A moron speaks...

According to a former adviser to Tony Blair, MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership are "morons". What does one of them have to say about a leading Corbyn policy, nuclear disarmament?

David Lowry
27 July 2015
NHS not Trident

Support for Trident is dwindling. Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.

In an intemperate outburst – some might call it an emotional spasm – John McTernan, ex-adviser to Tony Blair, told Newsnight viewers on 21st July that MPs who "lent" their nominations to Mr Corbyn to "broaden the debate" were "morons". 

One such MP was former Labour stand-in Leader, Dame Margaret Beckett. During an interview with BBC Radio 4's World at One today Mrs Beckett was asked if she was a moron for nominating Mr Corbyn. She replied: "I am one of them." She meant she was one of those who nominated Corbyn, not she was a moron, though the press since has delighted in interpreting her comment as she was admitting to being a moron!

McTernan is the same political advisor who in the months running up to May’s General Election advised Labour's outgoing leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, the viscerally pro-Trident former shadow defence secretary, who led Labour to an unprecedented historic electoral wipe-out in Scotland, with only one Labour candidate winning a seat (an openly anti-Trident politician, Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh East, who is now shadow Scottish Secretary).

After a weekend of collective political assassination by the press – when all the heavyweight Sunday papers from the left-leaning Observer and Independent on Sunday, the right wing Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph ran endless columns berating Corbyn personally and politically, liberally buttressed by endless supine comments from Corbyn’s Labour Party colleagues, all gutlessly quoted anonymously attacking him and all he stands for.

The result?  Recent polling reported in the Times suggests that Corbyn is now even further ahead, putting him 17 % ahead of nearest rival, Andy Burnham, of those recorded as planning to vote for him when the ballot opens early next month.

A principled stand

One of the staunchest and best thought out of Corbyn’s policies is his opposition not just to the replacement of the Trident nuclear WMD system – with the planned £100 billion modernisation – but also his opposition to all nuclear weapons, everywhere. In this he differs markedly from his three Labour leadership rivals, Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall, each of whom, at a time of extreme austerity, countenance spending that £100 billion of taxpayers’ money on a high tech mass killing system, instead of on housing, health care, the environment and “green jobs”, or global peacekeeping and international aid.

And mainstream political commentators, including Jason Cowley, astonishingly the editor of the formerly leftist political weekly, The New Statesman, who chose to peddle his anti-Corbyn, pro-Trident views in the right wing Daily Mail, still attack Corbyn’s policies.

So what does the “moron” Dame Margaret Beckett think of nuclear weapons? Below are some extracts from her valedictory keynote speech as Labour Foreign Secretary, made to a prestigious conference in Washington DC, eight years ago, entitled: “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons?”

Whose views – Corbyn’s, Burnham, Cooper or Kendall – do they most resemble?

Remarks by Margaret Beckett at Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, 25 June 2007

I expect that many – if not all – of you here today read an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal at the very start of 2007. The writers would be as familiar to an audience in this country as they are respected across the globe: George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn.


The article made the case for, and I quote, "a bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage". That initiative was to re-ignite the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and to redouble efforts on the practical measures towards it.

(…)Let's look at the facts. Despite the recent log-jam, the basic non-proliferation consensus is and has been remarkably resilient. The grand bargain of the NPT has, by and large, held for the past 40 years. The vast majority of states – including many that have the technology to do so if they chose – have decided not to develop nuclear weapons. And far fewer states than was once feared have acquired and retained nuclear weapons.


Even more encouragingly, and much less well known outside this room, many more states – South Africa, Libya, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, [Belarus], Argentina, Brazil – have given up active nuclear weapons programmes, turned back from pursuing such programmes, or – in the case of the former Soviet Union countries – chosen to hand over weapons on their territory.

(…)But the important point is this: in none of those areas will we stand a chance of success unless the international community is united in purpose as well as in action.


And what that Wall Street Journal article, and for that matter [the then UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan, have been quite right to identify is that our efforts on non-proliferation will be dangerously undermined if others believe – however unfairly – that the terms of the grand bargain have changed, that the nuclear weapon states have abandoned any commitment to disarmament.


The point of doing more on disarmament, then, is not to convince the Iranians or the North Koreans. I do not believe for one second that further reductions in our nuclear weapons would have a material effect on their nuclear ambitions.

Rather the point of doing more is this: because the moderate majority of states – our natural and vital allies on non-proliferation – want us to do more. And if we do not, we risk helping Iran and North Korea in their efforts to muddy the water, to turn the blame for their own nuclear intransigence back onto us. They can undermine our arguments for strong international action in support of the NPT by painting us as doing too little too late to fulfil our own obligations. And that need to appear consistent, incidentally, is just as true at the regional level. The international community's clear commitment to a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in successive UN resolutions has been vital in building regional support for a tough line against Iran.


What we need is both vision – a scenario for a world free of nuclear weapons. And action – progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy.

(…)The judgement we made forty years ago, that the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons was in all of our interests – is just as true today as it was then. For more than sixty years, good management and good fortune have meant that nuclear arsenals have not been used. But we cannot rely on history just to repeat itself.

It would be a grave mistake for another reason, too. It underestimates the power that commitment and vision can have in driving action.

And just as the vision gives rise to action, conversely so does action give meaning to the vision. As that Wall Street Journal article put it: "Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair and urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible"

Practical steps [to disarmament] include further reductions in warhead numbers, particularly in the world's biggest arsenals. There are still over 20 000 warheads in the world. And the US and Russia hold about 96 per cent of them. Almost no-one – politician, military strategist or scientist – thinks that warheads in those numbers are still necessary to guarantee international security.


(…) And I should make clear here again, that when it will be useful to include in any negotiations the one per cent of the world's nuclear weapons that belong to the UK, we will willingly do so.


(…) When it comes to building this new impetus for global nuclear disarmament, I want the UK to be at the forefront of both the thinking and the practical work. To be, as it were, a "disarmament laboratory".


(...) We intend to examine how to provide confidence that the dismantled components of a nuclear warhead are not being returned to use in new warheads. This will have to involve some form of monitored storage, with a difficult balance once again to be struck between security concerns and verification requirements. We are currently working on the design concepts for building such a monitored store, so that we can more fully investigate these complex practical issues.

I said earlier that I doubted that I would live to see a world free of nuclear weapons. My sadness at such a thought is real. Mine is a generation that has existed under the shadow of the bomb – knowing that weapons existed which could bring an end to humanity itself. We have become almost accustomed to that steady underlying dread, punctuated by the sharper fear of each new nuclear crisis: Cuba in 1962, the Able Archer scare of 1983, the stand-off between India and Pakistan in 2002. 

But there is a danger in familiarity with something so terrible. If we allow our efforts on disarmament to slacken, if we allow ourselves to take the non-proliferation consensus for granted, the nuclear shadow that hangs over us all will lengthen and it will deepen. It may, one day, blot out the light for good. 

So my commitment to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons is undimmed. And though we in this room may never reach the end of that road, we can take the first steps down it. For any generation, that would be a noble calling. For ours, it is a duty.

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