‘I’ve noticed that in everything you’ve said about nuclear weapons you haven’t mentioned Israel.’ The questioner sat back with a self-satisfied smirk on her face. My ‘Trident’ tour — going to constituency Labour parties all round the country to put the case for the deterrent — had reached Tottenham. It was a cold, wet evening and I was in the rundown public room of a ramshackle pub, facing 20 to 30 members of the Tottenham Labour party. I had been warned it would be rough — if there is a polar opposite to Blairism, it is probably Tottenham-ism. ‘No compromise with the electorate’ is the constituency party motto.
I replied politely. The watchword of my campaign in support of party policy — which renewing the Trident boats is — has always been to remain the most reasonable person in the room. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘I have only mentioned the countries we know have nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan held nuclear tests, so we know for certain. There are rumours about Israel, but as they have never tested a nuclear device we just don’t know. They have never confirmed or denied, which is in line with deterrence theory: your enemies should be uncertain.’
I paused, knowing that I hadn’t ans-wered the real question. I decided that I had no support to lose; the audience was a sea of hostile faces. Apart, that is, from one person who had messaged me on Twitter to say they would be there in solidarity. But I knew it would be a brave comrade who defended me. I was on my own. ‘But I know that’s not the real question. If you are asking, “Am I a friend of Israel?” the answer is “Yes!” ’
Across the room there was a sharp intake of breath. It was like some kind of Bateman cartoon — ‘The Man Who Admitted He Supported A State for Jews.’
That was the pivotal moment in the evening. Before it, the most hostile moment had been when I was laughed at for saying that Britain had a proud history of being a force for good in the world. The following exchange ensued:
‘What about the empire?’
‘We not only abolished the slave trade but kept a large part of the British Navy in the Atlantic for decades to interdict the trade and free slaves.’
‘Ah, but we started the slave trade, otherwise there wouldn’t have been one to abolish.’
After I had been unmasked as a Zionist fellow traveller, it got hardcore. I patiently explained that the deterrent worked. Nato’s strategic patience had been rewarded with the fall of the Berlin Wall — an event that liberated millions of working people who had been oppressed by communist dictatorship. It all kicked off then. I was in a room full of people who thought that the USSR was a force for good in the world. I heard it all. Russia was peaceful. If Nato hadn’t held nuclear weapons, then the Soviet Union would never have had them. Russia had lost so many during the Great Patriotic War — it had been a long time since I had heard that name for the second world war — all they wanted was peace.
In vain did I protest that the deterrent kept the peace, that yes it was a horrendous weapon, but no it was not held to be used. It was held to avoid blackmail by others who have them. I said it was telling that the only time nukes had ever been used was when only one country held them. As soon as two countries had them — the US and the USSR, for instance — they had never been used. ‘But why did America bomb Japan twice? That wasn’t necessary. It was to intimidate Russia. That was why the Russians had to get the bomb. They only wanted peace.’
It was only the end of the meeting that provided some respite. Martha Osamor, who was famously barred by Neil Kinnock from standing in the Vauxhall by-election, partially backed me, saying she agreed that the voters were worried about housing, health and education, not Trident. And in the bar after the meeting closed, one left-wing member of the party told me he had left as soon as Israel had been raised. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘has the left got no sense of moral nuance?’ Why indeed, I thought, as I departed into the rain and started my journey back to the safe territory of Peckham.