In the second part of our investigation into Labour’s dealings with the USSR, Pavel Stroilov reveals the secret Soviet diplomacy behind one leader’s most famous victory
Labour leaders, past and present, will be wishing this week that Anatoly Chernyaev had not been such an assiduous diarist. Along with thousands of documents left in the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the diplomat’s personal writings had lain forgotten for more than 20 years. Last week, extracts in The Spectator cast light on Labour’s ‘special relationship’ with the Kremlin and the various officials who begged for its help to fight the Conservatives.
This week, we reveal more documents from Soviet archives which show that relations between Britain’s Labour party and the USSR went even further — with Moscow playing a critical role in the finessing of the party’s policies on international affairs and defence. It was Chernyaev himself who instigated the duplication of archive documents when Gorbachev left office but, officially, they remain top secret. Digital copies were made, which were taken from the Gorbachev Foundation and smuggled, by me, to the West.
KINNOCK’S NUCLEAR TALKS
Neil Kinnock’s success in persuading Labour to change party policy from unilateral to multilateral nuclear disarmament in 1989 is often seen as his most celebrated achievement as party leader. Unilateralism, where Britain would scrap its nuclear weapons regardless of other nations’ arsenals, was an electoral millstone: voters just couldn’t understand why any country would do such a thing.
So Kinnock won much praise for his policy change and was applauded for rebuilding the party’s credibility with the voters. It was called Kinnock’s finest hour, the greatest victory in his long fight with the hard left to modernise the party.
It was the left he needed to convince in a packed meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee in May 1989, when he got his way by telling them: ‘I have gone to the Kremlin… and argued down the line for unilateral nuclear disarmament. They were totally uncomprehending that we should want to get rid of a nuclear missile system without getting the elimination of nuclear weapons on other sides.’
The Kremlin’s secret records suggest, however, that what he told his party that night may not have been the whole story. Indeed, rather than ‘arguing down the line’ for unilateralism, a full year before that critical vote, it appears that Labour members had already begun probing the Soviet administration to discover what their reaction would be if Labour changed its policy.
The Kremlin files suggest, in effect, that the Labour leadership was seeking Kremlin approval for a change to domestic party policy.
Egon Bahr, a West German politician who maintained clandestine contacts with the KGB throughout the 1970s and 1980s, met the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on 5 April 1988 in Moscow, and Kinnock’s name appears in the transcript of their conversation. Bahr says:
The Labour party has hitherto been categorically against purchasing those missiles from the United States. But the next elections in Britain won’t take place before 1991. By that time, huge spending will be made to purchase those weapons, and the first submarine would join the service between 1991 and 1993. So the Labour leadership believes they have to reconsider their position.
Kinnock wants to know how the Soviet Union would respond if he, Kinnock, stops the implementation of the Trident programme. Britain’s Labour party wants bilateral negotiations on this issue.
Gorbachev replied that he was working with the Americans to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons by the turn of the century, and wanted Britain to join multilateral talks at a later stage.
It is not clear if Bahr had been tasked by Kinnock to discover Gorbachev’s position.
Five months later, however, Kinnock did specifically seek discussions with the Kremlin and, curiously, he sent the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, Stuart Holland, to undertake them.
According to the Soviet documents, Holland ‘asked for the meeting at the request of Neil Kinnock’. Nor was this Holland’s first engagement with Russia. The diary of Anatoly Chernyaev records their conversation in November 1984:
Yesterday, I talked to Stuart Holland for four hours. He is a pedigree young Englishman, aged 44, author of ten books and many Labour documents and a shadow minister…
We have discussed everything with him. I took it upon myself to promise him (in ‘preliminary order’, of course) everything they wanted from us, to beat Thatcher and get to power. This included a promise that we will respond if Britain, indeed, rejects the nuclear weapons… He had something to report to Kinnock about.
When Holland returned to Moscow in August 1988 for a discussion with Vadim Zagladin, also of the Soviet International Department, nuclear weapons were on the agenda again.
This time, however, the policy Holland discussed was a rather different one. While he assured the Soviets that press speculation about a radical change of Labour’s defence policy was ‘unfounded’, there was to be a change; as Gorbachev himself had told Bahr, a policy of multilateral disarmament seemed more realistic than a unilateral one. According to the transcript, Holland then said:
‘The Labour party is currently preparing a new defence paper, which will be published in eight to nine months. The Labour concept will be perfectly clear from that paper, and that will be a concept of a nuclear-free Europe.’
Sure enough, nine months later, the Labour NEC approved Kinnock’s plans. None of these dealings with Moscow reveals any anxieties within the Labour leadership about how their party’s unilateralists would react, though Lord Kinnock explains that: ‘Until March 1989 only Gerald Kaufman and I, and our most immediate associates, had full knowledge of our approach — disclosure would have enabled opponents of change to organise resistance. In August 1988 Stuart Holland would have gathered that change from “solitary disarmament” was probable but certainly would have not known of the extent of change that I was determined to secure.’
But one thing is clear: by the time of the NEC vote, Moscow was already on side.
Neil Kinnock wasn’t the first senior Labourite to embark on sensitive discussions about Western defence plans with the Soviets. A report, again by Vadim Zagladin, records his discussions with Denis Healey, then shadow foreign minister, about the American Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) — the so-called Star Wars project — in May 1985:
Healey said that nobody except Reagan believes that the purpose of SDI is defending civilians. Experts and Pentagon specialists make it clear that the SDI’s purpose is to defend the positions of strategic missiles.
One of the questions [causing controversy] is the assumption, promoted by the US Defense Secretary, that the Soviet Union has achieved significant results in its own research on ‘Star Wars’. As a rule, two examples are given. One is about the laser technology research related to targeting space objects from the surface; the other is about the Krasnoyarsk radar.
In relation to the radar, Healey remarked that British intelligence disagreed with the Americans’ assessments and did not believe that the radar had the significance attributed to it.
Chernyaev’s diary also confirms that on the same visit Healey ‘was giving us tips of how we should handle Reagan to get something out of him’, and describes the Labour visitor as being relaxed and cheerful with his hosts. When The Spectator contacted Lord Healey, he admitted that the period represented a particularly troublesome time for the party: ‘Defence is always a very difficult thing for the Labour party because at one time we were committed to pacifism. Carrying on a nuclear policy based on an alliance with the United States was always very unpopular with one section of the party — the left. They made it very difficult, and regarded the US as a champion of capitalism and not to be worked with. That wasn’t my position at all.
‘As modernisers in the party we had to work against these people. The trade unionist Alec Kitson, for example, who was strongly sympathetic to the Soviets, was an absolute pain in the nether regions.’
Healey’s irritation with the flip-flopping approach of Britain’s left to international relations is clear from another of Chernyaev’s diary entries.
In a farewell session of speeches and cognac, Healey took the opportunity to tease Dave Priscott, the member of the delegation from the Communist Party of Great Britain, for being disloyal to Moscow. Chernyaev writes:
I had to say goodbye to both of them. We went to a guest room to have some cognac. I made some speeches, trying to joke, to prod. In response Healey spoke, and only at the very end he remembered about Priscott, turned to him and fired off roughly this: ‘I suppose, Comrade [Chernyaev’s emphasis] Priscott does not feel offended that I’ve spoken for both of us and have eaten up all the time remaining before the flight.’ Priscott started nodding, smiling pitifully and obsequiously. ‘But, I beg your pardon! Perhaps, after the recent events in your party and its upcoming emergency congress, I won’t be able to call you Comrade anymore, I’ll have to say “Mister”!’
Everybody laughed. But it was a brilliant move against the CPGB’s shift to anti-Sovietism.
Of course, history does not record what Priscott may have said when ‘comrade Healey’ became ‘Lord Healey’ in 1992. By then Britain’s extreme left were a marginal political force and the Soviet Union itself had disintegrated.
However, until all the Kremlin’s documents are released, the spectre of that crumbled empire will continue to haunt the left in Britain. Labour will be hoping there are precious few diaries among them.
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