London (CNSNews.com) - The American proposal to build a national missile defense system has become the subject of an increasingly acrimonious political debate in Britain, with the government and opposition Conservatives exchanging accusations in parliament and preparing their positions ahead of an election campaign.
The Conservative Party accused the government in the House of Commons of having an agreement with the Clinton administration not to bring up the issue of British cooperation in NMD before the UK election, expected in the spring.
In turn, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said mockingly that the opposition, if returned to power, would apply for Britain to become the 51st state of the U.S.
Britain has been drawn into the debate because an early-warning station at Fylingdales in northern England would require upgrading and become a crucial element of the proposed anti-missile shield. Conservative leader William Hague last week said Britain should agree to back NMD.
Opponents say if Britain agreed to collaborate with Washington in this way, it would be making itself a target, without necessarily benefiting from the protection of the umbrella against incoming missiles.
Proponents argue that Britain, too, could face an unconventional missile attack from countries like Iraq, Libya or North Korea, and should cooperate with the U.S for mutual advantage.
Facing questions in the House of Commons, Hoon said while the government sympathized with American concerns, there was no "immediate threat to the UK from so-called rogue states or the proliferation of nuclear weapons."
There was also no point in Britain taking a decision now on whether it would cooperate in NMD, as the U.S. had itself not yet decided on whether to go ahead nor requested British assistance, he added.
But Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservatives spokesman on defense, accused Hoon of trying to evade the issue by referring to "immediate" threats.
"He knows that the Ministry of Defense is advising him that there is a growing threat," Duncan Smith told the legislature. "Does that not explain why he and his colleagues have been going to Washington in the past year and a half, and informing the outgoing administration privately that they would be willing to let them upgrade Fylingdales, provided that they did not ask the question before the next election?"
He said the government was caught between not wanting to turn down the U.S. "for fear of losing influence in Washington," and not wanting to upset either Labor members or European Union allies who object to NMD.
Although no firm decision has yet been taken, President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said last week a NMD system must be developed.
Russia and China are strongly opposed to the plan, and many other countries, including EU members and India, have voiced concerns that it may undermine existing arms control treaties and trigger a new arms race.