I sat in on two very different meetings on Thursday. The first, in the morning, was the more formal of the two: a lecture by Dr Liam Fox, the Conservative Party's defence spokesperson, hosted by the Politeia think tank at their London HQ.
Dr Fox was speaking on 'The Armed Forces, NATO and the EU: What Should the UK's role be?', and, of course, his comments gave an insight into what we can expect in terms of defence policy from a future Conservative government. As well as representation from the defence industry, non-government organisations, and the media, there was a big turn-out from a number of the London embassies. Before the meeting started I was chatting to a colonel from the French embassy who agreed with the suggestion in the recent Defence Green Paper that there should be increased Anglo-French co-operation on defence issues. Defence procurement in France faces the same hideous cost and timetable over-runs that were recently exposed in the UK's Ministry of Defence by the Gray Review, and the colonel felt that procurement would be an obvious area for co-operation, although sovereignty might raise obstacles in other areas – including co-operation over nuclear matters.
Dr Fox took a similar line on Anglo-French co-operation in his lecture, welcoming the decision by President Sarkozy to assign French military forces to NATO and taking the view that, as the only two European nations with the capability to dispatch overseas expeditionary forces, increased co-operation between France and Britain would be both logical and cost effective. He was far more skeptical about the European Union's involvement in military matters, stating, predictably, that the Conservatives saw NATO as the “cornerstone of our security” and that the EU must avoid duplicating NATO's role. NATO reform is a key strategic priority for the Tories, driven by fears that the USA may not always be willing to take a lead within NATO and the difficulties that NATO is facing in Afghanistan.
On nuclear issues, Dr Fox confirmed the Conservatives' commitment to replacing Trident. Choosing his words carefully, he stated that the Conservatives would maintain a round-the-clock nuclear capability, and that an investment of £20 billion in replacing Trident would represent good value for money if it provides 35 years of deterrence. Reminded by Rebecca Johnson and Carol Naughton about the UK's obligations as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he repeated the traditional Tory refrain that the UK retained a “minimum deterrent” and was in compliance with its NPT obligations, and that although the Conservatives were committed to multilateral disarmament, it was prudent for the UK to retain nuclear weapons as long as the threat of nuclear blackmail exists.
The second meeting of the day was much less formal, in the cosy setting of the Reading International Solidarity Centre, where Dr Ian Fairlie was speaking at a meeting of the Nuclear Awareness Group (NAG) about new studies on the risks from low-level radiation. NAG was set up following Reading Borough Council's 1993 Community Inquiry into the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston, and nearly twenty years later continues to maintain a watch over events at AWE and hold the Establishment to account.
Ian gave a fascinating presentation about the recent German study 'Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von KernKraftwerken ' – usually referred to as the KiKK study. KiKK is a German government study into the relationship between childhood cancers and nuclear power stations. Conducted by a team of pro-nuclear epidemiologists and taking four and a half years to complete at a cost of several million Euros, the study was designed to silence critics of the nuclear industry by showing beyond question that there is no link between nuclear installations and the incidence of infant cancers. Unfortunately for the nuclear industry, the study came up with the wrong result, and demonstrated that the risk of cancer increases with proximity to a nuclear power station.
Ian Fairlie described the KiKK study as being the epidemiological equivalent of Galileo's discovery that the earth rotates around the sun – with the nuclear establishment finding it as difficult to accept the findings as the Church did with Galileo's. The KiKK study report was quietly placed on the internet on Christmas Eve 2008 with no publicity, and the immense significance of its findings only became apparent when a researcher from IPPNW stumbled upon it several weeks later.
Two very different events from very different viewpoints. The first one looked at the world very much from an establishment point of view, while the second launched a fundamental challenge to establishment principles and beliefs. However, it is a challenge based on evidence and reason, and a call for change in the interests of the health and well-being of everyone, rather than just the mighty and the powerful.