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Britain's man of destiny

HIS speech is heavy with the accent of his native Wales, and he does not have the look of a great man; nevertheless, Neil Kinnock may change history. That windy claim may seem to invite rebuke from wisdom and cynicism alike. Yet if Mr. Kinnock, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, should be chosen as Britain's prime minister in general elections that may be held as early as next spring, wisdom may be confounded and cynicism shocked. For Kinnock proposes that Britain, in the words of a recent writer, ``lay down its nuclear arms,'' making it the first nation to do so since the dawn of the nuclear age.

That renunciation would make history; changing its course would depend on the reaction to Kinnock's galvanic act. The novel spectacle of a major country like Britain giving up its nuclear weapons might, for instance, rouse the American public into demanding something comparably historic from its own government. Thus far the abolition of nuclear weapons has been an elite cause, a kind of political Brie; Britain's example could make it truly popular, and powerful.

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Polls show Kinnock and Labour leading Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives. ``For the first time in years,'' the London Observer wrote earlier this year, ``Labour looks as if it may be capable of making a serious appeal to the electorate (in contrast to the pathetic suicide note Mr. Michael Foot delivered to the voters in 1983).'' Labour, moreover, seems to have had a boost from Chernobyl. Whereas a 1984 poll showed that only 20 percent of Britons favored unilateral nuclear disarmament, a poll conducted last month showed that figure doubling to 44 percent (with 46 percent opposed).

Labour also has the economic issue going for it. Over the seven years of the Thatcher government, unemployment has risen from 5.3 percent to 13.2 percent. ``In terms comparable to those used in the United States,'' writes the economic columnist Warren Brookes, ``Britain's present unemployment rate is 17.4 percent.'' Admittedly, unemployment of that order was not enough to elect Labour in the 1983 general elections, when it took its worst defeat since the war. But Kinnock has greater personal appeal than Labour's leader in 1983, the hapless Michael Foot; he has purged his party of the lunatic elements that weighed like an incubus on Foot; and things have become worse in Britain since 1983, not better.

The point is, Neil Kinnock has a real chance. And because he does, the seriousness industry on this side of the Atlantic -- the columnists and commentators who command the means of scorn -- will soon have at him with vehement relish. Do not regard what they say. The abolition of nuclear weapons is a harder cause to urge in America than it is in Britain. The British can afford to give up their deterrent unilaterally, because America's deterrent is there to take care of the bear. Still, abolition won't even be negotiated unless we demand it. Sweeping arms reductions, a more realistic goal, won't happen, either. Kinnock's victory could show the way.

And not only to Americans. Already the German opposition, the Social Democrats, under their new leader, Johannes Rau, is demanding the removal of US intermediate nuclear missiles from Germany. Mr. Rau's immediate electoral prospects do not look so bright as Kinnock's. But in a historic step the Social Democrats have broken with their Atlanticist traditions and dared to spurn the American nuclear umbrella. A Kinnock victory might hasten the day when the Social Democrats come to power. In any case, they are bound to take power sooner or later. And when they do, another country will lay down its nuclear arms.

A German nein to nuclear weapons might be the makings of a deal with the Soviets whose substance would be withdrawal of US troops from West Germany, and Soviet troops from East Germany, perhaps from Czechoslovakia as well. The US would save the estimated $120 billion annually it costs to keep its troops in Germany. Congress would want them home if their nuclear defenses were taken from them -- rightly so.

The Eastern Europeans would gain, too. Facing a considerably demilitarized border to the west, the Soviets and their East European puppet governments might ease up on domestic repression. And finally, the Soviets would be able to use the money now spent on the 194 divisions facing NATO to save their desperate economy.

At this point, my crystal ball grows misty -- or is it those rose-colored glasses I'm wearing? Would the 194 Soviet divisions invade Western Europe if the 16 American divisions facing them were brought back home? Perhaps, but it's hard to imagine that the 16 divisions were any sort of deterrent in the first place. Would a lessening of the nuclear danger make the world safe for conventional war? Perhaps. But this much is clear: While some elections make no difference, the next British election may make the difference.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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