Kevan Jones: Nuclear deterrent has helped to keep the peace – so it’s time the doubters fronted up about their beliefs

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Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, speaking at the UK Project on Nuclear Issues annual conference at the Royal United Services Institute last week, clearly stated that she was not convinced why the UK needs to maintain its independent nuclear deterrent, through the procurement of four nuclear ballistic missile submarines that will replace the current Vanguard-class when they reach the end of their lives in the early 2030s.

During her speech, Ms Thornberry accused the Government of not answering a number of questions that would help make the case for the building the submarines, including what is the current operational requirement and cost, what uses will the submarines have, what challenges they might face in the future operational environment, and whether alternatives are available.

Whilst the Government should be held to account over playing politics with the vote on the Successor programme, having been accused of delaying the vote for political reasons, and over its inertia on attending multilateral nuclear disarmament conferences, the case for building the submarines was never really theirs to make.

Indeed, it was the last Labour government that convincingly made the case for extending the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent beyond the 2030s, with its 2006 White Paper reaffirming our party’s commitment to helping to secure international peace and security. The Government’s position was endorsed in 2007 by a Parliamentary vote passed on division by 409 to 161.

Back in 2007, we recognised that the global security context did not justify complete UK nuclear disarmament: significant nuclear arsenals remained and some states would use the threat of nuclear weapons to deter us and the international community from taking the action required to maintain regional and global security. Today, we still cannot rule out the risk either that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK’s vital interests will re-emerge or that new states will develop the capability to threaten our vital interests, particularly in Europe.

Europe has not known total war for 71 years, and many within the Labour Party share my belief that the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, along with the European Union, NATO and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has helped to secure this peace.

Further into her speech, Emily Thornberry drew on Labour’s record on multilateral disarmament, asking what Nye Bevan, a committed advocate of disarmament, but known famously for reversing his opposition to nuclear weapons when he called on the Labour Party not to send future foreign secretaries “naked into the conference chamber”, would make of the fact that we still maintained our nuclear deterrent today.

I don’t want to attempt to try and answer that question, but I do know that Bevan represented a mining area, much like my own, that paid a huge sacrifice during the wars of the twentieth century.

I would therefore ask him what he would make of a Europe free of conflict for over 70 years and whether he felt his difficult decision to support the development of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent was worth it?

I echo Emily Thornberry’s concern that under this Tory-government the UK’s attitude towards multilateral nuclear disarmament has been woeful, and that the Prime Minister, obsessed as he is with short-termism and out-manoeuvring his Tory political opponents, has never showed foresight and skill in foreign affairs and defence policy.

We need a government that appreciates the complexity of international relations, but also has the appetite to drive forward efforts to bring about a more peaceful world. Thinking deeply about nuclear weapons is part of this, and we need to broaden our understanding of how retaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent plays a role, not just in national security, but in human security, too.

Simply trying to muddy the waters in this important debate, I would suggest to Emily Thornberry, is not helpful. If she believes in a unilateral position, she should make that clear and argue the case for it. Although it is not a position I would agree with, it is one that I would respect.

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