What is Labour’s Trident policy, exactly?

March 26, 2013 3:59 pm

Amid the brouhaha of the Budget, and the drama of Leveson, it would be easy to let other, lesser, news slip you harmlessly by last week. The Financial Times carried a little noted article last Monday on the Labour Party and serially tricky issue of Trident. For the cynics amongst us, the timing was curious, given that the political parties were on the cusp of concluding their grubby negotiations on Leveson, the Budget was sure to preoccupy the week and, lest we forget, it was the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For a party who has long been uncomfortable with its relationship with nuclear weaponry, and wary of public and partisan scorn, last week signalled an ideal opportunity to subtly shift its stance on an issue of totemic importance.

Ever since Operation Hurricane detonated Britain’s first atomic bomb off the Australian coast in 1952, which was commissioned and sanctioned by the previous Attlee government, nuclear weaponry and the Labour Party have shared a troubled past. The FT headline, thundering ‘Miliband set to ditch Trident stance’, at once gave hope to those that share doubts over current policy. As with most salacious headlines, the journalese did not quite cover the reality. The Labour leader is no more calling for the full removal of Britain’s nuclear-tipped Trident II submarines than he is calling for the bombing of Moscow. The nuance is more restrained than that, but no less revealing.

The anonymous briefings provided to the FT appear to endorse the absolute minimal option for change – three submarines instead of four, with an end to round-the-clock North Atlantic patrols. This is, nonetheless, an important step. But potentially at odds with many within the party, including, it would seem, Labour’s very own Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy. Murphy gave a series of hard-hitting interviews to the New Statesman a few weeks ago, one of which said:

“Ed [Miliband] and I have spoken about this quite a bit and we’re in the same place, which is that we’re not a unilateralist party and we’re not about to become a unilateralist party.”

A couple of weeks later, however, and Miliband’s inner circle appear to be briefing that they’re not in the same place at all. One can note the thoughts of Miliband’s chief advisors from an article written back in January that detailed a “roadmap to nuclear abolition”.

But the case for downgrading our nuclear arsenal deserves to be heard, and heard seriously. At present the overriding political debate in Britain is that of our spending. The pressure on defence spending is especially acute. And the effects can already be seen. The number of soldiers in the British Army is at its lowest level since the Napoleonic wars. The Royal Navy won’t have an aircraft carrier for the next six years. In this climate, is spending at least £30bn on Trident renewal an overriding national priority? Not to even ask the more fundamental question about whether Britain actually needs its own nuclear weapons programme.

The danger is we agree to a parade of Generals fighting the last war but one. So we buy EuroFighters to duel with Russian MiGs and pledge to renew Trident so they can continue cruising the deep, deterring none-existent threats. The critical argument against Britain’s continued nuclear deterrent is that Britain’s use of nuclear weapons in any such aggression would be unthinkable. Trident will not deter, and will never be used against, what are now Britain’s enemies. Its value as a deterrent depends on a coherent, readily identifiable, enemy with a leadership structure capable of being deterred. This applied in the Cold War. But that is where it belongs. Wars fought today are post-conventional, post-nuclear and asymmetrical. They are not against states but against stateless individuals, regional insurgencies and political and religious beliefs.

Increasingly Trident should be viewed as not even remotely a national priority. Blair was a continuum in the defence establishment’s myopic faith in its nuclear weaponry, Brown was never prime minister long enough to see through his conversion on the subject. Miliband just well might be. The consensus in the political and defence realm is that little will change on this matter; political prestige, and timidity, trumps all. But as Labour started Britain’s nuclear programme, so too could it well signal its subtle end.

  • AlanGiles

    Good article, David

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      Thank you, Alan.

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      Thank you, Alan.

  • Amber_Star

    “Wars fought today are post-conventional, post-nuclear and asymmetrical.”
    ————-
    Until they aren’t. You never get the war which you think you are going to get. It could be argued that Trident & the concept of MAD has served us well since Atlee’s time.
    The reason that Trident is up for discussion now is purely down to the Scottish referendum. Trident can’t be relocated, despite a few people kidding themselves that Trident can be moved to England provided it reduces to three & ceases round-the-clock North Atlantic patrols. They are clutching at straws: Without Scotland there can be no UK Trident. Which is why the UK is considering what to do in the unlikely event that Scotland votes yes to independence.

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      You never know what? No other Government department gets away with gargantuan levels of public spending based on such intellectual sloppiness as defence.

      • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

        The stuff they get away with… hardly bears thinking about, but we must.

        It’s useful to recall the words of President Eisenhower (ex-W.W.2 Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe and ex-Supreme Commander of NATO), spoken in the Oval Office to national security aide General Goodpaster while taking a red pen to the defence budget:

        “God help this country when we have a man sitting at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.”*

        *http://susaneisenhower.com/2012/10/09/god-help-this-country-defense-strategy-romneys-military-spending-plan/

  • Domhnaill Barnes

    Indeed a good article. I have been anti nuclear for many years and have never heard a reasonable argument that has made me consider changing my opinion. Trident is indeed a weapon for yesterday’s war and it would demonstrate great political courage to give it up. And we cannot ignore the fact that we are hardly in a position to go spending £30bn+ on a weapon we will never use.

  • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

    Excellent contribution.

    I was disappointed to hear of Ed’s nonsensical insistence on maintaining a ‘deterrent’ at the recent NEC meeting. If he’s a dupe for this then what else might he fall for? ‘Preventative’ or ‘humanitarian’ war? Let’s hope not.

    However, at least the voice of sense has issued forth from the body of Douglas Alexander, who warned against a repetition of past mistakes* and urged a political solution for Syria, rather than further militarisation. We should be grateful for small mercies.

    * http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/12/syria-rebels-russia-political-transition

  • robertcp

    We invaded Iraq because we thought it had weapons of mass destruction, which rather undermined the argument for a nuclear deterrent. My big fear at the time was that Saddam had WMD and would use them!

  • Brumanuensis

    An excellent article, David. I can’t think of anything to add to it.

  • Redshift1

    One angle does need to be seriously addressed by those pushing for axing trident (and I would consider myself part of that). We need a serious manufacturing strategy either inside or outside the defence industry (probably both in reality), if we are going to get rid of Trident without severely damaging certain towns like Barrow – and to reassure other places reliant on other parts of the defence industry.

    Both morally and electorally, that has to be addressed if we want to go down the road of nuclear disarmament. At the moment I don’t have that kind of confidence in our industrial strategy. I think it needs really quite radical state intervention to work.

    I want to go down that road but we have to package it. It’s not an isolated issue.

    • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

      Nail on the head. Military Keynesianism is more easily resisted when an alternative is available.

      Best not to go down the U.S. road where, as U.S. patriot and distinguished academic Chalmers Johnson pointed out:

      “The B-2 bomber has a piece of it made in every single state to make sure that if you ever try to phase that project out, you will get howls, howls from among the most liberal members of Congress.”*

      * This quote is taken from the ‘must see’ documentary by Eugene Jarecki, Why We Fight – a documentary that touches upon many of the themes raised by David and others, above. Full video here:

  • David Mackenzie

    This is particularly relevant to the Scottish referendum in 2014. On the grounds of self-preservation alone Labour people in Scotland must be thinking about a plan B, should the Yes vote grow. With poll upon poll confirming public hostility to Trident in Scotland a Labour without a plan B would be facing serious erosion.

    • James Christie

      It is very relevant in Scotland. When Scottish Labour are questioned on Trident they seem to see it as a question of jobs on the Clyde. During the endless discussions about how Scotland should be defended I’ve not yet heard a Scottish Labour representative express an opinion on whether a Trident replacement would be a good thing or bad; whether it is strategically necessary or not.

      The difficult questions are ducked on the grounds that it is a reserved matter and Labour’s concerns are about the Trident related jobs that would be lost if Scotland became independent. It’s right that Labour should be concerned about the jobs, but the party has to offer more than that.

      The implicit stance is that the vast sums spent on Trident are justified by the relatively few jobs it supports, and the defence or moral issues are irrelevant. Trident, and a replacement, are treated as givens, to be decided by London, about which practical people in Scotland don’t need to hold any opinion. That is not a coherent position. It will win votes around the Faslane base, but lose many more elsewhere in Scotland.

      Pointing out weaknesses in SNP proposals may be necessary, but does not of itself amount to a credible alternative. Trident is not a given. It is a vitally important issue that needs to be debated, contested and justified. What would happen if the UK Labour party decides that a replacement is not justified? What would Scottish Labour do?

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