Monday Book;: Foot firmly planted in the air

MICHAEL FOOT is surely unique as a socialist politician. His passion and generosity would be unknown within New Labour. Likewise, the Government would have little respect for Foot's absence of calculation when he was a cabinet minister and leader of the Labour Party at the disastrous general election of 1983.

From his retirement, the ageless radical has returned to the issue that excited his idealism 40 years ago, namely the imperative for nuclear disarmament. Dr Strangelove, I Presume purports to awake the moribund peace movement. There is plenty of evidence to confirm the potency of the world's nuclear arsenal, recently augmented by India and Pakistan. There is also the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, that Iran, Israel, Iraq and Brazil may build nuclear weapons. This development has proceeded with very little public reaction. The passions of Foot's earlier nuclear campaigns seem to have been spent.

This call for a renewed debate is described as "vintage Michael Foot". That may be so, but it neglects lessons from the Fifties that we shall need to learn if the nuclear debate is to be rekindled. First, Foot maintains a romantic view of what was achieved by CND. It was a movement that deliberately campaigned outside the political establishment. He says that CND "provoked furious enthusiasms and enmities, and made a spectacular appeal, particularly to the young".

But did it work? It divided and weakened the Labour Party, and undermined the crucial authority of figures such as Denis Healey. CND street marchers evinced a moral stridency that obscured the sombre and agnostic nuclear evaluation of Lord Mountbatten, Field Marshal Lord Carver, Enoch Powell and Solly Zuckerman.

If there is to be a new popular campaign against nuclear weapons, there is little to suppose that Aldermaston marches will be any more effective than those of the Fifties and Sixties. Foot would have to exchange his street oratory for painstaking negotiations with the political and military establishments of nuclear nations.

There is a further difficulty. The recent measure of nuclear disarmament has engendered public hope rather than public panic. It has been modest, but it has been tangible, and its success has not rested on populist rhetoric. The test-ban treaties have had a material effect in easing anxiety. Furthermore, there was a time when Soviet nuclear power froze the political structure of the Warsaw Pact. Now there has been an unthinkable transformation: the Soviet empire has crumbled. None of this has come about because of the potency of nuclear power.

Of course, there is still an unhappy roll-call of conventional conflict. Yugoslavia has paid its deathly toll, and central Africa has witnessed unbelievable post-colonial barbarism. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and terrorism generally, have placed a burden upon law enforcement. This has not involved the threat of nuclear weapons, but it means that military action has often been taken outside the United Nations, whose authority has been weakened.

It is an unhappy situation, as has been made clear in Iraq, but it does not merit Foot's sharp observation about "American presidents who take the law into their own hands to bomb where they please on the just or the unjust". This remark only shows the traditional radical distaste for the exercise of power.

Foot's analysis of the daunting continuation of nuclear power is timely. It is regrettable, though not unexpected, that his reactions to these dangers lack a hard-headed realism. While he has a number of tactical judgements on how to improve nuclear control - through greater use of an atomic energy authority - he has no credible political initiatives.

He is concerned to establish an international authority that, unlike the UN Security Council, would deliberately have no provisions for major- power veto. Such a body, whose rhetoric would not be matched by reality, would have little impact on the bargaining and eventual confidences which alone would lead to a reduction in nuclear weapons. The patient negotiations of the Eighties - often derided by politicians in a hurry - are what is needed in order to build the bridges of control and disarmament with China and other nuclear powers.

Foot at least acknowledges that nuclear disarmament cannot be a speedy policy. He avows that it is a "step-by-step process indeed" - but one in which, thanks to CND, Gorbachev, Rajiv Gandhi, McNamara and a few others, "we can now take some healthy great strides". He has chosen a fascinating collection of figures, the morally good and great, but I doubt whether they could deliver nuclear control other than by working in a framework provided by the great powers, and particularly the US. My affection for Foot is undimmed, but I have an instinct that nuclear policy is too serious to be left to romantics.

John Biffen

The author was leader of the House of Commons from 1982 to 1987