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Brown had to back Trident – but that doesn’t make it right

It isn’t independent and it certainly isn’t a deterrent. Britain’s fleet of Vanguard class nuclear submarines carry Trident D5 missiles leased from America which cannot be deployed without the agreement of the White House. Far from deterring emerging countries like Iran or North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, the renewal of Trident positively encourages them to do so.

If Britain, as Gordon Brown believes, requires these devices to meet some nameless future threat, and to ensure Britain’s clout in the United Nations Security Council, then every industrialising country will argue the same. Iran is surrounded by nuclear nations – Pakistan, Israel, Russia, India – and has a greater cause for pleading the logic of deterrence than Britain, which faces no immediate threat from anywhere, unless you believe France has a sinister ambition to irradiate Albion.

This quintessentially Eighties weapon system, which Brown promised in last week’s Mansion House speech to renew, was developed under the Cold War doctrine of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD). And mad it certainly is. Trident is designed to obliterate every significant city in the former Soviet Union. Since the Russians are now on our side, this makes the system anachronisitc to say the least.

We will be spending #20 billion on a system which cannot be used against any known enemy. Terrorists like al Qaeda will certainly not be deterred. However, Britain’s dependence on the US for supply and servicing of our nuclear weapons, more or less signs us up to American foreign policy, and to disasters like Iraq. Meanwhile our impoverished conventional forces struggle in Afghanistan with inferior kit.

At best, Trident is a military virility symbol, at worst a threat to world peace. Gordon Brown knows all this – he has been an opponent of nuclear weapons for most of his life and, I am convinced, remains one at heart. He knows also that the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons – the so called Reliable Replacement Weapon being developed at Britain’s nuclear laboratory at Aldermaston – is a breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That requires countries to work actively towards disarming existing nuclear weapons instead of developing new ones.

The Chancellor claims to be an internationalist, dedicated to eradicating poverty and promoting world peace. He spoke at Robin Cook’s funeral about this agenda. So, why did the future PM announce, out of the blue, that Britain is going to keep the very system that defines big power hypocrisy. That says to developing nations: ‘Just remember – there’s one law for us; another for you lot’ ?

The short answer, of course, is political expediency. It’s all to do with Brown’s obsession with ensuring that ‘orderly succession of power’. He believes he has to persuade Middle Britain that the future Prime Minister is not a man of the Left..
Like wrapping himself in the flag, and supporting England in the World Cup, Brown is appealing to the Daily Mail constituency, who believe nuclear weapons are a source of national pride and national security.

The Chancellor’s aides were tickled that Clare “It’s the end” Short, the former Development Secretary, disowned Brown last week declaring him to be beyond the pale. That’s exactly where the Chancellor’s aides want him to be – at least in the eyes of those mainly English Labour voters who suspect that Gordon’s true colours are not red white and blue, but plain red.

This column forecast, wearily, that Gordon Brown would make just such a public affirmation of his intention to maintain nuclear deterrent the weapons system, if only because it was in Labour’s election manifesto. His justification is that the future Prime Minister has to reassure Britain’s allies and the UN Security Council, that he does not intend to pull Britain out of its international treaty obligations.

To have made a declaration of unilateral intent now would have spooked America and created an unbridgeable gulf between himself and Tony Blair. This could have destroyed Labour as a governing party. Just imagine if Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful leader ever, were to disown his successor on the grounds that, to use Nye Bevan’s old phrase, he would “leave Britain naked in the conference chamber”?

Neil Kinnock, a hugely influential figure, might also have criticised Brown for endangering Labour’s electability and reopening the wounds of the 1980s. Needless to say, the tabloid newspapers and the mainstream press would have condemned Brown as a figure from Labour’s past – an unreconstructed Left-winger who is out of tune with public opinion and unsuited to the disciplines of office.

Put this way, Gordon Brown had little option but to make a statement affirming his support for Labour’s settled policy on our oxymoronic nuclear deterrent. However, I am not trying to apologise for this decision. It may be understandable but that doesn’t make it morally justifiable. It certainly doesn’t justify the nuclear chauvinism of his aides who spun the Chancellor’s bald announcement last week into a declaration of war on unilateralists and CND.

In private briefings to journalists, Number 11 spinners portrayed Brown as a kind of Dr Strangelove who had learned to love the bomb and was eager to show that he was signed up to MAD. Brown authorised these briefings and the Chancellor should be ashamed of them. He should look back on this moment, as with his defence of the PM’s conduct of the Iraq war, with a deeply troubled conscience.

He knows that the only way to justify the maintenance Trident is if it is used as a means of reducing the international arms race. The only utility of a system which, if it were used, could destroy a quarter of the planet is to employ it as a means to decommission other nuclear weapons. I may be naive, but I suspect Brown will try to do something about this when he becomes Prime Minister.

Britain’s nuclear deterrent is already “stood down” and only a token force actually takes to the seas. Trident missiles are targeted, not on any cities, but on the South Atlantic. It is questionable whether they could be used in earnest without a great deal of work being done on the fleet to make it fully operational.

And may they rust in peace. It is possible that Brown may use the renewal of the nuclear deterrent as an opportunity to downsize Trident, to make it compatible with the NNPT. There’s some evidence that the chiefs of staff would not be unhappy at the prospect of saving the 4% of the military budget that goes on Trident and using it to buy something more useful – like decent boots and rifles.

It may be wishful thinking, but I suspect Brown might try to use the nuclear system, constructively, as a form of bargaining with so-called rogue nations, to persuade them to put their own arsenals ‘beyond use’. To mothball all nuclear weapons, under a form of international supervision, is the only plausible way, ultimately, to create a climate of disarmament. Brown is an internationalist. In the age of climate change and global warming the last thing the world needs is further proliferation of nuclear weapons. But the reality is that, if things go on as they are, many more countries will join the nuclear club in the next two decades.

There is no way of stopping this race by running faster than the rest. Someone has to call a halt to the nuclear madness – we can only hope against hope that, in his pursuit of power, Gordon Brown keeps his sanity in reserve.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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