It is a measure of the sometimes spectacular insularity of British politics that the world can be at the brink of nuclear war, and the Westminster bubble carries on pretty much as if nothing has happened. With the death yesterday of Margaret Thatcher occupying the news pages, it seems highly likely that no-one in Britain would even notice until bombs started to rain down on the Korean pensinsula.
After all, it’s only east Asia, the place where the world’s economic and political future is being created (that said, let’s be fair: we probably have more important things to get worked up about, such as George Osborne’s use of a disabled parking space).
So, with Saddam Hussein gone, it has been clear for some time that North Korea is a serious contender for the title of “maddest and scariest country on the planet” (Iran, the other remaining member of Bush’s famed Axis of Evil, seems practically sane in comparison). It is not a pleasant regime, needless to say, and has systematically abused human rights with a sufficient degree and regularity that the UN has taken the unusual step of setting up a commission of inquiry to examine them.
With the death of his father, new premier Kim Jong-un seems to be pushing the boundaries of everyone’s patience, firstly by his nuclear test in February, and now by directly threatening not only his long-standing rival and neighbour, South Korea but the United States for good measure.
It is probably true, that they are making, as former US Defence Secretary William Cohen put it, “empty threats” to the US. One doesn’t, well, fancy their chances.
But the threats to South Korea are very clearly not empty. And the last time such bellicose statements were exchanged involving nuclear powers were probably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a half-century ago.
Don’t take it from me, by the way: take it from Fidel Castro, who has some pretty first-hand knowledge. And hell, when even Castro gives you a stern warning, you know you’re on the verge of doing something truly bonkers.
Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander are, rightly, following the cross-party consensus that the aggression is entirely unwarranted. Everyone, everyone in British politics is on the side of the South Koreans.
Ah, no, wait…there is one organisation, of course. Step forward, the reliably totalitarian-friendly Stop the War Coalition, who call on the US to “stop stoking the tension” and “seek dialogue”, after North Korea threatened it with a nuclear strike. But then again, if this were 1938, it seems likely that they would be calling on Czechoslovakia to “stop stoking the tension” and “seek dialogue” on the Sudetenland.
The world’s main hope of averting disaster must be that China, historically supremely unhelpful on the subject of North Korea, is finally losing patience with its annoying little brother. There are signs of this: thankfully, it is not the nation it was in the Cold War and has much more to lose in terms of international trade, and therefore affluence, by alienating the West.
This said, Kim Jong-un is someone we know very little about: until 2010, there was not even an officially-confirmed photograph of him after the age of eleven. And there is clearly little knowing what could happen when nuclear weapons are in the hands of someone with all the worldly experience of a late-twentysomething and who has grown up, a reportedly “spoiled child” isolated from the outside world, inside of one of the world’s craziest, and nastiest, regimes.
What all this does not do, obviously, is provide an explicit rationale for Labour to keep Trident, a linkage David Cameron attempted to make and which is, as former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo helpfully pointed out, “absurd”.
But it does provide a timely reminder that the world is still a pretty dangerous place. This problem, along with that of Iran, seem unlikely to go away any time soon; a conclusion probably not lost on the British public.
In spite of people sometimes appearing warm to the idea of scrapping nuclear weapons, retaining them has nevertheless been a remarkable constant across the two main parties since the war, with only a couple of relatively short-lived exceptions. And that is because cannier politicians realise that such polls do not necessarily reflect voters’ gut reactions on a touchstone issue come polling day.
As we consider revising Labour’s quarter-century-old position, we might just reflect on that.
This post first published at LabourList