In one short statement to parliament last week, the defence secretary, Des Browne, broke the promises of two prime ministers, potentially misled the House, helped bury an international treaty and dragged Britain into a new cold war. Pretty good going for three stodgy paragraphs.
You probably missed it, but it’s not your fault. In the 48 hours before parliament broke up for the summer, the government made 76 policy announcements(1). It’s a long-standing British tradition: as the MPs and lobby correspondents are packing their bags for their long summer break (they don’t return until October), the government rattles out a series of important decisions which cannot be debated. Gordon Brown’s promise to respect parliamentary democracy didn’t last very long.
Thus, without consultation or discussion, the defence secretary announced that Menwith Hill, the listening station in Yorkshire, will be used by the United States for its missile defence system(2). Having been dragged by the Bush administration into two incipient military defeats, the British government has now embraced another of its global delusions.
Des Browne’s note asserted that the purpose of the missile defence system is “to address the emerging threat from rogue states”. This is a claim that only an idiot or a member of the British government could believe. If, as Browne and Bush maintain, the system is meant to shoot down intercontinental missiles fired by Iran and North Korea (missiles, incidentally, that they do not and might never possess), why are its major components being installed in Poland and the Czech Republic? To bait the Russian bear for fun? In June, Vladimir Putin called Bush’s bluff by offering sites for the missile defence programme in Azerbaijan and southern Russia, which are much closer to Iran(3). Bush turned him down and re-stated his decision to build the facilities in eastern Europe, making it clear that their real purpose is to shoot down Russian missiles.
Nor is it strictly true to call this a defence system. Russia has around 5700 active nuclear warheads(4). The silos in Poland will contain just 10 interceptor missiles. The most likely strategic purpose of the missile defence programme is to mop up any Russian or Chinese missiles which had not been destroyed during a pre-emptive US attack. Far from making the world a safer place, its purpose is to make the annihilation of another country a safer proposition.
This strategic purpose takes second place to a more immediate interest. Because it doesn’t yet work, missile defence is the world’s biggest pork barrel. The potential for spending is unlimited. First a number of massive – and possibly insuperable – technical problems must be overcome. Then it must constantly evolve to respond to the counter-measures Russia and China will deploy: multiple warheads, dummy missiles, radar shields, chaff, balloons and God knows what. For the US arms industry, technical failure means permanent commercial success.
But this is not the only respect in which Browne appears to have misled the House. He claimed to have assurances from the US that “the UK and other European allies will be covered by the system elements they [the Americans] propose to deploy to Poland and the Czech Republic”. Browne must be aware that this is a United States missile defence programme. It incorporates no plans for defending other nations. The British government has handed over its facilities, truncated parliamentary democracy and put its people at risk solely for the benefit of a foreign power.
The diplomatic cost of this idiocy is incalculable. It has already required the abandonment by the US of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which is the bilateral agreement struck between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. It survived both the vicissitudes of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but not George W Bush. Any hope that it might be revived has now been buried by the facts on the ground in Poland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. Two weeks ago Vladimir Putin suspended another long-standing agreement: the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which limited the troops and military hardware Russia could assemble on its borders. In response to the US missile defence programme, Russia has also been testing a new version of its short-range Iskander nuclear missile, and it has been developing a new intercontinental missile with multiple warheads, called the RS-24. Their purpose, according to Sergei Ivanov, the deputy prime minister, is to “overcom[e] any existing or future missile defence systems”(5). The Iskander missiles will be deployed on the European border and aimed at Poland and the Czech Republic. Intermediate-range missiles will be pointed at Menwith Hill.
Bush’s missile defence programme almost certainly means the end of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty as well, and the cancellation of any successor to the strategic offensive reductions treaty (which expires in 2012). Asked whether this might be the beginning of a new cold war, Putin replied “Of course we are returning to those times. It is clear that if a part of the US nuclear capability turns up in Europe, and, in the opinion of our military specialists will threaten us, then we are forced to take corresponding steps in response … We are not the ones who are initating the arms race in Europe.”(6) Like the war with Iraq, the US missile defence programme exacerbates the threats it claims to confront.
All this, as you would hope, is of some interest to our members of parliament, who have long been demanding a debate. In February, Tony Blair agreed that they would have one. “I am sure that we will have the discussion in the House and, indeed, outside the House…. When we have a proposition to put, we will come back and put it.”(7) In April, Des Browne told MPs that “the UK has received no request from the US to use RAF Menwith Hill for missile defence-related activities.”(8) That, until last week, was all that parliament knew. Now we discover that the proposition had been made and accepted before MPs had a chance to discuss it. Browne was in the House on Wednesday, where he made some announcements about aircraft carriers and the military budget. These – because they were delivered in person – could be discussed, though (shamefully) neither of them provoked any opposition(9). But knowing that the Menwith Hill decision would be furiously opposed, Browne released it in the form of a written statement, which cannot be debated.
Like everyone on the left in Britain, I wanted to believe that Gordon Brown’s politics would be more progressive than Tony Blair’s. But as he grovels before the seat of empire, I realise that those of us who demand even a vaguely sane foreign policy will find ourselves in permanent opposition. With his appointment of Digby Jones as trade minister and his plans for deregulation, Brown demonstrated that the government is still mesmerised by big business. By proposing that suspects be held for up to 56 days without charge, he appears to share Tony Blair’s distrust of liberty. Now, in one furtive decision, he reveals both his contempt for parliament and his enthusiasm for the neocon project. What, I wonder, is there left to hope for?
1. Colin Brown, 27th July 2007. A good day to bury the bad news that ministerial car use has soared. The Independent.
2. Des Browne, 25th July 2007. Ballistic Missile Defence. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070725/wmstext/70725m0003.htm#07072565000029
3. Patrick Wintour, 8th June 2007. Putin surprises US with missile suggestion. The Guardian.
4. SIPRI, 2006. Russian nuclear forces, 2006: Land-based ballistic missiles. http://www.sipri.org/contents/expcon/Russia.pdf
5. Luke Harding, 30th May 2007. Russian missile test adds to arms race fears. The Guardian.
6. Luke Harding, 4th June 2007. The new cold war: Russia’s missiles to target Europe. The Guardian.
7. Tony Blair, 28th February 2007. Prime Minister’s Questions. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070228/debtext/70228-0002.htm#07022879001973
8. Des Browne, 16th April 2007. Written answer. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070416/text/70416w0032.htm
9. Commons debate, 25th July 2007. CSR and Aircraft Carriers. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070725/debtext/70725-0007.htm#07072570000993
Published in the Guardian 31st July 2007