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The Trident Question

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Trouble over Trident has struck deep into the souls of disaffected Labour politicians, from those who say they ‘disagree with Jeremy’ to those making clear they will go to the stake for the ‘independent’ deterrent. Their belief in it turns on three considerations, spelled out three years ago by Luke Akehurst in Progress.

First, jobs: the renewal of Trident is a jobs-protection scheme, worth £100 billion (Akehurst asks ‘what Barrow, or for that matter Derby or Aldermaston, are supposed to do to replace the highly skilled engineering jobs dependent on Trident renewal’).

Second, ‘punching above our weight’ to ensure a ‘place at the table’, most notably as a member of the Permanent Security Council of the UN, a politically bankrupt arrangement if ever there were one.

Third, insurance, a policy with a very high premium but worth every penny when heart-wrenchingly packaged: ‘I support Trident renewal because I want my children and hopefully their children to have a country in 50 years time which is still protected by a deterrent so powerful that no other power that arises in the intervening five decades, however hostile or malign, would risk bullying us with nuclear or other WMD threats.’

This is the family-man doctrine of deterrence. It echoes the Tory mantra. Michael Gove told Andrew Marr that Corbyn ‘would give up our nuclear deterrent at a time when other countries, and indeed terrorists, are anxious to acquire a nuclear capacity’. Which countries? What is the threat, actual or incipient? If there is one that justifies the retention of nuclear weapons by the UK, it also justifies the acquisition of nuclear weapons by allies who don’t have them: Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, indeed of all members of the European Union and Nato (and that’s just for starters). Trident supporters should be militating for the shredding of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The new deputy leader of the Labour Party is clearly bothered by the Trident question. ‘My views on Trident are very well known,’ Tom Watson told Andrew Marr. ‘There has to be a discussion about that, and I’m hoping that the party will come together around this issue. We don’t need nuclear weapons. We need to keep those people who make them in good jobs so we have defence diversification. But we need to fulfil our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.’ But Watson also said that he was personally in favour of nuclear weapons. ‘I think the deterrent has kept the peace in the world for half a century.’

This collection of sentences is not obviously coherent. Watson’s argument from jobs seems to envisage a displacement of funding from Trident renewal to other weapons systems (‘defence diversification’). On the question of deterrence, however, he is all over the place: we don’t need nuclear weapons, but we do need them, because they have ‘kept the peace in the world for half a century’. That may be true for the restricted few who had them, though it would foolish to ignore the close shaves. But ‘in the world’? Since 1945 there have been more than 250 ‘major’ wars. Nine are currently raging in the Middle East and North Africa, with no end in prospect. Perhaps if, in addition to arming all Nato allies, we were to give nuclear weapons to all combatant sides in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, south-east Turkey,Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and north-east Nigeria there would be peace.

Instead of the ‘debate’ that’s being called for, smokescreens are going up (the Watson fog especially dense). It remains to be seen whether Corbyn will blow them away. His shadow defence appointments are all pro-renewal, so the auguries are not encouraging. But let’s hope that he at least insists on a properly informed and argued debate, in full public view. One place it might start is at the Labour Party Conference. The Arrangements Committee has decided to allow a motion to go forward for a Conference vote. Trident supporters in the party are doing all they can to close down the possibility.

‘It is important for Labour members to understand the Trident renewal will go ahead anyway,’ John Woodcock, the MP for Barrow, has airily stated. But it gets worse: ‘Derailing the process of debate that Jeremy himself signalled would be a perverse course of action. This is a highly divisive issue that risks splitting the Labour Party.’ There can’t be debate because it would derail debate. For the sake of party unity, the dissenting opinion of Corbyn’s supporters must be crushed to ensure that the old dissenting opinion of New Labour prevails. Make sense of that if you can.

Comments on “The Trident Question”

  1. John Burns says:

    It is wonderful that people are beginning to question the ludicrous proposition that possession of nuclear weapons has played a role and can play a role in keeping the world peaceful. It is akin to those Americans who believe that if everybody possesses a gun, their society will be a lot safer.

    • streetsj says:

      Well no it’s not. American guns are used all the time, nuclear weapons have not been used since the first time(s).
      Would there have been an Iraq war if Iraq had had nuclear weapons?

      What is the main reason for getting rid of Trident?
      Its a bad idea to have it in the first place?
      It’s too expensive?
      It’s not independent?
      Too many jobs at stake? (surely not)
      Unilateral nuclear disarmament is a good idea?
      We can trust Russia/France now and it’s ineffective against the likes of ISIS?
      We can rely on the Americans to protect us?

      • Alan Benfield says:

        “Would there have been an Iraq war if Iraq had had nuclear weapons?”

        Just as likely, I would have thought. The ostensible reason for that war was, after all, to rid Iraq of WMDs considered almost as nasty (which proved, of course, not to exist). Saddam was not unhinged enough to actually use one against the allies, as he would clearly be inviting the destruction of Iraq by massive retaliation. Unless you believe he really was a madman.

        As for the rest:

        Its a bad idea to have it in the first place? – with respect to Nye Bavan – probably

        It’s too expensive? – undoubtedly

        It’s not independent? – certainly

        Too many jobs at stake? (surely not) – no, not if the money so saved is used in diversification (remember, most of the cost of Trident is hardware, made in the US, not maintenance)

        Unilateral nuclear disarmament is a good idea? – why not?

        We can trust Russia/France now and it’s ineffective against the likes of ISIS? – You think Putin is a madman? France? Are you serious? Has anyone ever really taken the ‘force de frappe’ seriously? Hey, that’s an idea: let’s nuke ISIS.

        We can rely on the Americans to protect us? – well, we wouldn’t need to if we had better conventional forces and, well, unless we leave NATO, America and all the others are supposed to, actually. While you were sleeping they incorporated Article 5, which was, incidentally, used for the first and only time after 9/11 to legitimise the invasion of Afghanistan by a NATO force.

  2. Alan Benfield says:

    By the way, as quoted in The Guardian today:

    Crispin Blunt, the Tory chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, says: “It is no longer sensible to put aside the money [for Trident] for the size of nation we are. At what point is it no longer value for money for the UK? In my judgment we have reached that point.”

    Max Hastings, a historian and respected commentator on military affairs, chastised the government in yesterday’s Sunday Times, accusing it of “indefensibly” ruling out of the debate on the forthcoming strategic defence and security review (SDSR) “the huge commitment to replace Trident”. (Hastings added that the navy’s new aircraft carriers might have provided jobs for Scottish shipyards but were “less relevant to Britain’s security needs than is the Great Pyramid”.)

    “When you are short of money, you should put everything in the melting pot,” says Major General Patrick Cordingley, former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats. He argues that Trident should not be ringfenced and the costs should be weighed up against new ships, planes, tanks and infantry.

    Bunch of bloody lefties…

  3. semitone says:

    Corbyn could be forgiven for expecting better from Maria Eagle in her first week on the job. If she really thought “unhelpful” his decision to reassure the British public that he would not under any circumstances start or continue a nuclear war, couldn’t she have picked up the phone to tell him so? Did she really need to make a headline out of it?

  4. bevin says:

    US permission would be needed in order to employ Trident.
    To call this an independent deterrent, then, is not just inaccurate but wildly so: the only nation on earth that Britain is likely to be threatened by is the United States.
    Were Trident capable of being used to deter the USA from interfering in Britain there might be a case to be made for it.
    The reality is that Trident is part of the US strategic defence system which is based in Britain and paid for by the British people, it could only be used to deter powers which the US wished to deter. This is to say Russia, China, Iran and who else?

    • John Cowan says:

      This seems to me to be quite incorrect. Although the Trident missiles were bought from the U.S., they are under UK control, and the nuclear warheads were built in the UK by the UK defense establishment. UK persons are the only ones who can fire the UK missiles or set off the nuclear weapons mounted on them. It is in the discretion of the UK to aim and/or fire the missiles at any country or non-state actor whatever, whether Russia, France, the U.S., ISIS, or Tuvalu.

      What is more, US missiles can only be fired by order of the President, because the President is commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. The UK missile deterrent, however, can be fired (or not fired) by order of various UK military persons, because they report ultimately not to the PM but to the Queen. Presumably the Queen would be guided by her Government in this case, but in a crisis this could not be guaranteed.

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