British Labor Party Leader, Back Here, Is Less Menacing

Geoffrey Smith is a political columnist for the Times of London

Neil Kinnock, the leader of the British Labor Party, is an optimistic man.

This week he is paying his second visit to the United States within four months in the hope of selling his non-nuclear defense policy to the American people. But there are subtle and potentially significant differences in the proposals that he is putting forward this time.

That is no coincidence. His last mission to the United States was unsuccessful, and politically disastrous for him at home. It was swiftly followed by a sharp fall in both his own and his party's standing in the opinion polls. Labor's prospects look much worse now than they did before Kinnock was last in America.

The visit had two effects, both damaging to Labor. It drew further attention in Great Britain to the party's defense policy, and it showed that this policy is unacceptable not only to the Reagan Administration but also to any section of mainstream American politics.

No longer could Labor spokesmen maintain that there would be no conflict of views with Washington if the Democrats recapture the White House.

The adverse reaction in Britain sent two messages, one to the outside world and the other to the Labor Party itself.

To other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization it showed where most of the British people really stand on defense issues. The peace movements in Western Europe have attracted much international attention, but in most instances are no more than vocal minorities.

To the Labor Party the British public reaction was a warning that its defense policy was an electoral albatross. Kinnock, who is an intensely ambitious politician, has responded.

There are two aspects to Labor's non-nuclear defense strategy: the commitment to abandon the independent British nuclear deterrent, and the demand that the United States withdraw from its nuclear bases in Britain. The first is highly contentious in Britain, but it is the second that threatens to provoke a crisis in NATO.

This has now been modified in two ways. Shortly after Kinnock returned home the Labor Party produced a new statement of its policy. But this time, rather than simply insisting on the earliest possible removal of American nuclear bases, it promised that this would be done only after "complex and thorough discussion" with Britain's allies.

Because the allies would be strongly opposed to the proposal, it would be a safe bet that the discussions would be very complex indeed.

Then last week party spokesmen made it known that a future Labor government would not seek the removal of American cruise missiles from Britain so long as negotiations were proceeding with the Soviet Union for the withdrawal of all medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe. No time limit is being imposed on these negotiations.

What these changes offer is not a wise policy but an indefinite delay in implementing a foolish one.

It remains official Labor policy to get rid of all American nuclear bases from Britain. If the cruise missiles are not removed by agreement with the Soviet Union, they would eventually have to go anyway if Labor came to power--which would hardly be the best way to persuade Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to negotiate seriously.

Even with these adjustments the advent of a Labor government in Britain would cause anxiety to allies and increased tension across the Atlantic, because the party's objectives have not changed.

But the chances of these objectives being achieved have been much reduced. Once consultations were begun with other governments that would have no incentive to reach agreement, a Labor government would be putting its feet into molasses.

What's more, most members of a Labor government would be happy to leave them there. So, too, would most senior civil servants on whose advice all British governments rely.

Kinnock no doubt remains a believer in unilateral nuclear disarmament, though he evidently appreciates that some compromises are required if he is ever going to become prime minister.

But once he was there he would be surrounded by ministers and officials who would appreciate the dangers of creating a crisis in NATO. If he asked them when the next step for the removal of the missiles was to be taken, they would happily tell him that they would move as soon as they could, but that their feet were stuck for the moment. The same answer would no doubt be given to Labor left-wingers, who are expected to be more numerous in the next House of Commons.

There is no reason for even this revised policy to be welcome to American opinion. It is more reassuring only because there is now less reason to fear that Labor will ever do what it threatens.

But it should be appreciated that this week Kinnock is putting forward proposals that are not likely to be implemented by a party that is not expected to win power.

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