The choice is not between decent hospitals and a properly defended country

13th January, 2015 8:24 am

I’m a big fan of John Prescott. His role in the OMOV debate at Annual Conference in 1993 was critical to setting Labour on the path to electability. The extent to which he galvanised the grassroots and our core vote with his battle bus tours in three General Elections is an overlooked part of the winning formula that delivered a Labour hat trick. He was an incredibly loyal Deputy Leader and PM who provided a much needed voice for common sense when Blair sometimes became over-ideological. And more recently I have sometimes felt he was the only senior figure loudly defending our record of delivery in government.

So I was disappointed by his Daily Mirror article yesterday calling for extra funding for the NHS to come from not investing in the replacement submarine fleet for Britain’s nuclear deterrent.


This isn’t because I disagree with John about the necessity to properly fund the NHS and the integration of social care with it. I would be a hypocrite if I did because the NHS literally saved my life in 2009 when I had a life-threatening neurological disease caused by a bone marrow cancer, which saw me hospitalised for five months and in a wheelchair for a year afterwards. I then spent four years as Chair of Health Scrutiny in Hackney trying to expose the damage the Tory NHS reforms and hidden cuts were doing to the services that save lives.

It’s just I don’t think it is morally or politically right to present voters with a binary choice between defence and the NHS. If you say to them “heads you get decent hospitals, tails you get a properly defended country” then they will rightly give you a blunt Anglo-Saxon answer and go vote for a party that says it can deliver both these fundamental roles of the state.

We didn’t present voters with that kind of choice in the 1945 era. The Attlee Government created both the NHS and welfare state and NATO and the independent British nuclear deterrent. We could be trusted both to build a new Jerusalem at home and to take the tough stances needed to defend democracy from external threats, in those days the Soviet Union. We did that at a time when austerity literally meant rationing and the country was trying to rebuild bomb-damaged cities and repay massive war debts. The idea we can’t afford both health and defence now when despite the recession we are still the world’s sixth largest economy is a false one.

We did present voters with that choice in 1983 and 1987. We had great, idealistic, popular policies for the NHS, schools, job creation. But our unilateralist stance on nuclear weapons was a big factor in the Tories being able to portray us as unfit for government, unserious about the threats the UK had to be able to stand up to. It meant people felt they could not trust us in government and had to accept the damage to public services wrought by the Tories. If we present people with a choice of national security or the NHS, fear is likely to conquer hope, and in the impotence of opposition our love for the NHS will be worthless, as we will be sitting on the sidelines watching while a Tory government destroys it.

I campaigned for Ed Miliband to be Leader in part because I wanted us to move on from some of the ideological errors and excesses of the later period of the Blair years. I explained this here.

What I will never sign up to is to throw into reverse the fundamental steps back towards electability that we took painstakingly between 1987 and 1997. In three key areas Labour triangulated – removed our disadvantage and unpopularity vis-a-vis the Tories – not just for electoral advantage but because it was the right thing to do to align ourselves with the political instincts of the same working class voters who love and need the NHS and state education. These three areas were tackling crime, not excessively increasing personal taxation, and properly defending the country. Each is a litmus test for whether Labour is serious about being in government. Go back on any of these and we don’t deserve to win. John was part of the party leadership that made those changes, he should know why we had to make them.

I make the detailed case for Trident renewal here.

The bottom line is that there are countries out there that are already nuclear armed or who aspire to be and may achieve that during the period between now and the 2050s when the submarines John proposes scrapping would go out of service. Not all of these countries are benign towards the UK even now, let alone what threats may emerge in a changing and dangerous world. Some of them may threaten us during the next 35 years and we need to be able to deter them. We can either have a strategic nuclear deterrent, or we can spend far more than we do on Trident on conventional forces, or we can just hope everyone will be nice to us. I don’t think that Russia or China, let alone and God forbid Iran or North Korea, would resist the urge to bully and threaten us if we were not adequately armed. It isn’t how non-democratic states behave. As long as dictatorships have nuclear weapons I want us to have the same weapons so we can deter and stand up to them. If we can rid the world of them once and for all through a multilateral treaty, great, but until then we shouldn’t casually propose unilaterally giving them away to release funds for other domestic policy priorities.

I object to John’s characterisation that nuclear submarines “take lives”. A deterrent saves lives by making war between major powers unthinkable.

And John’s numbers are misleading. The £30 billion he cites is the capital cost of buying submarines that take many years to build and are then in service for decades more. Some of that cost has already been spent on design and early stages of the boats and is no longer available. The rest isn’t all available now for the NHS as it is spread over the lifetime of the programme between now and the 2050s. There is no pot of £30 billion available now for the NHS by raiding the Trident programme. The entire MoD annual budget is only just over the £30 billion John cites, at £36 billion, of which only £2 billion a year goes on Trident. Two billion a year does buy an independent nuclear deterrent, it wouldn’t deliver the kind of changes John identifies that the £130 billion a year NHS needs (for those of you who are councillors it equals the funding for a couple of London boroughs, inclusive of housing revenue). John himself says “Throwing in the odd billion here or there is just putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.” But that is all the saving from not replacing the Trident submarines would be.

In his article John suggests but then almost dismisses getting extra funding for the NHS from increasing National Insurance contributions. That’s what the last Labour Government, with John as Deputy Prime Minister, did. Voters backed this as a fair and sensible way to get extra funds into health. They would again. Why do employee NI contributions drop to 2% above £41,865? What I would beg him not to pursue is the idea that we have to make voters choose between the NHS we all love and the proper defence of our country. Just as in 1945, Labour must be credible on both these issues.

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  • Tommo

    Sensible article.

    The problem with the NHS is not money but the management culture.

    • ColinAdkins

      Tommo please explain what you mean and your evidence base to make such a comment.

  • Duncan Hall

    Attlee built the bomb without telling parliament, let alone the public via the 45 manifesto, so not sure of the relevance of that.
    I absolutely agree with John but not just on the basis of saving money (though choosing not to spend millions on something we’ll never use seems like the kind of fiscally responsible thing you’d like Luke) but for moral reasons too. We want to save lives not to take them. Sounds good to me. Sign me up!

    • PeterBarnard

      Not quite true, Duncan (“Attlee built the bomb without telling Parliament ….”)

      The decision to manufacture an atomic bomb was taken on 8 January, 1947 in a secret Cabinet committee meeting. On 12 May, 1948, the Minister of Defence (A V Alexander) announced in the House of Commons that Britain was making its own atomic bomb.

      Source : “Muddling Through” by Peter Hennessy.

      I tend to agree with you on the relevance of the UK possessing its own “nuclear deterrent,” especially since we probably could not use it without US agreement, and possibly approval, In “Muddling Through,” Sir Herman Bondi (who was Chief Scientific Adviser to the MoD in the 1970s) is quoted

      If the Americans were to tell us at one stage ‘We will go on for another twelve years, but not a day longer,’ we can adapt. If the Americans say tomorrow, ‘All we do now for you will stop,’ then it won’t be many months before we don’t have a weapon.’

      If that is true, I don’t see much in the way of “independence.”

      • Duncan Hall

        My point was that “we didn’t present voters with that kind of choice in the Attlee era” is misleading as we didn’t mention spending money on nukes at all (to the voters, that is).

        • PeterBarnard

          Sorry, missed that.

          After reading the sections in Kenneth Harris’ biography of Attlee, it appears that there was so much secrecy – and so much unknown – about the atomic bomb that it just wasn’t possible anyway for the Labour Party to mention anything about it in their 1945 manifesto. Churchill had kept the cards very close to his chest.

          So yes, the statement is misleading. In any case, a manifesto is not – constitutionally – a binding document. Governments have to have the freedom to make decisions when Harold Macmillan’s “Events, dear boy, events” occur.

    • DRbilderburg

      And against the wishes of the US who had considered sanctions against the UK for it
      What is the point spending Billions on something we can never use effectively. If they whoever it is we deem our enemy fire one at us are we supposed to take satisfaction that shortly before nuclear annihilation we live our last few minutes knowing that our enemy are to suffer the same fate

      • Duncan Hall

        The argument that will come back is that it is “useful” as a deterrent rather than something that will ever be used. This is equally nonsensical as the lack of independent nuclear deterrents on the part of Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. has not found them being attacked (by nuclear or non-nuclear states, although some have been victims of terror attacks against which nuclear weapons are peculiarly useless) whereas nuclear states – like Israel and the UK – HAVE been attacked (Iraq sending scuds into Israel, Argentina occupying the Falklands, etc.) because everybody knows nuclear weapons can’t and won’t be used by a remotely rational player so they don’t deter anybody (and nothing is any deterrent to the entirely irrational). As such, nuclear weapons make us less safe, because just about the only way you could imagine them ever being used is them somehow getting into the hands of terrorists whom no amount of other weapons would deter. Let’s start the process of getting a nuclear-free world properly and definitively, by getting rid of ours. If we want to feel secure and properly defended as a country, the best way is to scrap Trident and not renew it.

        • althejazz

          We do not need and never have needed trident – it should be scrapped and not replaced.

          • David Battley

            Unless we have and we do. Crystal ball gazing from an “armchair” position is difficult to do with any accuracy.

        • DRbilderburg

          I can buy into Attlee’s stance because Britain could not defend itself against the perceived threat from the Soviets, we were skint and our Army over extended
          A crude Nuclear bomb i could argue the case for then. Not now. The only Nuclear threat comes from Terrorists And as you state, we can’t nuke them, and us having them as a deterrent means nothing

  • Duncan Hall

    (Apologies if there were typos in that (or this) but I can’t see what I’m typing because of an annoying advert for Heathrow apirport expansion…

    • John Ruddy

      Agreed – cant Mark do something about that? Heathrow obviously have money to spend, the advertising is all over the internet.

    • ButcombeMan

      If you use Firefox as your browser and the Ghostery Add on. You can stop being harassed by adverts almost entirely and you will be much more secure on line.

      • Duncan Hall

        Thanks 🙂


    How does Germany and other nations manage to be so silly but not having a Trident or something similar. Defence budget is well above £30bn but not easy to get consistent figure – average on international comparisons is about $57bn or £38bn. Can we afford Trident and HS2?

  • Markham Weavill

    The only reason for renewing Trident or building aircraft carriers for which we have no planes is employment in areas that are already blighted. Other than that it makes no sense. We continue to believe that we can play above our weight if we keep these toys. It’s time the country grew up and accepted that we are being left behind partly because we spend on these toys rather than for the future.
    I don’t often agree with Prescott’s analysis but in this case I do.

    • Duncan Hall

      And surely people could build something useful (and marketable?) instead?

      • Markham Weavill

        I’d agree. However, I don’t trust governments of any stripe to spend the money needed to retrain people who would be made workless with part of the savings or for that matter invest wisely in start ups in the areas affected.

        • Duncan Hall

          The announcements should come together.

  • John Ruddy

    The real question is “Does Trident” defend the country properly, and it is the best use of resources in which to do so.

    In the current and likely world we actually live in, an intercontinental ballistic missile system if not going to defend us from any sort of threat we may face.

    • Steve Stubbs

      Nonsense. Take a scenario where Iran has nucs and we don’t. We then get a demand that we grant autonomy and sharia law to large areas of the country where there are many muslims. Nowadays nucs can be concealed in freight containers, lets say they claim to have one already in place in London.

      What’s your solution?

      • Duncan Hall

        What’s yours? Nuke Iran? Hilarious.

        • Steve Stubbs

          No. I don’t need a solution as I would keep our deterrent in place. (The clue is in the name).

          • Duncan Hall

            Just because you give something a name doesn’t make it perform that role. If a state or organisation had that capability and that desire, our having a bomb would make no difference whatsoever (because we wouldn’t usd it, so why be deterred by it?)

  • keithveness

    TRIDENT is not an “independent deterrent. You can onlu use it if the US military give the go-ahead. A total waste of money – does Luke support Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and other European countries all acquiring nuclear weapons? To just ask the question shows the absurdity of it. If we left NATO some of Luke’s arguments might have a grain of truth in them but really its just ludicrously expensive posturing – this money is better spent on the NHS and local government services.

    • Steve Stubbs

      Which is why we need a fully independent deterrent system, say sub launched cruise missiles. We already manufacture the warheads we use on trident, AWRE and Burghfield can relatively easily manufacture new smaller warheads. We just need a delivery system. Would you rely on Obama to defend us?

      • rwendland

        ” We already manufacture the warheads we use on trident” – commonly believed but not entirely true, in that essential components were supplied by the U.S, and a lot of the development work took place in the US.

        Take a look at National Security Directive 61, of 1991, where the US President authorised “additional nuclear weapons parts as necessary for transfer to the United Kingdom”. Also note the UK 1987 NAO report “Control and Management of the Trident Programme” said “most of the warhead development and production expenditure was incurred in the US”.

  • Varinder Singh

    We need to rethink our current notions of ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ in terms of size and operation of the UK’s nuclear arsenal. A like-for-like replacement of the Trident system for extremely unlikely nuclear scenarios does not represent sensible investment. The UK should adjust its nuclear policy to reflect the declining utility of nuclear weapons when the opportunities arise, like now.

  • Mark Andrew

    Is this not a choice for the government to make….doing something that the people want them to do (fund the NHS properly ) versus doing something that the majority of people don’t want them to (spend £37 billion renewing Trident).

  • Oldmanlabourrollinghome

    Trident does not add to our defence. It diminishes it. Soliders go to war badly equipped so we can prtend ot be a world power paying for subs whi are controlled by the USA. In a multi threat world it is useless

  • Oldmanlabourrollinghome

    The Heathrow pop up is really annoying

  • As always it comes down to resources not money. Does Britain have enough resources to adequately support both the NHS and Trident. Yes it does. No problem. The moral issues involved with Trident are separate from the economic issues. So it’s not case of “can we afford both” its “should we afford both”.

    When the chips are down the British ruling classes, and I’d include Attlee in their number, are smart enough to know that its only resources that matter too. If the bean counters had been in charge, in 1939, they’d have advised there was no money in the kitty and surrender was the only option. But, on the other hand, everyone knew we had the factories and shipyards , we had the labour, we had the raw materials and so we could produce tanks and warships. In the end, Germany and Japan lost, not because they ran out of money but because they didn’t have the resources of the combined Allied forces.

    So let’s not surrender our social democracy to the arguments of the bean counters. That’s a lesson we can learn from both Churchill and Attlee.

  • Daniel Speight

    I campaigned for Ed Miliband to be Leader in part because I wanted us to move on from some of the ideological errors and excesses of the later period of the Blair years. I explained this here.

    Luke not wanting to step into the old disarmament debate right now, and being surprised that John Prescott did on a subject that has always been fiercely argued about in the party. (Remember even Nye managed to be on both sides at different times.) What did interest me was the quote above.

    Now in the link to your blog you seem to explain the tactical reasons for supporting Ed against his brother in the leadership election with which I have no argument. The bit that generated this comment was on Blair’s ideological errors.

    You see Luke, if you can see ideological errors in Blair then I have to ask if you see similar errors in Progress. Please don’t think I’m some sort I’m sort of ideological purist, but in my mind the fault of much of the New Labour project was its drift away from social democrat ideology and therefore the democratic socialism you often mention.

    Quite often you seem to want to turn your arguments into a broadside against the far or soft left, but at times you seem to now include those taken a centrist position in the party’s political spectrum. The truth is that it becomes extremely difficult to blame this “left” for the 2010 defeat or a possible 2015 loss.

    In 2010 the party was led by the principle architect of the New Labour project and today those associated with that project are running Labour’s election campaign. Now the likes of Hodges and Marchant will still try and blame the left for any failure with the latter probably chasing Trotskyists in the Stop the War movement, or Muslims, or both. Hodges will probably try and spin that Ed really is red.

    How about you Luke? Are you willing to accept any responsibility for 2010? Do you think that ideological errors are still being made? Should a social democrat inspired offer to the electorate replace Alexander’s limited offer? I must admit my confidence in a very necessary Labour victory is not strong at all.

  • Jane Manby

    “OMOV” using acronyms is O.k if everyone knows what they mean and the correct way to ensure that is to use the name in full on its first us in an article then by it’s acronym after that. Does no one teach English correctly in school anymore.

  • Chrisso

    Good for Prescott! Luke Akehurst is on the wrong side of history. His is the Labour ‘extreme right’ so-called Progress viewpoint, not a far distance from the Tories. We actually need to mothball Trident ASAP.


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