New Forest East



[These two perspectives are included because of their historic relevance to the future of the nuclear deterrent.]


The Trident debate has been low-key because a modern deterrent makes sense

The Times – 15 March  2007


Britain first decided to secure a full-scale independent nuclear weapons capacity in the 1950s and then opted to replace and upgrade what it possessed in the 1980s. In both cases, the policy was extremely controversial. In the 1950s, huge numbers of people marched to “ban the Bomb” and the issue ripped the Labour Party apart, pitting the bulk of its activists and members against the leadership. In the 1980s, the matter was more fraught, with hundreds of thousands of people taking part in demonstrations and Labour committing itself to unilateral nuclear disarmament, a stance that as much as anything else led to the formation of the SDP and formal schism. It was only as the Opposition changed its mind here under Neil Kinnock (who has had a few changes of mind on this question) that it began to resemble a credible party of government.

Compared with the bitter divisions of the past, the debate and vote in the House of Commons yesterday was relatively mundane. No member of the Cabinet has even considered resignation. Margaret Beckett, a passionate unilateralist two decades ago, endorsed a successor to Trident and was joined in the Ayes lobby by Peter Hain, a member of CND until very recently, and Hilary Benn, whose father remains adamantly hostile to Britain’s nuclear status. A few lowly ministerial figures left their posts, although they can expect to be offered a return by Gordon Brown. Although more than 90 Labour MPs rebelled, their “revolt” may prove inconsequential. Even the amendment set down by the Labour Left referred to “delaying” this vote, not abandoning nuclear weapons. Public protest was largely confined to a pair of hardy souls who commandeered a crane in the vicinity of Parliament.

That endorsing a replacement to Trident has not sparked intense discussion does not mean that this has been an insignificant exercise. Debate was muted because the outcome of the Cold War showed that the multilateralists rather than the unilateralists were right. Political circumstances are different today, but the assertion that a British independent nuclear deterrent only ever made sense in the context of a threat from the Soviet Union is very hard to sustain. Furthermore, many on the Labour soft Left have seen the logic of the argument that if Britain is to be an important enough member of the international community to be a major force for good in places such as Africa, then it also has to be a nation that shoulders its full international military responsibilities.

A large part of this is the maintenance of global order, including being part of a network of deterrents against rogue states and rogue groups that themselves may be determined to obtain weapons. It would be a bizarre response to the emergence of the likes of Iran, especially, and North Korea as aspiring nuclear nations to claim either that they would be less likely to acquire an atomic arsenal if Britain opted out of this theatre or that the world would be a safer place with a nuclear capacity in their hands, but not in Britain’s. It would be equally strange to contend that the checks and balances that might be necessary to keep a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East within acceptable limits would be assisted by Britain downgrading its military standing.

It will be 50 years this October since Aneurin Bevan, the hero of the Labour Left, assailed a motion backing unilateral nuclear disarmament at the party conference with the fiery phrase: “You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.” Half a century on, his words still ring true.

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Guardian – 15 March  2007


"We've got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs," said Ernest Bevin in 1946, when he backed secret plans to build a British nuclear bomb. Every Labour government since the second world war has agreed with him. Clement Attlee oversaw the construction of Aldermaston; Harold Wilson and James Callaghan backed the Chevaline project to upgrade Polaris; and Tony Blair – who once stood for parliament as a member of CND – yesterday made the replacement of Trident one of his final acts. For 60 years, support for nuclear weapons has been a test of responsibility for Labour leaders. Unilateralism has always been treated as an indulgence, to be saved for opposition.

After last night's powerful uprising by Labour MPs, which saw around half of the party's backbenchers either vote against or abstain, it is clear that many inside the party are no longer convinced. Cornered by the rebellion inside the Labour Party, Mr Blair used Question Time to attempt compromise with his critics: yesterday's vote, he suggested, was only about the decision to design a new submarine fleet. A future parliament will face the choice of whether to build and deploy it. As a way of taking the sting out of the rebellion, it failed. As a way of making policy on an issue of huge financial and strategic consequence it was unconvincing – not least because it is clear that work on a new generation of warheads has started. But if Mr Blair is right, and last night's vote was not about building weapons, then it may not have been about anything at all, apart from parading the military virility of a government and main opposition that are frightened of opening their minds to change.

The Labour and Conservative leaderships joined forces yesterday to sustain their old thinking, rooted in the Cold War and a desire for national grandeur that is not an answer either to the military threats that face the country or the political demands imposed by the electorate. It was an inglorious moment for political leaders who, on the issue of climate change, this week made such a virtue of new ideas.

Fewer Labour MPs broke ranks last night than the 139 who opposed the Iraq war but the rebellion, involving over 90 Labour MPs, was bigger than any apart from that, the party's biggest ever on a defence issue. Some will see that as worrying – evidence of fading discipline, as the New Labour project weakens. And it is true that the government had to rely heavily on Conservative votes in order to win. That leaves Mr Blair in the unhappy position of having relied on the opposition to secure parliamentary approval of his principal foreign policy decision – Iraq – his leading piece of domestic legislation in this parliament – the Education Bill – and now Trident. But this is hardly evidence that his party is falling into the nostalgic embrace of the left. The rebellion was Mr Blair's fault, not his party's. The argument was won by those MPs, on all sides, who opposed immediate renewal: among them Tory Michael Ancram. The electorate is less sure about Trident than leaders think, and perhaps more aware of what has changed in the world since the Cold War and Iraq. Both these factors encouraged rebellion last night.

The sight of Mr Blair and David Cameron egging each other on to back a policy that is uncosted, untested and, to many, unnecessary can only have widened the gap between politicians and public. Supporters of renewing Trident, who have no specific case of their own for new weapons, have tried to paint its critics as outdated and dangerous. But it is those who back the British nuclear deterrent, though it has no one to deter, who have been left behind. Labour yesterday left the door open to think again, though the circumstances of the Prime Minister's apparent offer of a future vote are unclear. Gordon Brown should clarify them, in his party's next election manifesto and in the next parliament, and free MPs to reach a better decision than they managed last night.