At the end of October Polly Toynbee wrote a piece in the Guardian which has reopened the debate about the renewal of Trident within the Labour Party. Polly quoted Tim Farron as saying that the Liberal Democrats ‘are making this an election issue for 2015’. For good measure she also threw in a strongly anti-Trident quote from Nick Clegg, the present Leader of the Liberal Democrats. As usual the Liberals look set to go into the election using the savings from Trident as an accounting excuse for all sort of cherished Lib Demery.
It is therefore unavoidable that every candidate standing at the next General Election is going to be asked, ‘What is your position on building a new fleet of Trident submarines to maintain Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent?’ On Tuesday evening in Westminster I will be speaking on a panel making the case that, faced with 21st century security threats and a public spending squeeze which shows no signs of abating, the responsible position for the modern Labour Party is non-renewal.
Polly’s article drew a response from Luke Akehurst, a former Labour Party National Executive member, who wrote for Progress that ‘a sensible Labour strategy would be to sit tight and let the Coalition partners rip each other apart on this.’ Trying to dodge the question at the next general election, when the issue is to be decided in the next Parliament, is just hopeless. We need a clear answer.
The strategic way forward internationally is surely through multilateral non-proliferation, a sophisticated arrangement of negotiated guarantees and concessions, combined with a far better understanding of the viewpoint of those countries who are contemplating developing nuclear weapon systems. For our material defence, in military terms, we have our membership of NATO, overwhelming the most powerful military alliance on the planet. There are no circumstances in which we ‘independently’ use our own nuclear deterrent without the rest of NATO. In what circumstances would we ever use nuclear weapons independent of all other NATO members?
The pro-Trident arguments in the Progress article don’t make a convincing case. The suggestion that non-renewal would be irreversible can’t be right: we would retain the know how and the technological capability, as do other countries like Japan. Is it really true that ditching Trident is now a “vote loser”, and that keeping it is “Labour’s settled view”?
The pro-renewal case is stronger on this point: Labour must be trusted on defence. But UK defence policy has to address an increasingly complex and sophisticated world, where the main dangers to Britain come not just from other nation states, but from terrorist organisations and instabilities caused by transnational financial systems, global economic imbalances, climate change and material shortages. None of these problems can be solved by a nuclear weapon. I think it is a mistake to equate a commitment to nuclear weapon renewal with a reputation for military soundness.
The other issue facing a Labour Party committed to non-renewal would be an economic strategy for the Barrow shipyard and the town of Barrow itself. This could be done at a fraction of the cost of carrying four new Vanguard class submarines.
Our country’s future is in the skills, the talents and enthusiasms of its people. Bringing down the costs of higher education, so that university remains affordable for the less well off, is a better investment in our country’s future than a weapon system that is ultimately too dangerous to use. This is not an academic argument, this is a 21st century choice.
Nick Brown is the Member of Parliament for Newcastle East. The CND public meeting will take place on Tuesday evening from 6:30-8pm in Committee Room 9 of the House of Commons