Alan Watkins: Labour's foot-soldiers are not convinced

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It is now claimed at No 10 that Mr Tony Blair is exercising a beneficent and generally calming influence on Mr George W Bush. Well, part of Old Labour history – as immutable as Alfred and the Cakes, the Six Wives of Henry VIII or Drake and the Spanish Armada – concerns C R Attlee's trip to Washington in December 1950. It was during the Korean War. The United States and this country were, under the largely fortuitous aegis of the United Nations, trying to repel the invasion of South Korea by the North. The supreme commander was General Douglas MacArthur.

Attlee's chief aim, according to his biographer, Mr Kenneth Harris, was to prevent MacArthur from extending the war to China. He was also worried about the possible use of the atomic bomb. But in a cabinet minute quoted by Mr Harris, Attlee was recorded as saying before the visit that the important consideration was to secure complete agreement among the allies before the bomb was used – that this was not a decision for MacArthur or even for the US President, Harry Truman, to make on his own.

Even so, the episode, as enacted on a float in a pageant of Labour history, would be summarised as: Attlee flies to Washington to prevent Truman dropping an atom bomb on China. There are some commentators who conclude that his visit did not have any effect one way or the other. They base their conclusion on the lack of any mention in one of Truman's US biographies. But then, Americans are not perhaps so fascinated by us as we like to imagine. When I was in New York, some years ago, virtually the only Britons to be mentioned were Princess Margaret, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Noël Coward and, sometimes, the Queen.

Roy Jenkins, in his own life of Truman, supports the sceptics: "The myth that Attlee's visit stopped Truman starting nuclear warfare in Korea can be quickly disposed of. Truman had no intention of doing any such thing, but he had mainly himself to blame for the fact that such a fear had become widespread."

Attlee's memoirs are largely uninformative. He makes only slightly bigger claims in the Granada Historical Records Interview:

Attlee: MacArthur? I was rather amazed at their allowing MacArthur to stay out there. He actually refused to come home. I told Harry Truman that any British general who did that would have got a bowler hat by registered post!

Questioner: Do you think there was a serious danger ... of MacArthur using an atomic bomb on China?

A: I think quite.

Q: Do you think if it had not been for your intervention it would have happened?

A: I think quite likely, but I can't say.

Several of my childhood friends were in Korea with The Welch Regiment doing their national service. Fortunately none of them was killed, though many others were. But the war aroused little protest on the Labour backbenches, whether before or after the 1951 election, when Labour ceased to be a government. The reason was largely that this was an operation conducted by the United Nations. So it was, in theory anyway. The USSR's representative was absent from the Security Council when the imprimatur of the UN was bestowed on the intervention to repel an invasion by a nasty Communist state of an equally nasty non-Communist state. After three years this proved successful, though both countries remained as unpleasant as they had been previously; probably more so.

The war in Vietnam had precisely the same justification: the invasion of one country by another. This is something that those of an enlightened tendency choose to forget now or did not notice at the time. The Great Cham of American journalism, Walter Lippmann, did not oppose fighting the war, as he did, because it was against any towering moral principle but because he thought it was against US interests.

The United Nations was not involved as it had been in Korea. Nor were British troops involved either. Harold Wilson trod delicately, with it may be a majority of Labour backbenchers on one side of him and the US President, Lyndon Johnson, on the other. Johnson did not want a large commitment but what he called a token presence. He cited the Australian contribution with approval. Wilson was having none of it. Instead he confined himself to making speeches in support of LBJ, as he liked to call him – and to organising various more or less hare-brained "peace initiatives".

Most Labour backbenchers behaved in a thoroughly cowardly fashion. They would sign motions denouncing US action in Vietnam and then proceed to vote with the government in divisions endorsing that action. The Tribune Group would have a roster, maintained by Russell Kerr, of whose turn it was to cast a vote against the government this time round, so satisfying their (or, rather, their constituency parties') consciences and at the same time safeguarding Wilson's majority.

If our troops had been involved, the protests from the Labour benches would have been even more muted. For it is an axiom of Labour politics, old and new, that our boys cannot be criticised in any way once they go into action. Not only that: the cause they are risking their necks for, however lacking in merit or completely crazed it may be (as it is now), is to be free of adverse comment as well. This is largely the consequence of Labour's opposition to the Suez operation, which was widely held within the party to have damaged its prospects in 1959.

But in Korea, in the Falklands and in the Gulf (though not, of course, at Suez) the support of the UN lent a certain respectability to the proceedings. This is something that Mr Blair does not or wish to possess. Mr Bush has preferred to proceed militarily without calling on the organisation – though he has recently paid up his club subscription arrears, presumably to place himself in good standing with the committee should its assistance prove necessary.

Backbenchers imbibe the principle that Labour foreign policy is based on the United Nations with their first membership cards. Over the Falklands Mr Michael Foot started off by sounding as bellicose as Hugh Gaitskell had been, to begin with, over Suez. But as the war went on he was able to keep his party united by emphasising its support for the UN and (does anyone still remember them?) the Peruvian terms. Mr Blair can still lose his backbenchers through his disregard – even contempt – of the UN, even though our troops may be risking their lives in Afghanistan.

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