Andrew Whitaker: Will the SNP be death of Trident?

Neil Kinnock persuaded the party to drop its policy of unilateral disarmament. Picture: Getty

Neil Kinnock persuaded the party to drop its policy of unilateral disarmament. Picture: Getty

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It might be in Labour’s interests if the SNP forced their hand to scrap nuclear weapons, writes Andrew Whitaker

WITH the SNP riding high in the opinion polls and the prospect of a hung parliament still very real, Nicola Sturgeon has already fired the opening salvo of her party’s negotiating pitch to Labour, having kiboshed the prospect of propping up a minority Tory government.

There was Ms Sturgeon’s first official visit as First Minister to London last week, when she made clear that part of the price for nationalist support of a minority Labour government in Commons votes would be an end to austerity.

But it’s the looming renewal of Trident in the next parliament, when the Commons will face a vote on whether to recommission the nuclear missiles on the Clyde for a further generation, that the SNP see as the Holy Grail issue up for grabs.

Ms Sturgeon has already made it clear that a minority Labour government dependent on SNP support in tight commons votes to get through its legislation would have to come some way to her party on the issue of Trident.

Of course, at this stage it’s all “if, buts and maybes” and it’s by no means certain that a hung parliament will be the outcome on 7 May, even if the SNP makes the substantial gains it is widely tipped to.

However, if a scenario plays out that sees a large block of SNP MPs able to flex their political muscles and force the hand of a minority Labour administration, is it really possible that we could see the UK’s ditch its nuclear capability ?

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Could a beefed-up SNP group at Westminster really wield enough power to achieve where others failed throughout post-war Britain, most notably the hugely influential and well organised CND movement of the 1960s, in bringing about a decision to dismantle nuclear weapons ?

There’s a sense though in which it feels that all bets are-off, with an election taking place just months after Scotland came close to leaving the UK.

Parties such as the SNP and the Greens, also avowedly anti-nuclear weapons, appear to be on course to challenge the major parties at a General Election in a way never seen before.

The SNP, seemingly riding on the crest of a wave, feel this could be their moment to push on the Trident issue, even with the independence issue perhaps temporarily on the backburner.

There is a train of thought right at the top of the nationalist camp that Trident is something that a Labour government led by Ed Miliband would be able to come some way to the SNP on.

There is also actually also a very compelling case made as to whether a government, particularly a Labour one, should or would want to commit tens of billions of pounds to a Trident-style system if it did not already exist.

It’s for some of these reasons that the SNP leadership will think Labour could probably sell a decision not to renew Trident as one that it was forced to accept as a minority government by the nationalists and was the only way to keep the Tories out.

So there’s a view that such a scenario would allow Labour almost a get-out in scrapping Trident, something that many in the party want to do in their heart of hearts anyway.

It’s worth remembering that one of Neil Kinnock’s most controversial internal decisions as Labour leader was his successful move to convince the party to abandon its commitment to unilateral disarmament in the late 1980s, despite his own back story as a onetime convinced unilateralist.

Despite having no love for nuclear weapons in and of themselves, Labour big beasts of yesteryear such as Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley viewed the party policy for much of the 1980s to unilaterally abandon nuclear weapons as an electoral liability, as well one that would leave the UK dangerously vulnerable in the Cold War world of the time.

For sure the nuclear weapons issue and that of disarmament is a controversy that has played a huge role in Labour’s history, with schisms, splits and a good deal of anguish down the years.

Hugh Gaitskell - Labour’s leader in the late 1950s and early 1960s - famously promised to “fight and fight and fight again” to overturn a decision his party made in favour of unilateral disarmament at its 1960 Labour conference in open defiance of the leadership’s wishes.

One of the party’s most cherished heroes Aneurin Bevan famously abandoned his own backing for unilateral disarmament stating that the policy would send a Labour foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber”, as he accused his detractors of “an emotional spasm”.

Arguably somewhat less heroic Labour figures deserting the party to form the ill-fated SDP in the early 1980s, cited the anti-nuclear weapons stance as a reason for their defection of the party that gave them their careers and parliamentary seats.

So is there a somewhat ironic scenario that could play out that sees Labour finally delivering on a policy that was once such a Holy Grail for some of its own supporters, but which is now barely talked about in the party ?

But whatever the SNP may demand from Labour in a post-election deal, would the nationalists really be able to force Mr Miliband to agree to the removal of Trident and secure what influential left wingers ” such as Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Michael Foot failed to achieve ?

Could a block of 30 plus SNP MPs at Westminster really perform a role as “Labour’s conscience”, a role that was historically played out by figures such as Benn, Livingstone, Foot and Bevan and others over the years.

There would be pressure from unions over job losses and simply saying that the skills of workers at Faslane could be diversified elsewhere would not cut much ice, without a clear and properly thought-through and convincing plan for alternative employment.

The former MP and acclaimed author Chris Mullin’s novel “A very British Coup” imagines a radical Labour government in the 1980s, perhaps the sort Tony Benn would have led, elected on a platform of removing all American military bases on UK soil, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato.

It’s hard to imagine that the SNP, which incidentally has an arguably contradictory policy of backing membership of nuclear alliance Nato, coming anywhere making Labour deliver such a programme.

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