WEAKNESS on my part – I know, it shows – but I have strong respect and regard for Tony Blair. Always have. One of the many benefits of no longer being a politician is that I can say things like that with impunity.
He made hugely flawed decisions on monumental issues. But I don’t have to agree with what he did, does or says to recognise his strengths. As a leader he had, and has, immense capability and clarity of thought. His party would benefit from some now.
‘Is the commitment to multilateral disarmament real or lip service?’
His decision to hold a referendum on Scottish devolution in 1997 was controversial and opposed by many who thought it was back-sliding on a commitment. But he ended up unifying the country and brought the SNP and Labour together on the side of progress. It was a good moment. A very good moment. And a signal of what the SNP and Labour in combination could achieve.
Last week, as I contemplated the often risible Labour election campaign of the moment, I wondered how much difference his talents would make. Thinking about the controversy around the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, I dipped back into his memoirs to remind myself of what he has to say about the issue. It is instructive.
In 2007 he admitted to hesitancy over the decision. “I could clearly see the force of common sense and practical argument against Trident, yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation… and too big a risk for our defence.”
He was riven with doubt. “The contrary decision would not have been stupid. The expense is huge, and utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and nonexistent in terms of military use… It is true that it is inconceivable we would use [it] alone, without the US.”
Remember he was speaking in 2007 before the financial crisis and colossal resulting pressures on the public finances. If the decision was 50:50 for him then, where would it have been in the context of grating, punishing austerity?
By 2009, senior retired military leaders Field Marshal Lord Bramall and generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach went further than Blair and denounced Trident nuclear weapons as “irrelevant”. They argued they were neither a deterrent nor independent and, instead of renewal, funding should be focused on equipping our forces to cope with the actual challenges they faced. Blair would have nodded in some agreement, no doubt.
What is a monumental decision of importance requires deep financial consideration – the full cost is estimated at £100 billion. It requires complex strategic military thought and a clear sense of purpose around what Britain’s modern role in the world is. In the context of the election debate, though, it is reduced by the Conservatives to a cheap measure of political and jingoistic manhood.
Labour remains riven just as Tony Blair was. Jim Murphy argued in the STV leaders debate that he wanted a world free of nuclear weapons but that we needed to renew Trident and negotiate with all the other holders of weapons. I get the point but it seemed deeply disingenuous. Is the commitment to multilateral disarmament real or lip service? Are any summits planned? How could £100bn on a new system help rather than be seen as proliferation?
Murphy’s former Cabinet colleague (Lord) Des Browne would appear to agree.
He argued in 2013 that “[Updating Trident with a like-for-like replacement]… will demonstrate to the international community that we intend to keep nuclear weapons on permanent deployment for decades while seeking to deny those weapons to everyone else. In the process, it will destroy any chance of building the broad-based international support required for a stronger non-proliferation and nuclear security regime” .
A recent survey of Labour candidates in the election found that three in four opposed renewing Trident. That sounds realistic to me.
But were it not for the strong voice of the SNP would this issue even be a live one in the election?
Opposing renewal is not a margin-al, eccentric or radical position. It is acutely reasonable given the realities of the world military, diplomatic and financial.
It appears to boil down to a very high price to buy Britain a status that speaks to the nation it once was rather than a modern vision of what it could be.
If the debate is reduced to election-eering jingoism we take decisions of inter-generational and international importance on the basis of crude, simple-minded cynicism.
We shouldn’t have to wait for mem-oirs to hear the truth. Regardless of your view, it demonstrates a major benefit of the SNP voice in this election and, as many progressives across the rest of the UK appear to hope – in the parliament that follows. «