Students of modern history, like myself, learnt something astonishing from Prime Minister’s Questions this week. The CPGB (yes, Conservative Party of Great Britain) ‘won’ the Cold War in the 1980s.
This, you see, was the scene: the East German guards were standing firm at the Berlin Wall, guns at the ready to mow down the crowds rioting for unity and freedom, then something happened. “Jesus Christ!” one said. “It’s David Mellor! And…William Waldegrave! Is that Norman Lamont? NIGEL LAWSON? Drop the guns, lads. It’s all over.” The Red Army, it seems, never stood a chance against the Buller.
Cameron’s remark – “under the last Conservative government we won the Cold war [bizarre emphasis]…while that lot were all wearing CND badges [swivel-eyes, puffed cheeks, patrician swipe of the wrist]” – does incalculable violence to history, on a number of levels. The notion that anybody ‘won’ the Cold War is obscene. Millions died in the needless Third World conflicts that were engineered to defend both powers’ ‘spheres of influence’, and in the final analysis, ‘freedom’ (of a sort) for (parts of) Eastern Europe arrived not on the wings of a nuclear-tipped Cruise missile, but from ordinary people, liberating themselves from suffocating state ‘socialism’. Such happenings are inconvenient for traditional Tory notions of realpolitik: witness Thatcher’s shameful and well-documented discomfort at the prospect of a unified Germany. Much better, in Cameron’s book, to ascribe ‘victory’ for ‘the West’ and – specifically – the West’s successful maintenance of a vastly more expensive and destructive array of thermonuclear weaponry than the puny Soviets could ever muster. Such bravery! Such glory! God save the MX missile!
Such an assertion is, obviously, historically meaningless, since it relies on a non-event – the survival of the Soviet Union – for its justification. It also, bizarrely, contradicts the whole triumphalist narrative about the intrinsic superiority of Western capitalism to Eastern state socialism: if the latter was so desperately flawed anyway, how come it needed the renewed arms race of the 1980s to ‘break’ it? This, however, is the analysis that lies at the heart of Cameron’s slur on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that those aspects of the Thatcher government’s bellicose policy and rhetoric that caused the revival of the movement in the 1980s – the introduction of Cruise missiles, the purchase of Trident mark I, the revival of laughable ‘civil defence’ , support for Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ space defence programme – had any tangible impact in ‘winning’ the Cold War. Opposing any or all of these, or even advocating a policy of unilateral disarmament and ‘positive neutrality’ for Britain, was not, therefore, tantamount to supporting the Soviet Union. It is at least conceivable, given all that we now know about the acute sense of inferiority that informed nearly all aspects of Soviet foreign policy throughout its history, that periodic Western assertiveness reinforced the repressive apparatus of the Warsaw Pact, rather than ‘deterring’ a non-existent ‘expansionism’.
Meanwhile, some of CND’s leading figures – not least E. P. Thompson and the late Michael Foot – were visceral, lifelong critics of Soviet tyranny. They dedicated their lives to ending the Cold War. In 1980, Thompson wrote of “an alliance which takes in churches, Eurocommunists, Labourists, East European dissidents…Soviet citizens unmediated by Party structures, trade unionists, ecologists…to throw the cruise missiles and the SS-20s back” – a far closer approximation to the spirit of 1989 than Cameron’s tired rehashing of Thatcherite dogmas.
A mature, compassionate, open political party, of the sort David Cameron claims to lead, would celebrate the noble tradition of radical, pluralist popular politics we have in this country, accepting that – whatever the rights and wrongs of disarmament – there would be something very wrong with any society that did not contain significant numbers of people with profound objections to thermonuclear weaponry. Many clergymen of the Tories’ beloved Anglican church were also wearing silly badges for much of the 1980s.
Labour, too, fall far short on this count. The CND ‘episode’ is treated as an embarrassment. The Dr. Strangeloves at NATO HQ and the Pentagon were the ‘sane’ ones, not the marchers who dared to question the logic of deterrence. Brown’s only response to the slur was to remind Cameron that he was at school when the Cold War ended. My generation were in nappies. It may be that only we are properly equipped to leave its twisted dogmas behind.