Labour's nuclear disarmament opportunity in blast from the past

The latest indecision on the renewal of Trident places a further rift in the Coalition's relationship and poses an opportunity for Labour to form a nuclear disarmament plan. Could this cause a shift in Labour's struggling popularity?

David Lowry
12 August 2013

Flickr/Madison Guy. Some rights reserved.

Papers available in the National Archives in Kew show that on 23rd 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. He explained why nations should sign up to the newly negotiated NPT and informed the ministerial delegations the following statement: 

"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 [they are] distinct from warheads".

A year later, on 24th 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 "[the] 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 23rd 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, complicity with the UK, he was wrong.

Shortly after, on January 26th 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 30th 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 27th June that year, the NPT met – including the key article VI obligation on nuclear weapon signatory states – to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith and was later 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 and secretly modernised our Polaris nuclear WMD with Chevaline (a British warheads manufacturer), doing so without even consulting Parliament. It took the Conservatives to reveal it in 1980, but they were in fact proud of Britain's bomb. Labour on the other hand, rightly held suspicions that it was not right to develop and deploy such devastating nuclear WMDs.

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

Last month Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi told peers in a written answer that the UK will not be participating in the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations. Her main reason for this was "because Government considers that the Conference on Disarmament, not the OEWG, provides the correct forum for taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. The Government considers that a practical step by step approach is needed, using existing mechanisms such as the Non Proliferation Treaty and the Conference on disarmament." (Lords Hansard, 15th July: Column WA93). 

In line with this, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond telling the Today Programme on Radio Four he could see Trident needed for at least sixty years hence, that would be over 100 years without any nuclear disarmament understory plans. 

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

The current Labour Leader Ed Miliband now has an opportune chance to build on this trailblazing tradition by resurrecting the NPT commitment and show you can actually be more secure without nuclear weapons; a strong message to send Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel.


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