In a few weeks’ time we shall have a new government, and whatever the outcome, the campaign period has provided us with an unrivalled opportunity to raise global issues for public discussion. Questions to the candidates at Wimbledon hustings meetings have typically involved local issues, and our questions about the UN, nuclear disarmament and the arms trade have obliged this group of politicians to consider where they stand on matters beyond the purely parochial. (For many in the audience it may also have been the first time they had given these matters serious thought.) This is the question which I put to the panel at Holy Trinity Church on April 9th: “Social Services and the NHS are short of money but all the major political parties claim that nuclear weapons are essential to UK security. Both Labour and Conservative are proposing to earmark £100 billion on replacing Trident: just how is this going to keep us safe?” Apart from the Green Party candidate none of the candidates made any attempt to answer the question, being content with stock remarks about Russia and a ‘dangerous world’. I was not impressed and (more importantly) neither were the various people in the audience who came up to me afterwards.
The hustings we organised in partnership with Merton UNA on April 15th paradoxically offered a more interesting exchange of views because of the replacement of both Labour and Conservative candidates by substitutes. Mike Brunt (ex Merton Councillor standing in for Andrew Judge) and Miles Windsor (ex Merton Councillor standing in for Stephen Hammond) both felt considerably more free to express their personal views than their respective official counterparts, and we had discussion rather than sound-bites and even unexpected agreement on certain issues.
Miles Windsor described himself as “anti-war and pro-disarmament” but also a pragmatist who would love to turn arms into ploughshares “but the world is not like that”. £100 billion on Trident is an “obscene amount” of money and “a waste in some regards” but it is a “worrying world”, he is suspicious of Iran and “we need to be prepared with nuclear capability”. Thus “we live in hope” that we can achieve disarmament goals set out by the International Court of Justice — but as Israel, India and Pakistan “have no interest in reducing their nuclear arsenals”, we have to put the present protection of the UK as our priority.
Asked about Trident, Mike Brunt was against “unilateral disarmament” but he stressed the importance of negotiations (“the world is safer if everyone is talking”). We should be asking what the UK could do to “accelerate the process” and he suggested that we might “buy time” for multilateral nuclear disarmament by extending the life of the current Trident system rather than committing to replacement. Shas Sheehan for the Lib Dems also advocated a “lesser Trident” (rather than ‘like for like’ replacement) with the NPT negotiations the proper place to talk about “drawing down our nuclear capability”.
There was remarkable panel unanimity in response to a question about Israel and the illegal settlements in defiance of UN resolutions. Several panel members had visited Israel and Palestine and had first-hand experience of Israeli repression (the UKIP candidate actually saying “Mass violence doesn’t work — it leads to a legacy of hatred.... The Israeli/Palestinian wall is ten times worse than the Berlin Wall... the destruction of houses in Gaza is totally unreal and unacceptable”). But all were careful to stress that criticism of the Israeli government did not amount to antisemitism. (“It is important to give a platform to Israelis who are against their government policies”: Miles Windsor.) The UK should stop selling arms to Israel, support international sanctions and help Israelis and Palestinians to work together to find a solution.
Further questions about the United Nations produced the general view that the UN is not very effective at enforcing its own resolutions, perhaps because the UN is seen by many members as an “exclusive club based in New York” dominated by the Permanent Five members of the Security Council. Alison Williams who was chairing the meeting felt obliged to point out that the UN as such has no military capacity: responsibilities lie with member states. All agreed that the world would be more dangerous without the UN.
“Can the UK justify its position as a permanent member of the Security Council?” produced a surprisingly unanimous “no”, with agreement that the UN needs major structural reform for the 21st century: politicians take note! In answer to the question posed at the beginning of the meeting “The UK — a global force for good?” general consensus was ‘Yes — but could do better’.
Report by Joanna Bazley
On 21-22 April, the UN General Assembly and the UN Alliance of Civilisations co-sponsored a thematic debate on how to promote tolerance and foster peaceful and inclusive societies in order to counter violent extremism. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he feared “an empathy gap” is numbing people’s responses to atrocities, and promised to present a UN Plan of Action on preventing violent extremism later this year. Like many speakers, he highlighted the responsibility of governments in this regard: “Missiles may kill terrorists,” he said, “but I am convinced that good governance is what kills terrorism.”
The head of the Alliance of Civilisations, stressed the need to address root causes: build trust, listen to people and enhance their capacity to co-exist peacefully, create measurable behavioural shifts and progress step by step. The current General Assembly President acknowledged the widespread agreement that no one should be marginalised, that young people especially should be engaged in creating a better future, and that everyone should “go beyond tolerance towards the principles of mutual respect”.
Merton UNA discussed the highlights of these two days on 28th April, and will cover the next debate in the run-up to the new Sustainable Development Goals on 26th May.
According to Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times (April 13th), “The Tories’ commitment is a frivolous decision to waste billions on a symbol of strength — rather than to spend the money on the conventional military muscle Britain needs.... Last week, I found myself at a conference table with four members of the US security establishment.... Not one of them thought Trident renewal made sense for Britain. All thought it would be better to spend the money on conventional weaponry.”
Mr Rachman points out that the navy is now down to 19 destroyers and frigates (70 at the time of the Falklands Task Force) and that the 2011 Libyan “mission by 6 bombers” is now the limit of the RAF’s long-range strike capability, while the regular army is at its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars. These are similar arguments to those put forward by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt in the recent Westminster debate [see February Newsletter]. Neither man is a unilateralist, being in favour of “cheaper nuclear options”, but they reject the defence establishment claim that all alternatives to Trident have been carefully examined and found wanting.
It is important that the MPs of the next parliament realise that party political propaganda is no substitute for informed debate. There are many excellent reasons for questioning the wisdom of investing 22% of Britain’s military expenditure budget over the next 20 years in Trident renewal, not all of them from the SNP and political left. As soon as Parliament is reconvened CND will be lobbying every incoming MP and arranging meetings with new ministers to set out the case for not replacing Trident, briefing MPs who are supportive and working to persuade those who are undecided. A series of reports to further highlight the colossal cost, the risks and the waste of a new nuclear weapons system is planned, with a programme of events to keep the media informed and interested. It all costs money, so please send whatever you can afford to CND at 162 Holloway Road, London N7 8DQ.
Please make sure that you have June 6th in your diary: Fête of the Earth, St Mark’s Church Hall, Compton Road, Wimbledon SW19 7ND. Please publicise as widely as possible, put a notice on your gate or in your window, and encourage friends and neighbours to come. Tell people it is a jolly good fête (which it is) even if they are not normally interested in politics.
Please deliver goods to 43 Wilton Grove SW19 3QU in advance if possible, so they can be sorted. We need bric-à-brac (anything saleable as long as it is not too big), prizes for the raffle and tombola, cakes and home produce, books and plants. (NB: Please lift plants from the garden at least two weeks beforehand so they have a chance to settle into their pots.) Remember that what ‘grows like a weed’ in your garden may be just what the next customer is looking for. Split those clumps!
We already have many offers of help but we urgently need more able-bodied volunteers to help with loading and unloading at the beginning and end of the day, and to help move tables and set up stalls from 8am onwards. Even an hour of your time would be appreciated at St Mark’s Hall any time between 8am and 3pm, or afterwards at 43 Wilton Grove to help clear up.