The Trident Question
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.