practical support to the United States in its bombing of Libya. More than any other incident of recent years, this decision and the reaction to it illustrated the ambivalence of Britain’s position in the world today.
The British government was not consulted by the Reagan Administration as to whether it would be wise to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi in response to acts of terrorism committed on the instructions of the Libyan regime. Six days before the raid of April 14, Mrs. Thatcher was given a message from President Reagan informing her of the intention and requesting permission for American F-111 bombers based on British soil to be used in the operation. Under the terms of the agreement by which American forces are based in the United Kingdom, British approval was required before these jets could be brought into action.
The prime minister immediately consulted the foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and defense secretary, George Younger. All three of them had initial doubts, which were resolved only after Washington had given full replies to detailed questions on the purpose and method of the operation.
There were political risks involved. Not all members of the British cabinet agreed with the decision when they were informed. British public opinion, as revealed by a succession of opinion polls, was immediately and overwhelmingly critical both of President Reagan’s decision to bomb and of Prime Minister Thatcher’s decision to cooperate. And Britain was alone among the European allies in supporting President Reagan’s mission.
The prime minister and her colleagues gave their approval for three reasons. They knew that the raid would go ahead anyway, and they were persuaded that there would be less loss of life if the F-111s carried it out because they were the American bombers most accurate in pinpointing their targets. They felt that Britain had an obligation to the United States for help in the Falklands conflict. But above all they wished to avoid American disillusionment with its ally.
For the British government the choice was not so much about Libya as about its special relationship with the United States and the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance. Once again when it came to the point, Britain was more prepared than any of the other European allies to take the American line. It was an act of solidarity and an acknowledgement of an alliance that means more to Britain than to any other European country.
But the criticism and resentment within Britain at being drawn along in the slipstream of the United States suggest that it cannot be taken for granted that Britain will always prefer the Atlantic to the European connection. In taking her decision, Mrs. Thatcher was hazarding her authority at home.
At the 1983 general election her authority was a major asset for the Conservatives. It does not look like being so at the next election, which must be held by June 1988 at the latest. She remains a formidable politician and the sheer force of her personality may be decisive when the time comes. But she would by then have been prime minister for nine years, more than long enough for a modern electorate to tire of its leader.
She will be challenged by a younger and personally attractive Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who replaced Michael Foot and has shown courage in standing up to the far left. He has been trying to bring most of his party’s policies back toward the mainstream of British politics. Beneath the surface Labour remains deeply and bitterly divided, but the leadership has been adjusting its style as well as its policies so as to make the party appear less threatening. Thus, it will be harder at the next election for the Conservatives to frighten the electorate with the prospect of a Labour victory. The Alliance also has young and personable leaders in David Owen of the Social Democrats and David Steel of the Liberals. They have an obvious appeal for wavering Conservatives. The government’s vulnerability was demonstrated dramatically in early May when the Conservatives lost one safe seat in a parliamentary by-election, almost lost another, and did badly in local government elections.
All of this explains why it is difficult at this stage to predict the outcome of the next election; it by no means guarantees that the Conservatives will lose. They seem in many ways likely to be fighting the election against a favorable background.
If the drop in oil prices leads to two or three years of international economic expansion, the British economy will continue to grow and unemployment might fall. The increasing anxiety about violent crime should be helpful to a Conservative government because few people believe that Labour would be tougher on law and order issues. The Conservatives remain the most convincing on defense, where their general approach is most closely in touch with public opinion. Above all, the Conservatives still appear to be the party most determined to resist the decline of Britain.
Against these considerations must be set the boredom factor that attends the longevity of Mrs. Thatcher’s government and a political insensitivity that has characterized that government’s second term. Its sense of strategy is better than its sense of tactics. It seems more likely to be defeated by time or by itself than by the positive merits of its opponents.
What would a change of government mean for the Atlantic alliance and for Britain’s place in the world? Any alternative government would keep Britain in NATO; that is the declared policy of both Labour and the Alliance. But there is a serious risk that a Labour government might pursue defense policies that would undermine NATO, and continuing uncertainty as to precisely what defense policy the Alliance would practice if it were in office.
It is the government’s policy to maintain an independent British strategic nuclear deterrent. To keep this at an effective level, that is, capable not of winning a nuclear war with the Soviet Union but of inflicting an unacceptable degree of damage upon its territory, the government intends to replace the present force of Polaris submarines in the mid-1990s with four submarines equipped with the Trident II D-5 missile system. The submarines are to be built in Britain and the missile system purchased from the United States.
This policy would not be pursued if Labour were to be returned to office. Defense is the one field where Mr. Kinnock has been making no effort to pull Labour back toward the center. He is a true believer in unilateral nuclear disarmament; it is Labour policy to abandon the British nuclear deterrent, scrap the Trident submarine program, decommission Polaris, get rid of cruise missiles from British soil and negotiate the withdrawal of American nuclear bases.
Most members of a Labour cabinet would be unhappy about closing American nuclear bases and giving up Polaris immediately, regardless of whether any concession could be obtained from the Soviet Union in return. Already Denis Healey, who would probably be Labour’s foreign secretary, has shown much ingenuity and subtlety in seeking to reinterpret these commitments. So there is always the possibility that a Labour government would not actually carry out the defense policy on which it was elected. It would not be the first time. Labour was elected in 1964 with a commitment to abandon Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent which, of course, it did not do. But there must be the risk that this time a Labour government would do what it said, and the very threat would inevitably create tensions within NATO.
The defense policy of the Social Democratic and Liberal Alliance is still more difficult to predict because this is the area in which there has been most disagreement between the two parties. Officially they both want to stop the Trident program. But the Social Democrats wish to keep an independent deterrent and would regard Trident as negotiable if they were forming a coalition government with the Conservatives. The Social Democrats would keep cruise missiles in Britain—though they would prefer dual British and American control of them—while the Liberals are deeply divided on the issue. In general the Social Democrats are the more robust of the two on defense, so much might depend on which party was stronger within the Alliance in the next Parliament.
No other British government would be as dependable a NATO partner as the present one. Probably no other would be so close to the United States. None would take Britain out of the European Community; an Alliance government would make Britain a more enthusiastic member than it is now, and Labour less enthusiastic. What will be at stake in the next election will not be British membership in any alliance or international grouping, but British strength and zeal.