My Trident Speech

On Wednesday March 14, I was one of 95 Labour MPs who did not support the Government’s amendment to commit at least 14 billion to replace the Vanguard class of nuclear submarines to ensure that we can keep the Trident nuclear weapons system until at least 2050.   Unfortunately, as in the debate on whether to go to war with Iraq, when the Government also only got its way with the support of Tory MPs, I was not called to speak.  Had I been called, this is what I would have said:

I speak as an unreconstructed unilateralist, though not a pacifist.  I retain the view that nuclear weapons are morally unjustifiable and militarily ineffective, even more so in a world where the main threat is from international terrorism.  As the Hon Member for Islington North[1] said in his speech, our actions in the past shape the world we live in now.  The decisions we take today will shape our future.  If we decide tonight to retain nuclear weapons, effectively indefinitely, in the belief that the UK can protect itself against future, as yet unknown, threats, we are sending a signal that nuclear weapons are an essential part of any nation’s security.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State dismissed such an argument.  It has not been dismissed by the Defence Select Committee.  Other members have quoted Mohammed el Baradei and Hans Blix as supporting this concern.  I will quote Kofi Annan:

“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”

Although I am opposed to the renewal of Trident, I will be supporting the amendment[2] to delay the decision for reasons of internal Labour Party democracy.  I am doing so in the belief that the timing of this debate is more political than strategic.  There is plenty of credible opposition to the view that a decision needs to be made now.

Michael Quinlan, a former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence has argued that the Government has not yet published enough information to underpin firm conclusions about our continuation as a nuclear weapons state and suggests 2010 as the deadline for a decision.   Hon Members have quoted American and UK experts who tell us that the submarines could have their life extended by 10 to 15 years.  These experts are quoted in today’s Financial Times editorial calling for a decision to be deferred until after the next Review Conference of the NPT[3]

This makes sense to me but another reason is that we have yet to have the “fullest possible debate” as promised last June by the Prime Minister when he said the means of consultation would be announced when the White Paper was published.  That promise of a national debate has never been fulfilled and, even worse, we have had no proper debate within the Labour Party itself, even when pressed for by constituency parties.  At last years Labour Party Conference, several resolutions on Trident were ruled out of order on the basis of a rule which prevents Conference debating matters that have been substantially addressed in the report of the National Policy Forum (NPF). 

What did the NPF report say?

“The question of the replacement of 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.”

Only New Labour can interpret a call for a full debate as one for no debate!

In pursuit of democracy in the Labour Party, I was one of 27 Labour MPs, led by the Honourable Member for Pendle[4], who wrote to the Labour Party Secretary, Peter Watt, calling for a process of full consultation right down to Constituency Labour Party level.  

No such consultation has taken place and instead Mr Watt put store on members being sent emails inviting them to attend an ad-hoc series of meetings or to submit their views to the Britain in the World Policy Commission.

Questions I asked about how responses would be collated:

  • Would there be a summary of responses and of meeting discussions?
  • Would the Britain in the World Policy Commission be preparing a response to the White Paper?

went unanswered. 

Earlier today, looking at the Labour Party website, I learned that the question of Trident replacement is not even listed as one of the policy “challenges” being addressed by the Policy Commission.

So the answer to my questions is ‘no’ and ‘no’.

In so far as there have been informal consultations amongst Labour Party members, these have demonstrated a majority against Trident:

  • Two thirds of over a hundred responding to south / eastern representatives;
  • An overwhelming proportion in London;
  • 57% of 200 replies to two NEC representatives;
  • 84% of 1090 responses to an online poll by Compass.

These results came up at the last National Policy Forum meeting in February.   Members of the Forum discussed Trident with the Secretary of State for Defence but no vote was taken.   Therefore we have:

  • No view from the National Policy Forum;
  • No view from the Britain in the World Policy Commission;
  • No view from Conference!

In a TV interview with Andrew Marr a few weeks ago, the Chancellor intimated that as Prime Minister, his leadership style would be very different - more collegiate.  It is, therefore, doubly disappointing, that he has backed the Prime Minister’s approach to the renewal of Trident rather than pressing for the time needed for a proper, well-informed debate within the Party culminating in a democratic decision.  Such a process is essential if, as a Party, we are to go forward in unity.

[1] Jeremy Corbyn MP

[2] That this House notes the Government’s decision, as set out in the White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the United Kingdom’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but believes that the case is not yet proven and remains unconvinced of the need for an early decision.

[3] Non Proliferation Treaty

[4] Gordon Prentice MP


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