George Kerevan: Labour impaled on a blunt Trident

A (US-maintained) Trident missile is test-fired from a Royal Navy submarine. Picture: Crown Copyright
A (US-maintained) Trident missile is test-fired from a Royal Navy submarine. Picture: Crown Copyright
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Party has form when it comes to promoting expensive and ineffectual nuclear delivery systems, writes George Kerevan

Yesterday the House of Commons debated whether the UK should replace its present Trident submarine nuclear deterrent. The three main Westminster parties – who support a next-generation, seaborne deterrent – largely boycotted the discussion. Reason: the debate was called by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, who are opposed. Labour said it considered the debate a political gimmick – though fearing back-bench defections, shadow defence spokesman Vernon Coaker was dispatched to defend the indefensible.

But debating the future of the Trident replacement is no gimmick. Indeed, it is urgent. For in a classic move, the Ministry of Defence used the Christmas parliamentary recess to slip out news of its latest increase in spending on the project’s “assessment phase” – a euphemism to disguise the fact parliament has not technically approved the new subs, or how many there will be. The MoD has sanctioned another £261 million of funding, £206m of which will be spent on new facilities at the BAE Systems shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness.

There is a delicious irony in Labour refusing to join the SNP at Westminster to hold the MoD to account. Yesterday, 20 January, when the debate took place, was also the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster.

And where is the MoD’s extra cash for nukes coming from? It will be “drawn down” from the future budget of the Trident replacement – a budget still not put before parliament. I could think of a lot of things one could fund in that fashion – the English NHS, for instance.


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Of course, the de facto decision to replace Trident has long since been made, by the then Labour government in December 2006. Last year, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition quietly renewed Britain’s long-standing nuclear weapons co-operation treaty with the US, the so-called Mutual Defence Agreement, which dates back to 1958. The heart of this latest iteration of the treaty is a deal to design the warheads and reactors for the new generation of subs.

You might find it odd in a democracy that such a treaty can be signed without scrutiny by elected members. In fact, the Crown (that great euphemism for the Executive in Downing Street) merely has to lay the said renewal “before parliament” within 21 days, for it to become law. True, MPs can request a parliamentary debate. However, governments routinely get round this by simply refusing to table such a debate for supposed lack of interest or time. Labour did this brazenly in 2004, the last time the US nuclear treaty was renewed.

Rank-and-file Scottish Labour was clearly discomforted by the decision of the party’s leadership to ignore Tuesday’s debate and side – yet again – with the Tories. Labour squirming over the Trident replacement project is standard. Back in 2007, when the Scottish Parliament voted against renewing Trident by 71 MSPs to 16, a majority of Labour members abstained. An honourable exception was Malcolm Chisholm, who actually resigned as a minister under Jack McConnell over replacing Trident.

Clearly feeling the heat, a spokesperson for the unashamedly pro-nuke Jim Murphy put out a statement claiming: “Scottish Labour believes in a world totally free of nuclear weapons. Our record is beyond reproach… Labour governments have always led international efforts for multilateral nuclear disarmament…”

Does Labour have a record “beyond reproach” in seeking to rid the world of nukes? On the contrary, successive Labour governments have actively promoted nuclear delivery systems.

In 1946, prime minister Clement Attlee and a small group of Labour ministers took the secret decision to build Britain’s first atomic bombs. They also ordered a fleet of V-Bombers to deliver them. Labour was just out of office by the time the first British nuke was tested in 1952. But Winston Churchill, the new Tory prime minister, happily congratulated the Labour front-bench on giving birth to the British Bomb. He added, sardonically, that “as an old parliamentarian I was rather astonished that something well over £100m could be disbursed without parliament being made aware of it”. For £100m read £4 billion in today’s money. Add in the V-Bombers and nuclear power stations to manufacture the fissile material (disguised as “peaceful” electricity generation) and Labour nearly bankrupted the Austerity Britain of the 1940s in order to join the atomic club.

Did this buy security? Not a bit of it. The reason the Americans agreed to the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement was, in fact, to make the UK a junior partner that can never use its nukes independently of the White House. Every Lockheed Trident D5 missile at sea today is rented from the Pentagon. Royal Navy submarines must visit the US base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for the maintenance and replacement of these missiles – so much for all the referendum scare stories about Faslane.

Trident is not an independent deterrent but an expensive – and unnecessary – political status symbol. For as a nation, we do not face any existential threat from another nuclear power. If anything, spending money on Son of Trident actually diverts cash from where it is needed most – countering the threat from Islamist terror.

I suspect Labour’s residual support for a Trident replacement stems from the need to protect its flank from Tory attacks that it is soft on defence, or because the new subs will be built in Labour’s northern heartlands where its vote is threatened by Ukip. But if need be, skilled engineering workers in Barrow can be redeployed to build other ships for the much depleted Royal Navy. Besides, Labour has suffered electorally more from past Blairite military adventures than from alleged pacifism.

Labour will retort – using a dubious logic – that Britain will only keep its nuclear deterrent as long as other nations do, and that it will take the lead in promoting multilateral disarmament. The trouble is that Labour has been saying this since 1946 while simultaneously spending money the UK can ill afford on each successive generation of mega-death technology.

Besides, after the Iraq War, how can anybody believe in Labour’s credentials as an honest broker in the international arena?


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