Today the House of Commons will be asked to vote in support of proposals in a Government White Paper published last December. The decision that is being taken is whether to renew the Vanguard submarine fleet that carries the Trident nuclear weapons system. This consists of up to 16 Trident D5 intercontinental ballistic weapons sourced from the USA, each loaded with up to 12 nuclear warheads. The Government says that by 2024 some of the submarines will be too old to keep at least one submarine patrolling the oceans at any one time. It estimates that to produce the new submarine will take 17 years, meaning a decision has to be taken by 2007. The Government justifies the need to extend the life of the UK’s “strategic nuclear deterrent” till at least 2050 by telling us that this will be an insurance against an uncertain future full of unknown threats. I disagree. Whilst the future is impossible to foretell, it can still be shaped and influenced by the decisions that are taken today. Taking a decision now to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system would be as disastrous a decision for world peace and stability as was the decision to invade Iraq.
Renewing Trident is the wrong decision for three main reasons.
First, terrorism, the main threat we face today, is totally immune to any nuclear “deterrent”.
The nuclear “deterrent” did not prevent the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, or the July 7th bombings in London. Terror networks, by their nature, consist of loosely connected groups spanning countries and global regions. This makes them difficult to detect but also means there is no fixed target of sufficient size to make a nuclear strike militarily effective or morally justifiable. Tony Blair himself said at Prime Minister’s Questions in October 2005 that “I do not think that anyone pretends that the independent nuclear deterrent is a defence against terrorism”. Well, we agree there at least!
Secondly, having a deterrent so the UK can be protected against potential future threats would signal to non-nuclear states that nuclear weapons are an essential part of a nation’s security. The Prime Minister uses the example of a “new and potentially hazardous threat” from states such as North Korea or Iran. I do not apologise for, or defend; these regimes but such states are hardly a strategic threat to the UK. Even if they were and the possession of nuclear weapons is the only means to counter this threat, then why should states in the regions of those countries not pursue their own nuclear weapons as well? Just as we are seeing the effectiveness of careful diplomacy in de-escalating the situation in Iran and North Korea, how foolish is it to start up a new era of nuclear proliferation increasing the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation and also the chances of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons?
As Kofi Annan states:
“the more that those states that already have [nuclear weapons] increase their arsenals, or insist that such weapons are essential to their national security, the more other states feel that they too must have them for their security”
Thirdly, a decision to renew Trident will destabilise the international institutions designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. For the UK Government to claim that a nuclear deterrent is an essential insurance against unknown potential threats is to say that we will always need a deterrent. The key issue surrounding the legality of renewing Trident is Article 6 of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Philippe Sands QC, of Matrix Chambers, provided a legal opinion to Greenpeace which concluded that Article 6 would be breached if a signatory to the Treaty acted in a way which would ‘render the attainment of the objective of nuclear disarmament remote or impossible’.
The NPT commits the UK to work internationally to achieve nuclear disarmament. Although the White Paper correctly points out that the NPT has no timetable for nuclear disarmament, it does use the term “with all deliberate speed”. Thirty six years to arrive at a decision to spend billions enabling us to keep nuclear weapons for another 40 years is hardly compatible with our obligations under the Treaty! Last week, a report from the Defence Select Committee criticised the Government for the absence of a non-proliferation strategy and emphasised the need to give momentum to what are widely seen as stalled non-proliferation treaty discussions.
In case you think this a radical view, the same opinion is held by, amongst others, Professor Stephen Hawking, Kofi Annan the Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry Kissinger, yes he’s still alive! All agree that Trident renewal is the wrong step to take.
However, above all else, I believe it is vital that on a decision of such magnitude, time is given for a debate when all opinions and options can be considered. But this has not happened. Parliament will have a debate but no time has been given for votes on alternative options. There has also been no effective channel for the public or non-government bodies to have their say..
This is both disgraceful and unnecessary. There is plenty of opposition to the view that a decision must be taken this year. Michael Quinlan, a former permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence and now an academic specialising in nuclear weapon aspects of South Asian security has criticised the Government for not publishing enough information to underpin firm conclusions. American and UK experts have claimed that the submarines could have their life extended by 10 to 15 years, meaning a decision on whether to renew doesn’t have to be taken at the break neck speed the Government is attempting.
The Government will also point to the 2005 manifesto commitment to “retain the independent nuclear deterrent”. But “retain” is not the same as “replace” and to argue that a single line in a manifesto amounts to a public mandate on such an important issue, or allows the Government to not give proper time for alternative options to be debated, is in my view irresponsible. Furthermore, there has been no proper debate within the Labour Party itself. At the Labour Party Conference in 2006 the National Policy Forum report to conference stated, ‘The question of the replacement for the Trident system is one of central importance to our future defence and security requirements and we have said that there should be a full debate on the issue.’ However, under Labour Party rule 3c2.3 preventing conference “debating matters substantively addressed in the NPF report”, this sentence in the NPF statement was used to rule out of order up to seventeen constituency resolutions on the replacement of Trident, preventing any debate on the topic by conference delegates!
In an effort to permit the further debate that is so obviously necessary, tonight I will be supporting an amendment to defer the decision on Trident renewal. If that amendment is not taken or is defeated, I will vote against the proposals in the White Paper.