Trident is a relic of the past – and it needs debating properly

2nd February, 2016 3:01 pm


The renewal of Trident is a £100 billion question. 

Indeed, recent estimates place the cost much higher.

The decision to press ahead would commit us to at least three more decades of nuclear armament.

The question of renewal also strikes at the very the heart of British identity – about the country we’ve been, and our future role on the global stage of a modern, complex and changing world. 

Such a core and costly question deserves a proper debate, and Emily Thornberry’s comprehensive defence review is to be welcomed. 

My own views on Trident are long-held and clear – I believe unilateral disarmament is the right and practical choice. 

As people and public services continue to feel the vested bite of George Osborne’s austerity agenda, it can’t escape us that an extra £100+billion could help communities across the UK in real need. In fact, according to Rethink Trident, it could fully fund all A&E services in our hospitals for 40 years, build 1.5 million new homes – or insulate 15 million. 

The Trident debate must be had, the public’s voice heard and the Government held wholly to account – and I’m proud that Labour is leading that charge. 

Polls have consistently indicated strong public opposition to nuclear arms, and we’ve seen a groundswell of support for the movement to disarm since Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Leader. On Saturday, I met with a packed hall to become the first serving Shadow Cabinet member to address Labour CND for more than three decades.

Support for Trident is far from unanimous across our military ranks, with many citing deep concern that it fails to offer value for money or address the real security threats facing Britain today. A report last year quotes one former Army Major saying: “Apart from maintaining its political position, it is unclear what the UK’s nuclear weapons are for. Do we need them to defend the UK?”

The case for disarmament is compelling – whichever way you look at it.  

Let’s be clear. Trident is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. It has a sole function that can never be performed. To use it – under any circumstances – would be to commit genocide, and an indefensible breach of international law. 

But even if one argued it had once served a purpose, that time is gone. The world has moved a long way since Britain first went nuclear. 

We live in a complex and dangerous age. The threats we face are ever-evolving and if we’re to face them effectively, we too must adapt. 

Trident is a relic of the past, with no credible role in our children’s future.  

It cannot ease climate change, cure epidemics, address the push-factors of mass migration or tackle modern and murky digital warfare. It cannot protect our children from extremists on Facebook, solve mass food insecurity or water shortage. It cannot reverse gross inequality. It cannot target lone-wolf gunmen, decrypt messages or prevent the hijacking of a plane. 

Britain cannot build a prosperous future grounded in technologies of the past. That’s as true of Trident as it is of dirty fuels. Both are living fossils – and the writing’s on the wall. Continuing to commit our billions to them serves nothing but political interest and starves crucial investment in the industries and services a great future Britain must be built upon. 

Trident is assigned to NATO, and entirely dependent on maintenance, servicing and technical support from the US. Even the missiles are leased. The cost of us decommissioning is a fraction of the cost of renewing.

The question of the number of jobs tied up, directly and indirectly, in Trident is a very important one. At a time of such economic insecurity people are right to be worried that scrapping Trident means losing too many skilled jobs. And Trade Unions are right to raise questions over what will happen to the jobs of their members who work on Trident and related industries. But I believe these legitimate concerns can be resolved through consultation, planning and a defence diversification agency.

Just a handful of countries are clinging to a nuclear capability. The vast majority of the world feels no such need. The very existence of a nuclear warhead legitimises its use, signals a threat, and encourages proliferation – bombs are not peacemakers; they’re a destabilising global influence. 

Iran has just curbed much of its own nuclear programme – a deal in which, foreign secretary Philip Hammond said, Britain “played a major role, and makes the Middle East and the wider world a safer place”.

Quite – and it’s time we followed suit.

To do so would be a brave and radical act, fitting of a confident, progressive and outward-looking global player. 

There are a myriad reasons to properly scrutinise and debate Trident.  

But the absolute devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains a painfully raw reminder of what’s really at stake when we discuss renewal.  

Labour has never shied away from the tough questions, and we’re not about to start now.

Diane Abbott MP is Shadow International Development Secretary

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