Westminster consensus on Trident is dead

The forthcoming Scottish referendum on independence has thrown up a new angle on the debate over Trident replacement. The home of Britain’s Vanguard submarines is the Faslane naval base west of Glasgow and the Royal Armaments Depot that stores the submarines Trident nuclear warheads is a few miles away at Coulport.

Should Scotland choose independence in a referendum, an SNP administration would force the Ministry of Defence to seek a new base for Trident south of the border in England or Wales.  This would take years to develop at an unknown cost. That is if a site can be found at all. A new report argues it would be more difficult to switch now to one of the alternative sites that were discounted back in 1963, when the government chose Faslane. If the Ministry of Defence has done more research in recent years, it hasn’t said so. Could a Labour Government afford to build a new submarine base and armaments depot in England? Anyway, aside from the referendum result, Labour has some real thinking to do.

The independence issue is only one of a number of reasons to question Trident, as the former Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown raised in a defence debate last week, when he said “The arguments, which were never that strong, are now moving away from Trident renewal.”

Nick Brown is right, raising the obvious economic question: do we continue to support other defence and public spending cuts – and of course the tuition fee hikes he specifically noted – when billions are spent on Trident? With the main decision on building the new submarines due in 2016, could a new Strategic Defence and Security Review following an election in 2015 be the opportunity to change course?

Before Christmas there was growing disquiet from MPs when the MoD announced it had no plans to publish the Trident Alternatives Review – the Cabinet Office review ordered to fulfil the agreement in the coalition agreement that Lib Dems could continue to argue for alternatives. The terms of the review are narrow, they don’t challenge nuclear weapons, more the delivery system and its costs.  But Lib Dem unease within the coalition over Trident is now coupled with consideration of the implications of Scottish independence. Meanwhile any discussion about public spending always raises the question why spend billions on Trident rather than our public services? Opposition to Trident is going to have a loud airing in the next few months and years, and Labour needs a policy for the manifesto.

Jim Murphy has himself stated that Labour’s defence policy review covering Trident is “parked until we see what the government’s evidence” in the Trident Alternatives Review and that he is “really not wedded” to a particular weapon system.  Whilst he is clearly committed to maintaining some sort of nuclear weapon system, this is something of a change of emphasis, and is a more flexible approach to the policy area than the traditional position of the Labour right which has been to close down debate on nuclear weapons by simply assiduously confirming that Labour is as committed as the Tories to nuclear weapons. Cheerleaders for nuclear weapons need to demonstrate the public want to keep Trident, as the polling suggests otherwise.  Ed Miliband clearly has an open mind: during the leadership election he said a defence review “should look at the totality of our conventional and nuclear capabilities, considering both our defence needs and what our priorities are in the changing economic climate. Defence should not be exempted from the tough spending choices we need to face.” Since being elected, although his public comments have only been occasional they have confirmed that open minded approach to the policy area – notably welcoming the Trident Review at last year’s Labour Party Conference.

Whilst they are saying different things, whether it is Nick Brown’s backbench intervention, Ed Miliband welcoming the Trident Review or Jim Murphy waiting for Nick Harvey to report, Labour is adopting a more open-minded approach to Trident. The previous Westminster consensus on Trident – that it is a non-negotiable facet of the politics of the centre ground – is dead.

 

This article by Daniel Blaney originally appeared here at LabourList.

Photo from Faslane 365.

Nick Brown ‘arguments moving away from Trident renewal’

Taken from a House of Commons debate on the progress of defence reform and the Strategic Defence and Security Review on the 26th January.

Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): I want us to look again at the case for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. I know that that will probably not be popular on either side of the House; others can make their points as the debate progresses. Given the current circumstances, it is time to consider the question again. The Government projects a total cost of £15 billion to £20 billion for the Trident successor programme. Independent research has suggested that the total cost would come in at three or four times that figure and our past experience with such big defence programmes suggests something similar.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con) rose—

Mr Brown: I remember giving way to the hon. Gentleman the last time I spoke in a debate of this character, back in 2007. I bet his intervention is about the same point.

Dr Lewis: Conservative Members are nothing but consistent on this issue. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Polaris fleet and the Trident submarines came into service on time and within budget.

Mr Brown: The hon. Gentleman presumably hopes that that will be the case in the future. However, I challenge him to point to any other defence programme from which he could extrapolate that conclusion. I know that he follows these matters with care, but I cannot think of another programme. He is right to point out the special cases of those procurements in the past, but I am not reassured that they will be repeated in the future. In any event, that point is not at the heart of my case. No matter how one looks at it, this is a very large sum of money to spend. My point is that we should look carefully at whether we should spend it.

The maingate decision on final renewal has been pushed back until after the next general election. The cost of that is said to be an additional £1.5 billion to refurbish and prolong the lifespan of the existing fleet. Parliamentary answers from Defence Ministers show that upwards of £2 billion has already been spent on preparatory work for the manufacture of the new submarines.

The Government clearly intend to press ahead with Trident renewal. In my opinion, they should seek explicit parliamentary authority for doing so. The failure to hold a vote in Parliament on the renewal of our independent nuclear deterrent is because of the inability to reconcile different views in the coalition. The question that faces us is whether an independent nuclear deterrent is a good use of such a large sum of public money in the present circumstances. The arguments, which were never that strong, are now moving away from Trident renewal.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I am listening with great interest. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that a long-term strategic decision, such as the replacement of our nuclear deterrent, should not be taken in the context of the current short-term economic conditions?

Mr Brown: I will come on to deal with that precise point. I have no quarrel with the hon. Gentleman for making it.

The current Trident system relies heavily on US logistical, capacity, technological and military know-how. It is nearly impossible to imagine any circumstances in which we would launch a nuclear attack, much less that we would do so independently of the Americans. Likewise, were Britain to be attacked by a nuclear power, the terms of our membership of NATO would require a joint response by all members, including the US.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Brown: I cannot give way because of the rules on these things.

NATO is a mutual defence pact. It is a fundamental strength that its armoury includes the nuclear capability of the US. There has always been a question over why Britain needs to duplicate NATO’s nuclear capability, rather than more usefully supplement its conventional capacity.

When I first entered Parliament in 1983, I resisted joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I did not support our decision to go ahead with an independent submarine-based system of our own. However, I did support Britain’s membership of NATO, which CND did not. At the time, that was regarded in the Labour party as a very establishment and right-wing position. It is a small irony of Labour politics that the same position is today seen as very left-wing.

When the decision was taken to adopt the Trident system in the early 1980s, there was an understanding that in exchange for non-proliferation by the non-nuclear powers, there would be restraint by the existing nuclear powers, in particular the US and Russia, when it came to further weapons development and upgrades. That idea was enshrined in article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It can be argued that that has been more honoured in the breach by countries that did not possess a nuclear capability, but that do now. The underlying principle, however, seems to me still to be sound.

The large financial outlay that the Government are committed to in planning to replace our independent deterrent could be better spent in a number of ways. During the economic boom, I argued that we ought to better equip our troops, invest in the specialist field of anti-terrorism capability in line with the real threats that we face, and supplement our existing overseas aid budget. We now face new threats. To take one example, the money that we spend on Trident could be used to bring down substantially the tuition fees of every student. I think that cutting a generation adrift from higher education poses a bigger threat to our nation than the idea that a foreign power with nuclear weaponry would uniquely threaten to use it against us, and not the rest of NATO, and would somehow be able to disapply NATO’s founding terms. The real nuclear dangers of the future come from rogue states and terrorism. The possession of an independent nuclear deterrent does not make us safer. A better investment would be in anti-terrorism capabilities.

Three main arguments are put forward by proponents of Trident replacement. The first is that it is the best weapon that money can buy. The second is that it guarantees a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The final argument is that it contributes to our ability to punch above our weight in the world. I argue that it is not much of a weapon if the circumstances in which it may be used cannot be envisaged. Fundamental reform of the United Nations Security Council is long overdue and the difficulty, as we all know, is getting agreement on what that reform should be. I also think that other countries might like us more if we stopped punching above our weight in the world. We might be better thought of by the international community if we settled for being the medium-sized European nation state that we are, rather than the imperial power that we used to be.

We have a choice as a country: do we want to continue to drift into spending billions of pounds on supplementing a nuclear capability that we already possess through NATO or do we want to spend that money on tackling the problems that Britain actually faces in squeezed economic times? Surely we should resolve this issue now with a vote in this Parliament.

Ian Davidson says scrap Trident in survey

Labour CND and Scottish CND joined forces to survey Scottish Labour Leader and Deputy Leader candidates on their views regarding the Trident nuclear weapon system based at the Clyde Naval Base – and for which the Westminster government is planning a £100 billion replacement.

In summary, leadership candidates Ken Macintosh and Tom Harris both said the UK should retain nuclear weapons whilst Johann Lamont unfortunately did not reply.

Responses were more encouraging amongst the deputy leader candidates, with Ian Davidson most closely representing Labour CND members views. Not only does he believe the Trident replacement programme should be cancelled but the existing system should be scrapped.

Anas Sarwar said the UK should be looking at alternatives to Trident, including a non-nuclear defence policy and both he and Davidson believe the Scottish Labour conference should discuss Trident.

Lewis Macdonald said the UK should keep Trident as a bargaining counter for disarmament and the issue should be dealt with at the National Policy Forum.

 

Candidates were all asked the same six questions – you can read a full version of their responses here.

Read more about the candidates here.

‘Cut Trident to cut fees’

By Calum Sherwood, Co-Chair of Bristol Labour Students

Ed Miliband’s announcement at Labour Party conference apparently endorsing £6000 fees was a great  disappointment to many students, within and without the party. As a leadership candidate Miliband had endorsed a graduate tax, which while imperfect, suggested to students he was opposed to the status quo. To accept the reviled tuition fees system as here to stay severely jeopardises Miliband’s position with students, and as Nick Clegg has seen, this can be a dangerous move. Students refuse to accept that free education is off the negotiation table, and the Labour Party must seize back the progressive ground on higher education policy.

Up and down the country, the student movement shares a common set of values which is opposed to privatisation, cuts to essential services, the marketisation of education and the furthering of a militaristic and imperialist foreign policy. The most effective way for the Labour Party to win back the support of those students who abandoned the party would be to demonstrate that they are in tune with those same values. Labour must begin by explicitly opposing the renewal of the Trident weapons system; at a cost of £100 billion when EMA is being scrapped and tuition fees are being raised to a phenomenal cost, students would appreciate a reality check on renewing such an egregiously costly relic from the Cold War days.

Labour must condemn any further imperialist interventions by Britain, opposing the sabre-rattling of those who would have us do to Iran what we did to Iraq. Labour must get on the side of 74% of the British public and agree that four more years of war in Afghanistan is unacceptable. Lastly, Labour must support free education for all. If education is a universal right, financial burden should never become a factor in achieving one’s academic potential. Knowledge is not a commodity which can simply be bought and sold, and to think so is anathema to the values of the Labour Party itself. Miliband must remember how his boldness energised students during his leadership campaign, and in turn harness the boldness of the values of the student movement in order to win them back to Labour.

 

Contemporary issues for Conference 2011

Suggested contemporary issues for Labour Party Conference 2011

Labour CND has drafted three contemporary issues, on Trident, Libya and Afghanistan which you are welcome to amend as necessary for your CLP.

Your CLP can submit one contemporary issue, of ten words, with a supporting statement of up to 250 words.

You must submit your contemporary issue by 12 noon on Friday 16th September.

If your CLP does submit a contemporary issue on one of these subjects, please do let us know by emailing info@labourcnd.org.uk.

 

SUGGESTED ISSUE 1:

Scrap Trident and its replacement, support a Nuclear Weapons Convention

We note the view of the Commons Defence Committee, in its report of 3rd August 2011, that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was ‘unfinished business’.

The Chair of the Committee, James Arbuthnot, stated that the review was ‘rushed and done without proper consultation’ whilst Labour Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, said ‘The decisions made in the review now clearly need themselves to be reviewed.’

The Trident nuclear weapon system was excluded from consideration in the Strategic Defence and Security Review process, with its future guaranteed in the final report, yet the National Security Strategy confirms a nuclear weapon system does not address our real defence and security threats.

Conference believes that Trident should not be replaced and that the existing system should be scrapped.

The achievement of a global Nuclear Weapons Convention – banning all nuclear weapons – should become a major objective of an incoming Labour government’s foreign policy.

Supporting statement: 149 words

 

SUGGESTED ISSUE 2:

UK forces should withdraw from Afghanistan immediately and unconditionally

Conference regrets the tragic loss of life in the attack on the British Council in Kabul on 19th August on the 92nd anniversary of Afghan independence from the UK in 1919.

Conference further notes the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan July report which stated the 1462 conflict-related Afghan civilian deaths over the first six months of 2011 represented a 15% increase compared to the same period in 2010.

The number of UK troops killed since 2001 now stands at 379, including 32 this year.

The Commons Defence Committee estimated in July that the cost of UK military operations in Afghanistan was more than £18bn, according to Ministry of Defence figures.

Conference resolves that the UK should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan immediately and unconditionally and encourage the United States and NATO to do likewise.

Supporting statement: 134 words

 

SUGGESTED ISSUE 3:

Labour condemns UK military intervention in Libya’s civil war

The military intervention by NATO in Libya’s civil war has caused needless death and destruction.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has expressed deep concern at reports of unacceptably large number of civilian casualties. On 12th August he stated that there can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis and that ‘a ceasefire linked to a political process … is the only viable means to achieving peace and security in Libya.’ Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the deaths of 85 civilians following a NATO airstrike near Zlitan on Monday 10th August.

We are concerned at reports on 28th August from NATO sources that Britain may have deployed troops in Libya, contrary to government policy.

Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has stated the UK ‘would not be entitled to a mandate to pursue armed regime change’ yet the UN resolution 1973 has been used to pursue the illegal objective of regime change.

The concerns at mission creep, expressed by many Labour MPs, have been well-founded, including Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy warning against an ‘escalation of the conflict’ as the UK announced new commitments of military resources.

Conference demands an end to NATO’s military intervention in Libya and UK participation in it.

We call for a lasting ceasefire and urge the UN to facilitate negotiations with all the people of Libya for a peaceful settlement to include reparations from NATO for civilian casualties.

Supporting statement: 237 words