Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Labour's nuclear disarmament opportunity

As the Coalition government attempts to renew Trident, it is worth revisiting the commitments the UK Labour Government made about nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. Dr David Lowry investigates.

Papers available in the National Archives in Kew show that on 23 January 1968, Fred (later Lord) Mulley, as the UK Labour Government's minister of state for foreign affairs, addressed the 358th plenary meeting of the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) in Geneva, the predecessor committee to the CD, explaining why nations should sign up to the newly negotiated NPT, he told the ministerial delegations:

"As I have made clear in previous speeches, my government accepts the obligation to participate fully in the negotiations required by [NPT] Article VI and it is our desire that these negotiations should begin as soon as possible and should produce speedy and successful results. There is no excuse now for allowing a long delay to follow the signing of this treaty."

Two years earlier, an aide-memoire prepared by the US embassy in London, dated January 1966, set out the interpretation of the draft text of the NPT, explaining the draft text was crafted "to the effect that the [non-proliferation] treaty would not prohibit existing bilateral ["key of the cupboard"] arrangements in Nato nor consultation arrangements", and "would not prohibit the transfer of nuclear delivery vehicles as distinct from warheads".

A year later, on 24 January 1967, a refined joint draft by the US and Soviet Union negotiators differed from the earlier US/UK draft, according to another US embassy aide-memoire, "in that the former would ban the transfer of nuclear warheads (as distinct from nuclear delivery vehicles) not only between nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) but also between NWS themselves."

A secret US Interpretations memo, dated May 1967, stated that the NPT would thus prohibit "transfer to any recipient whatsoever 'nuclear weapons' or control over them", meaning bombs and warheads. That is just what buying significant sections of Trident from the US does in practice, and thereby undermines our compliance with the treaty which the UK Labour government helped draft, and for which the Uk is a depositary state with the US and Russia.

Next year, on 23 January 1968, Fred Mulley, in his address to the ENDC in Geneva, told the representatives of the nations which Britain hoped to convince to join up to the atomic self-denying NPT, that NPT "articles 1 and 2 effectively provide for the closing of all loopholes of practical significance to the proliferation of nuclear weapons." Sadly, with UK complicity, he was wrong.

Shortly after, on January 26 1968, a confidential memo by Mulley for the cabinet defence and oversea (sic) policy committee laid out Britain's position on the key nuclear disarmament clause, which became NPT article 6, commented:
"A number of countries may withhold their ratification of the treaty until nuclear-weapon states show they are taking seriously the obligations which this article imposes on them. It will therefore be essential to follow the treaty up quickly with the further disarmament measures if it is to be brought into force and remain in force thereafter. We have therefore begun to work on a paper examining the most suitable measures on which we should concentrate our attention once a non-proliferation treaty has been achieved."

A few days afterwards, on 30 January 1968, and the NPT was presented to the cabinet for its endorsement. A supportive foreign office memo stated: "a lot of the thinking behind the treaty, and some of the language, originally came from us."
On 27 June that year, the NPT, including the key article VI obligation on nuclear weapon signatory states, to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith, was presented to parliament as Cmnd 3683.

A talking paper (number 38) prepared for ministers in mid-April that year pointed out: "It should be remembered that the NPT is in the first instance, in the interests of non-nuclear countries themselves, adding to their security against the development of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear rival states, and sparing them the vast expense of developing such weapons themselves."

Instead of entering into multilateral negotiations to fulfil our commitments to the NPT, as Mulley had promised, the next Labour government in the mid-1970s, sadly & secretly modernised our Polaris nuclear WMD with Chevaline, without consulting or even telling, Parliament. It took the Conservatives to reveal it in 1980. They were proud of Britain's bomb, while Labour rightly held suspicions that it was not right to develop an deploy such devastating nuclear WMDs, when global poverty, illness and hunger remained rife.

But now, over 40 years on, Labour politicians are still prevaricating, and avoiding backing our international negotiating obligations, by backing Tory reasons to modernise Trident, rather than entering the nuclear WMD system into multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, "at an early date", as specified by article VI of the NPT, and as promised publicly at the United Nations and privately to cabinet colleagues, by Labour ministers in the 1960s Wilson government.

In the late 1960s the modernising Labour Government set a fine precedent in negotiating the NPT, and establishing the foundatiions for making the UK - and the wider world - a more secure place without nuclear wepons.

The current Labour Leader ED Miliband has an opportune chance to build on this trailblazing tradition, by resurrecting the NPT commitment, and at the same time to show you can see more secure without nuclear weapons, which is a strong message to send Iran, North Korea and, Pakistan, India and Israel.

Dr David Lowry is a founder and former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre (EPIC)

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