A Letter From London: A Memorable January

January 1963 has earned for itself a place in British history. It will be remembered as the coldest January since 1838, long after things like the failure of the Brussels negotiations and the row with de Gaulle and France arc forgotten. The generally stoic British people are fed up with and angry about the failure of water, electricity, gas, plumbing and transport. The authorities have invited comparison with Ethelred the Unready. It is symptomatic that the staid Times should carry a first editorial with the heading “The Unready” recalling that once the explanation for defeats in war was: “The enemy were no mortal foes – they were mounted infantry.”

It is not altogether unusual in this country for water pipes to be frozen. The British builders still fix them as well as the cisterns outside the houses “as a sacrifice to the ice gods.” The only explanation seems to be their determination to avoid the charge of following in the footsteps of the Continentals. But this time even the mains have frozen and it has virtually been impossible to get a plumber to attend to them. In thousands of homes there has been no water supply for weeks. Besides frequent failures and black-outs the supply of electricity has been staggered and the voltage reduced by as much as ten per cent. That might not sound like much of an inconvenience in Delhi, where reduced voltage is the norm rather than the exception. But with sub-zero temperatures for weeks the reaction is different here.

Power Failure

The freezing and consequent bursting of gas pipes has naturally produced grimmer results. Scores of people have died of suffocation. The supply of gas has had to be cut down because of serious shortage and rise in demand. The shortage of power and gas and the “abnormal” weather conditions combined to push up unemployment figures by nearly 200,000 to make them the highest in post-war years. No wonder there is soul-searching on a national scale. Almost everyone is asking: “What is wrong with this country?” The general answer is that it is still living in the nineteenth century unwilling to adapt itself to the techniques and demands of the second half of the twentieth.

To describe this winter as abnormal is to make an understatement of the year. At times three-fourths of over 2,000-miles of roads have been blocked with several feet of snow. Snow drifts have risen as high as thirty feet. Snow ploughs have proved totally ineffective. Buses have had to be taken off the road because the oil froze. The weather men have turned prophets of despair. They predict that the cold spell, another euphemism, might continue till the end of February. The thaw – when it comes – will create its own problems. Troops are already standing by to cope with the floods.

January 1963 will also be known as the month when a British court made history by sentencing to nine months imprisonment a newspaperman for his unwillingness to disclose his sources of information on the plea that such a disclosure would offend against professional ethics. The reporter escaped going to jail because during the grace period gracefully allowed to him, the “source” came forward to disclose itself. The source in this case happened to be an information officer who is paid to talk to journalists and had not disclosed anything which he should not have disclosed.

Two other correspondents have similarly been convicted for failure to disclose their sources of information and sentenced to six months’ and three months’ imprisonment. The period of grace is running out and their sources have not released them from the obligation of protecting their identity. The chances are they will go to jail. That would serve a useful purpose if it induces the Government to place on the statute book an enactment entitling journalists to respect the time honoured ethics of their profession.

This whole wretched business of the prosecution of journalists is the offshoot of the notorious Vassal spy case. Vassal, it might be recalled, spied for the Soviet Union for six years. When he was caught he confessed to being a homosexual as well. He had served in the office of the Civil Lord of the Admiralty during this period. Several letters addressed to Vassal were discovered at his flat by a journalist. They had been returned by the Scotland Yard. This led to speculation about the relationship between the Civil Lord and the self-confessed spy and homosexual Vassal. The letters were published and the Civil Lord resigned from the Cabinet. The tragedy of it all is that his personal bona fides had been universally recognised by the time the commission of inquiry was set up.


Last January is memorable for another reason. It was then the British Government assigned its entire Vulcan bomber force and its stock of hydrogen bombs and war heads to the NATO under the command of the American Supreme Commander, General Lemmitzer, to initiate the formation of a multilateral nuclear force. Nobody yet knows, not even President Kennedy and Mr Macmillan, what this project really means. Who is going to exercise the final control on the firing of these warheads and bombs? What is to be the machinery of consultations and decisions among the allies constituting the force in an emergency? No clear answer is available to these persistent questions.

To raise these questions, however, is only to say that there is no such thing as a British defence policy. It was six years ago in 1957 that an attempt was made to produce a consistent even if fallacious defence policy. It was based on the Blue Streak missile and the overall concept that nuclear weapons had made men-in uniform redundant. The Blue Streak has since been scrapped as also the Skyboll which was to be its replacement. The importance of conventional forces is recognised both in America and Russia. But in this country even the Labour party fights shy of facing up to the necessity for conscription and national service. That is not all. As one defence correspondent puts it, “even the 1962 policy of mobile strategic reserves and joint service task forces is shaking under the pressure of events.” The Polaris agreement has not made much sense to most students of defence problems.

The confusion, in my view, arises from the simultaneous use of the words “independence”, and “interdependence.” For all practical purposes Britain has decided to merge its nuclear force with that of America. The provision that it can be withdrawn from the NATO when this country’s supreme national interests are at stake does not in practice mean anything since no one can visualise a situation in which Britain would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons independently of the allies. For the sake of maintaining the worn out pretence of possessing a deterrent this country would spend something like £400 million over the next few years on building five submarines and equipping them with American missiles and its own warheads.

Britain’s Role


The concept of a multilateral nuclear force, though still to be defined, is already being spoken of as the principal instrument of Anglo-American diplomacy to isolate General de Gaulle’s France from the western European members of the NATO and to nip in the bud the possibility of others being attracted to his grand design of a united Europe able to defend itself, if need be, independently of America. Only time will show whether it will succeed or fail. As far as Britain is concerned it has taken the plunge. Her role in Europe would now depend on American influence and power there. Equally important is the conclusion that even if the Labour party is returned to power it cannot easily shake off the commitments which Mr Macmillan made at Nassau.

In this otherwise cheerless new year the only comforting news – it at least warms the hearts of the Conservatives – has come from Canada. Mr Diefenbaker was as much a thorn in their flesh as in that of the men in the Pentagon. His insistence on the primacy of the Commonwealth was as much an anachronism in this fast moving world as his resistance to nuclear weapons. Vicky showed him standing below a wall occupied by Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Khrushchev, Mr Macmillan, General de Gaulle, Dr Adenauer and Mr. Mao Tse-tung, all in Prussian steel helmets and wondering, “He must be mad – does he not want nuclear weapons.” To vary the title and theme of a popular television programme – that was the month that was and what a month that was!

The Times of India, 9 February 1963 

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