Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labour Party, is a sandy-haired Welshman whose current problem is trying to convince the United States that antitank weapons are a more useful defense than nuclear cruise missiles. Mr. Kinnock and his party have said that if elected they will throw Britain's own nuclear arsenal on the scrap heap, thus becoming the first nation of the nuclear age to unilaterally disarm. This promise does not bother the Pentagon so much as does its corollary: Kinnock says he would also request the removal of the US nuclear weapons based in his country.
Weapons of ``mass annihilation, that would obliterate the means of life, are immoral,'' he says.
Kinnock is in the middle of a US tour intended to make him look more statesmanlike at home and to quiet US government objections to his defense goals.
Last month, in a widely publicized BBC interview, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said that Kinnock's policies could lead to the destruction of the NATO alliance. The Reagan administration is not the only part of the political spectrum that is uneasy: Rep. Stephen Solarz of New York, a Democrat influential on his party's attitudes toward foreign policy, has voiced similar objections.
In his effort to sound as stern as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher yet more thoughtful, Kinnock makes these points:
A Britain under his leadership would not become another New Zealand. He would not ban port visits by any US ships carrying nuclear weapons.
While he would get rid of all nuclear weapons in Britain, he also favors increasing the capabilities of his country's conventional armed forces.
``The case for enhancement of conventional defenses seems to me absolute,'' he says.
Kinnock, however, is not talking about vast new British armies standing watch on the Rhine. He says first of all that the draft needed to fill such forces is not possible in Britain. He emphasizes that NATO's conventional forces can be made stronger by being smarter with purchases, and by new technology such as precision-guided munitions. Stopping a Soviet tank does not require a $3 million NATO tank, he says. The same defensive job can by done by a $15,000 heavy antitank missile.
Extra spending won't be needed, he says. The total of $20 billion or so that has been allocated to upgrade Britain's nuclear missile-carrying submarines is all the money for conventional upgrades that would be necessary. ``It is arguable whether additions to defense spending would be needed,'' he says. ``In any case, there is no mandate for increased defense spending in Britain or any other Western nation except perhaps France.''
Removing American nuclear weapons from the United Kingdom shouldn't take that long, he says - more than one year, but less than three.
The US objects to these actions because they would cause other NATO nations to follow suit and ban nuclear weapons basing, resulting in a grave political crisis. Kinnock claims it would be a matter of ``immense surprise'' if this happens.
He points to similar actions that have not caused NATO to come crashing to the ground: France's opting out of the NATO military command in 1967, and the decision this year by the Netherlands to reduce its nuclear role in NATO, among others.
He does say, however, that withdrawal of cruise missiles from Europe would probably mean withdrawal of cruise missiles from the NATO alliance, period. Kinnock also vehemently denies that his policies mean Britain wants the benefits of staying under the protection of US strategic nuclear weapons without sharing the burden of nuclear basing. ``If somebody starts throwing nuclear weapons around Europe, we're going to be a target,'' no matter what sort of weapons are on British soil, he says.