Britain's defense debate gathers steam as parties gear up for next election. Ties to NATO, nuclear weapons are proving to be political hot potatoes

Britain's ties with NATO are fast becoming one of the principal issues over which the next British election will be fought and won. The questions uppermost in voters' minds in the election, likely to be held next year, will be: Should Britain retain a United States nuclear umbrella? Should it seek closer accommodation with Europe through a minimum nuclear deterrent? Or should it go the route of unilateral disarmament?

US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was sufficiently alarmed by this last option, proposed by the opposition Labour Party, to make an unusual attack on British domestic affairs and criticize Labour's defense policies.

Mr. Weinberger on Monday warned that Labour's unilateral nonnuclear policies, including the removal of US nuclear bases from Britain, would destabilize the NATO alliance. Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who favors a conventional defense for Britain, has denied the charge, saying that Labour's support for NATO was ``total.''

Left-wingers in Britain's Labour Party are now calling for the dismissal of Denis Healey, deputy leader of the Labour Party, after he said earlier this week that he didn't think it ``inconceivable'' that there may still be US nuclear weapons in Britain after Labour gained office. This put him at variance with the party's stated aim of making Britain nonnuclear.

Weinberger's warning, viewed by Labour as unwarranted interference, could still boomerang to Labour's benefit.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is already running the electoral risk of appearing to side too often with the US. The United States attack on Libya from British bases might have brought Mrs. Thatcher into favor with Americans, but it brought her nothing but bad news in British opinion polls.

So far, though, the ruling Conservatives, who have been dragged down in the polls by the stubborn unemployment problem, are seizing the political opportunities of defense issues and seem determined to make full use of these opportunities as an election-winning strategy.

The Conservative approach is predictable, claiming that they alone are capable of delivering a strong and viable defense policy on which the NATO alliance, and the US in particular, can depend.

Comments from Weinberger added fuel to Conservative fire. The opposition parties already find themselves uncomfortable over defense issues during this important party political conference season.

Defense has often been a key electoral issue. Prime Minister Thatcher's battle with Argentina to maintain British control over the Falkland Islands in 1982 was a decisive political victory for the Conservatives who were trailing badly in the polls at that time. And Labour's unilateral disarmament policies were thought by many political analysts to be a major reason why Labour lostin 1983.

Similarly, the opposition alliance of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Liberals knew that its hopes of making headway in the polls depended almost exclusively on getting its act together on defense at this year's party conference season.

Defense, more than any other issue, has caused havoc in the SDP-Liberal alliance. The alliance's electoral credibility was hurt when the two parties recently went their separate ways on the future of Britain's controversial nuclear deterrent.

While the SDP-Liberal alliance was still reeling over the drubbing it got from the media for its split, Weinberger made his well-publicized attack on Labour's defense policies. Though the television interview with Weinberger was broadcast Monday night, its contents were leaked ahead of time.

This is generally regarded as a well-aimed torpedo at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool Sunday.

So critical is the defense issue that it has not only been the overriding discussion at the party political conferences, but has also dominated the front pages of British newspapers for the past week.

It is a political hot potato for the ruling Conservatives as well. No fewer than 30 resolutions on defense are on the Conservative Party's conference agenda next week.

For instance, a resolution from the Maidstone Conservative Association congratulates the government in its determination to maintain a British nuclear deterrent. But it also notes the ``increasing opposition propaganda based on the cost of Trident [nuclear submarine]'' and urges the government to do a better job in putting the cost of the deterrent into perspective.

Among the British political parties, only the Conservatives support the US-built Trident as the new British independent nuclear deterrent to replace aging Polaris submarines in the 1990s. But as the Maidstone motion points out, the government has been hard pressed to defend the Trident's cost, which at times has been put in excess of 10 billion pounds ($14.4 billion). Popular support for Trident has been slipping.

But the recent controversy surrounding attacks on Labour's defense policy and confusion within the SDP-Liberal alliance could give the Conservatives a propaganda edge in the defense debate.

A joint SDP-Liberal proposal to delay a decision on the future of Polaris, and concurrent exploration of a minimum nuclear deterrent for Europe, was voted down at the Liberal Party assembly after it had just been approved by the SDP. Liberal Party leader David Steel was embarrassed last week, when his party did not support his proposed compromise with the SDP. Mr. Steel says he is determined to forge ahead in tandem with SDP leader David Owen for the minimum European deterrent involving both the British and French.

The strategy has been coolly received. Defense strategists seriously doubt that Anglo-French cooperation will occur at the expense of the 40-year postwar US-British relationship. And many politicians are dubious that the British electorate would side with a French option.

As one European journalist remarked recently on hearing Dr. Owen spell out his reasons for closer European defense collaboration, ``Owen's problem with the British electorate is that he's too European.''

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