Pluralism and peace policy

1. Pluralism generally

Pluralism is the existence of a variety of opinions both on desirable but different values and on the means of achieving similar values. Such opinions may be mutually exclusive. A pluralist society is also one in which autonomous organisations exist, whether they support or oppose "official" policy. Pluralism can exist in a passive form in which there is general acknowledgement that pluralism is legitimate; active pluralism is the encouragement of it as an essential and beneficial component of healthy democracy. In policy making terms acceptance of the importance of pluralism requires agreement on the processes of policy making and of implementation - in effect that the end does not justify the means - and an acceptance of consensus on procedures though not on values.

1.1 There has been a consistent erosion of pluralism over the past decade, both nationally and locally. Efforts to prescribe and to proscribe local government activity have undermined the autonomy of local authorities. The test of whether he or she is "one of us" for appointment to official bodies; the narrowing of criteria for assistance to voluntary bodies; and the development of one-sided official propaganda, have all been utilised to undermine the more even-handed approach which earlier predominated. The change in the attitude nationally has been exactly mirrored at the local government level. As in physics, so in politics: "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." The new attitude was encapsulated by Norman Tebbit:

The Labour Party is the party of division. In its present form it represents a threat to the democratic values and institutions on which our parliamentary system is based. The GLC is typical of this new modern divisive version of socialism. It must be defeated. So we shall abolish the GLC.
[Quoted in The Guardian, 16 May 1984]

1.2 Much of the confusion lies in the failure to differentiate between ends and means. It is legitimate to hold very distinct and entrenched views on values and it is unlikely that there will be any significant consensus on a view of society between those who recognise themselves as belonging to different political persuasions. There is also a widespread but misconceived belief in the theory of the mandate, ie that electoral "success" thereby validates everything in one's manifesto and, by extension, permits one to implement it by any effective means. Quite apart from the fact that, since the war, no party has come anywhere near securing a majority of electors voting for it, and has not even achieved a majority of those actually voting, the theory itself is suspect and dangerous. A manifesto is a package and, in general, the public votes for a perceived image of the party's overall approach. The few individual electors who actually study manifestos have no means of indicating which parts they support and which they oppose. In addition, over the life of a Parliament, circumstances change and the intended benefits of a policy may well disappear - particularly if the means of implementation become divisive or embittering.

1.3 Thus the acquisition of political power does not necessarily confer legitimate authority to manipulate the political processes in pursuit even of a legitimate purpose. The consequences of tampering with procedures are significant for the democratic health of a society. If one group does it then the likelihood is that when power or control changes the new masters will take retributive action, probably to a greater degree, until eventually every detail of the administrative process is politicised. In general one should not arrogate powers to oneself that one would not wish one's opponent to have. Professor Bernard Crick has regularly drawn attention to the dangers inherent in abandoning the consensus on procedures. Most recently he wrote:

The idea that there is a consensus of values has gone. I have long argued that representative democracy does not need a consensus on substantive values at all, indeed it is itself a device for governing in a civilised manner societies with differing values. But we do need consensus on procedural values. We do not need to agree on what decisions should be made only on how decisions should be made. The Government now habitually changes national institutions as if it assumes, from the purely political contingency of a divided Opposition, that re-election is as certain as the resurrection of the body after death. In formal terms of political theory the government has become the state.
[The Guardian, 14 November 1988]

1.4 Even in academic circles there has been an erosion of pluralism. The concept of academic freedom entailing the encouragement of debate and discussion of the widest possible range of opinions on any given topic has increasingly been replaced by an intolerance of dissenting views and a determination to define those opinions which are unacceptable and which, therefore, will be given "no platform."

1.5 The British reluctance to engage in intellectual rigour, particularly in relation to abstract concepts, is indulged whenever pluralism is attacked, openly or tacitly. The primacy of reason and rationality over assertion and prejudice can no longer be assumed. Those with intellectual insecurity are the first to seek to divert and manipulate the processes. The highest statement of faith in the open society came from Senator William Fulbright:

A nation which not only allows dissent but encourages it is adult and confident. A people which fearlessly exercises the right of criticism is civilised and intelligent .... In a democracy dissent is an act of faith, and criticism an act of patriotism; a higher form of patriotism than the familiar rituals of adulation.
[The Arrogance of Power]

2. Peace Studies

The danger for an academic department such as the School of Peace Studies at Bradford, is that it is "labelled" or placed in a ghetto as part of "The Peace Movement". The media live by re-cycling their own press cutting files and it is well nigh impossible to prevent the constant applying of adjectives such as "subversive", "left wing", "soft", or "anti-American". Much of the opprobium is based on guilt by association but certain journalists, whose particular specialism is exposure of what they regard as "the left", will never be persuaded that Peace Studies can be value free. In a legitimate sense, of course, it is not and should not be value free, but then neither are the journalists.

2.1 There is a natural inclination to defend oneself and one's institution from what is perceived to be unjustified and hurtful criticism but I am not sure that the defence is always on the best and most sustainable lines. I am inevitably speaking from less than full awareness of everything that has been said on behalf of the School but, alas, the appearance of reality is often more important in politics than reality itself and I speak on the basis of the impression I glean from the press.

2.2 It is worth considering whether it is more useful and beneficial - particularly in the longterm - to reduce the attempts to defend Peace Studies by arguing that it is value free, and, instead, going on to the attack and arguing that, whatever the School's values are, the crucial point is whether or not its academic output is intellectually sustainable, and whether its methodology is agreed. In other words its reputation rests not on its values as if they existed in abstract, but on the validity of the means by which its ends, i.e. its values, are reached, and on the strength of the arguments on which its values rely. The School cannot and should not expect a consensus on its values but its processes should be open to all to comment on, to criticise and, ultimately, to accept as valid. Thereafter conclusions based on those processes are vulnerable to criticism on the accuracy and intellectual rigour used to apply the processes to each issue. They are not vulnerable because of the identity of the author. Ideas cannot be blamed on the people who hold them.

2.3 University departments, such as those at Aberdeen and Sussex, producing material on the same subjects from a somewhat different standpoint are not automatically "fingered" by the media as being biased and per se unreliable. What matters is the flow of consistent, dependable material upon which policy debate can take place and upon which politicians, in theory at least, can base their arguments. It would be difficult to refute successfully the view that foreign policy, and defence thinking, even more than most topics, desperately need more public debate and discussion. For myself I would not be politically comfortable if I only read material with which I agreed. It is vital to absorb contrary opinion even if only in order to analyse the strength of an opposing argument and to determine the best ways of refuting it. Most party political debate today is internalised and there is hardly any cross-party debate. Parliament rarely has "debate" as opposed to placing party views in Hansard, ie "on the record". Because of the sensitivity of the issue, this is more true of defence questions than other topics. Politicians ought to be secure in their values but intellectually vulnerable on policy. The reverse tends to be the case today, hence the reluctance to enter the debating arena.

2.4 I am convinced that the success of Marxism Today lies in its pluralism and its preparedness to publish well researched and well argued articles, even if their general political direction runs counter to the assumed party line. The influence of such work stems to some extent from its integrity in confronting unpleasant facts. To take one example from the economic sphere, the importance of the facts in the following quotation is enhanced precisely because one would not expect its authors, nor the journal, to express them:

The rich may be an affront to our sense of justice and their existence certainly makes it more difficult to call for sacrifices from the average person. But the amount of resources they actually consume is relatively small, and even a punitive assault on their incomes would not provide sufficient revenue to finance a really effective programme of job creation and welfare benefits.
[John Grahl and Bob Rowthorn, "Dodging the Taxing Questions," Marxism Today, November 1986.]

To some extent stressing the political usefulness of someone saying the unexpected goes against my argument above but it does not undermine the point made [in para 2.2] but adds to it, particularly in gaining an initial hearing for a case. I illustrate later the same point in relation to peace issues.

3. Peace Issues

The whole debate over defence has become stereotyped into Left v Right caricatures. Clearly it has suited the purposes of some politicians to freeze the issues at fixed points on such a spectrum. The Right because "strong defence" was a handy issue on which to break the working class attachment to Labour; and the Left because it endeared them to CND and the wider peace movement, in a kind of reverse machoism. A decade or so ago I used to sit contemplating eternity whilst some party enthusiast harangued the CND conference with the plea that the detailed arguments on defence were unnecessary. Everyone should just back Labour as the only way to achieve nuclear disarmament! Then there was some support; today frustration is the vocal response from delegates - that is, if the argument is even ventured. As Roy Hattersley pointed out, defence is not per se a "Left" issue:

It would be bizarre to consider jettisoning policies central to ideology whilst refusing to examine a commitment [to non-nuclear defence] which is wholly unrelated to the philosophy of socialism.
[New Socialist, October 1987]

3.1 It is significant in terms of winning the argument on peace issues that the over-riding criterion for acceptability as a speaker, or even as an individual worthy of being quoted, has not been the quality of argument. If it were then Enoch Powell would figure prominently on leaflets and platforms. In previous parliaments he was the most forthright and skilled proponent of the view that there is no Russian threat to Western Europe, and that there is no conceivable scenario in which it would be advantageous to use nuclear weapons and that therefore they should not be possessed.

3.2 The argument against using Enoch Powell has been his views on race and immigration. I believe this to be an illegitimate argument. Unless one believes that ultimately it is acceptable to deal with race and immigration problems by wiping out the planet, the task of those who campaign for nuclear disarmament is to maximise their case by utilising every helpful argument and proponent. There is no doubt that Enoch Powell's credentials with conservative and nationalistic opinion makes him a particularly valuable advocate of his defence position. If nothing else, if sensitively deployed, his open support for the anti-nuclear position guarantees a hearing for the argument.

3.3 The crucial point is that to maximise the case for a particular position one ought to seek the widest possible range of supporters and, in particular, deliberately to spotlight those who would not share one's own general political position nor fit into the public's image of supporters. Not only does this develop the argument in its own terms but it also undermines the media's attempts to reduce political argument to superficiality.

3.4 On defence there has been the careful use of quotations from the late Lord Mountbatten, and the increasingly useful comments of Robert Macnamara. In recent months the changing attitudes towards the Eastern Bloc of West German politicians such as the late Franz Josef Strauss and of Hans-Dietrich Genscher are on record. Similarly Pierre Trudeau has produced excellent material in Canada which is hardly known in Europe. In Britain the recent speech by Conservative ex-Cabinet Minister John Biffen is extremely valuable, including such quotable extracts as:

I cannot believe the Russian political and military posture in 1989 bears much relationship to that of 1949.


My own instincts are that we should move towards a non-nuclear defence policy.
[The Independent, 16 December 1988]

3.5 There is a further way in which pluralism is often eroded and that is the inevitable natural tendency to internalise the debate and discussion amongst like-minded people as well as within political parties. It is a particular danger in academic institutions where concentration on subject areas produces a higher level of understanding and knowledge of topics. It then can become tedious to discuss them at a lower level in the wide world. At times this can produce an apparent arrogance that can put off even the most earnest enquirer. It can also produce a tendency to ignore public opinion as if the electoral process did not exist and it could somehow be set aside rather than argued out.

3.6 Dennis Outwin, a SDP member of the Alliance put the defence problem of the Alliance well in a post-election booklet:

Since 1960 Liberal policy has been to stay in NATO, keep US bases but to scrap all British nuclear weapons. This may not be the best policy, but it is actually the most logical, provided we are prepared to put our fate entirely in American hands. Polls show however that very few people are prepared to do this.
[The SDP Story, 1987]

Such a statement may not be particularly palatable to Liberals (nor perhaps to others) but it is no use ignoring it. Political effectiveness requires the working politician and, I would argue, the policy maker, to tackle both reality and the appearance of reality. The public perception is not, of course, immutable, as the progressive changes in public attitudes towards the Soviet Union show via the opinion polls.

3.7 The same argument applies over the sterile argument as to whether it is the existence of nuclear weapons, and/or the presence of NATO, that has kept the peace in Europe for forty years. Frankly, I do not think it is proveable either way without evidence on oath from Soviet politicians over the four decades - and even then I would not be too sure. But, if it helps to argue the case for the present and the future, I believe it is worth conceding the possibility. The argument that therefore the continuance of nuclear deterrence, so called, or of NATO can guarantee peace for a further forty years does not follow, quite apart from the intolerably Euro-centric view the argument requires. The strong ground for the counter argument are, of course, the changes over forty years - SDI, technology [see Daniel Ford's work etc], proliferation, and the shifting balance of influence in the world. I also deal with the crucial transformation of transnational agreements in Para 4 below.

3.8 Those who have confidence in their values and in their arguments need to take the debate into the arena at every opportunity. In the case of the School of Peace Studies the "hawks" should be invited in, or asked to invite the School onto their home ground. Bernard Dineen of The Yorkshire Post should be a regular guest. In addition there should be more analysis of contrary opinion. In the last Parliament the Alliance's problems on defence were well known and one of its stated views was - logically in my opinion - that it could not formulate detailed defence policy until it was in office and was able to receive the advice of the Chiefs of Staff. The Conservatives made great play of this and ridiculed the two Alliance parties for not knowing their own mind on defence. Too late I discovered the following statement in the Conservatives' 1979 Manifesto:

We shall only be able to decide on the proper level of defence spending after consultation in Government with the Chiefs of Staff and our allies. We had been too internalised with our problems to look outside and to take the debate to our opponents.

3.9 The need to articulate the arguments in the public arena is particularly true of the defence debate. For a long time the anti-nuclear case was excessively obscurantist. Because nuclear weapons were, rightly, perceived to be obscene and immoral in themselves, there was a tendency to regard this view as absolving one from any further intellectual exercise on the subject. This moral position has, of course, a proper place in the appeal to the public but it should not be at the expense of the strategic and tactical arguments. It is not an "either/or"; the two are not mutually exclusive. I believe that one of the reasons for the lack of advance in the public understanding of the flawed dependence on nuclear deterrence is the over-reliance by many colleagues on the moral argument. I do not believe that there are any more votes in it. The purely moral argument has reached its maximum support.

4. Momentum

Politics is very much to do with momentum. If a particular issue or campaign has a current resonance with the public it is often possible to add on further examples of the core argument. There is an interesting current political paradox. Internally in the OECD countries there is arguably a greater conservative consensus than for many decades but internationally there are more hopeful signs of potential peace and harmony than for a very long time. The Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, the resolution of the Namibian situation, the peace process between Iran and Iraq, the first real moves towards resolving the Middle East conflict, the breaking of the logjam over the division of Korea, and the new spirit of detente between the super powers of East and West, are collectively remarkably encouraging. There is real momentum and, furthermore, as a valuable side effect, the reputation of the United Nations is also enhanced.

4.1 In political terms this suggests that it may well be exactly the right moment to shift the defence debate into the far more positive framework of foreign policy instead of the concentration on weapon arithmetic and technology. If the spirit of the day is to recognise the problems and dangers an emphasis on national sovereignty brings, then it is politically opportune to bring forward those aspects of the debate on peace that will therefore get a more favourable hearing.

4.2 Pluralism in this instance means producing from the wide range of arguments those that inform and extend the current debate. It would be peculiarly perverse to ignore or to miss the opportunity because the agenda was not entirely to our liking. There is a better chance of winning both the argument and the vote than at any time since 1945.