BRITAIN. Thatcher hears base rumblings

The immediate hullaballoo over the use of military bases in Britain for the American punishment raid on Libya may have subsided. But deeper rumblings can still be heard on both sides of the political spectrum -- and the fundamental issues raised are still very much alive. Predictably, the opposition Labour Party has denounced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to allow American F-111 bombers to use bases on British soil. There is a significant body of anti-American feeling in the Labour Party, and the attack brought these sentiments to the surface.

Much more unexpected is the attitude that appears to have formed inside Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative Party about what line any British government (of the left or of the right) should adopt to future American requests for help of the kind that the Prime Minister gave United States President Ronald Reagan.

The consensus, according to one leading Tory backbencher who declined to be named, is that Britain must never again let itself be used ``as an American aircraft carrier.''

``What the P.M. did was repayment for American help in the Falklands War. That account is now settled' the backbencher (a staunch Tory loyalist) declared.

Part of the problem for Thatcher is that the terms under which the bases located in Britain may be used are unclear. There is even argument over whose bases they are.

The major air bases at Lakenheath, Mildenhall, and Upper Heyford are variously described as NATO facilities, British facilities used by the US, and US facilities that happen to be on British territory.

The US Air Force is thought to have some 400 aircraft based in Britain. There are about 75 bases or base facilities that fall under the NATO umbrella and can be used by the more than 30,000 US military personnel in Britain.

Until the air strike on Libya, it was assumed that these facilities were for the defence of Western Europe against the Soviet Union and its allies. Moreover, the public here has largely assumed that the agreements covering the possible use of the bases in time of conflict related to nuclear war.

Under secret agreements dating back to the early 1950s, Britain and the US would consult together before US nuclear weapons were launched from Britain in a first strike.

The agreements remain controversial, and the Labour Party has said that, in office, it would expel US nuclear bases. But until now most Britons thought they knew roughly what role the bases would play. The raid on Libya has changed all that.

That raid was a conventional attack upon a country well outside the NATO area. It is this aspect of the affair that has provided Thatcher's critics inside and outside the ruling party with ammunition with which to attack her decision.

The Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, is adamant about removing US nuclear weapons. Mr. Kinnock declared that Thatcher had acted ``like Ronald Reagan's poodle'' by allowing the US to use bases in Britain for the attack on Libya. Labour's National Executive Committee said soon after the attack that ``the use of US bases in Britain for non-NATO purposes calls into question the Reagan administration's understanding of the Atlantic alliance.''

The controversy has been fueled by two other factors: Britain did not consult its partners in the European Community before agreeing to Mr. Reagan's request. And Lord Carrington, the secretary general of NATO, has confirmed that he was neither consulted nor informed about the decision.

This suggests that Thatcher and Reagan acted in a wholly bilateral manner, and not in a conscious NATO or Western European framework.

The effect of the controversy seems likely to be to set strict limits in future to the help Thatcher may feel able to offer the US in the event of any comparable crisis. Thatcher has told Britons that, faced with a future US request for help, she would ``deal with it on its merits.''

But her advisers are likely to remind her that when she sanctioned US use of bases in Britain for the assault two thirds of voters, asked their opinion, said Thatcher had acted wrongly.

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