You’ll have had your debate. It took about an hour on Thursday for the decision to be taken by the UK Cabinet to replace Trident. The consultation will be an empty one, taking place over the Christmas holiday season, and the vote in the New Year will be a formality.
Faced with a fait accompli, Labour MPs will mostly come into line after threats from the government whips of the dire electoral consequences of slipping back into unilateralism. The assumption is that the British public will never vote for a party which leaves the nation defenceless. That in a dangerous world, people will expect the government to maintain nuclear security.
Most Labour MPs I know dislike Trident. But the party’s electoral psychology is still locked in the 1980s, like the generals who always fight the last war. The memory of their former leader Michael Foot’s crushing defeat in 1983 still haunts Labour. Never again.
So, Britain will spend between £25 and £70bn on a new and useless generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to destroy most of the major cities in the former Warsaw Pact. Countries with which we are now at peace.
There is no known target for these missiles. They are purely symbolic – an affirmation of British national status. There to ensure that we don’t walk naked into conference chambers; have seat at the top table of the UN Security Council; don’t let the French become the only nuclear country in Europe. Trident is a bit like a codpiece – a macho decoration, intended to indicate potency, but which merely conceals the diminutive size of our moral credibility.
Of course, you’ve heard all these arguments before. Old story; let’s hear something new. We are all just a little bored by the whole debate about Trident – I am myself. It seems to revive every few months, but never really get anywhere. Which is exactly how the government wants it to be.
When the vote comes, we will be told that the issue has been examined exhaustively over the last eighteen months. Which it emphatically has not been. This has been a one-sided debate, in which the opponents of renewal have been fighting shadows because there has been no clear proposal on the table. Just hints and steers.
At one stage it was thought possible that the government might just extend the life of the existing Trident system beyond 2025, and further reduce the number of missiles deployed. This looked an attractive option to some Labour anti-nukes since it would allow the government to retain the nuclear deterrent, and yet meet the spirit as well as the letter of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
That agreement requires nations not only to work towards nuclear disarmament, but to refrain from developing new weapons systems and to take practical steps to reduce existing nuclear capability. Britain has quietly reduced the number of warheads in the Trident system by 50% over the last decade .
There was a hope that Gordon Brown, who is no great nuclear enthusiast, might continue this policy – keep the existing boats and allow Trident to rust in peace. That as Prime Minister, he might take up the challenge laid down by the former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook, who shortly before he died called on the government to: “Find the courage to let Trident be the end of Britain’s futile and costly obsession with nuclear-weapon status”.
Brown read the eulogy at Cook’s funeral. But it looks unlikely now that he will follow his logic and use the Trident renewal process to effectively ‘decommission’ the system. The hints we are now getting about next month’s White Paper is that the government is going to go for a new system, with new missiles – perhaps with fewer warheads which could be more precisely targeted. This would be, in the eyes of many international lawyers, a material breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty because it increases the likelihood of a first strike.
The disaster in Iraq seems to have increased the attractions for the Prime Minister of a shiny new Trident. After all, Britain will somehow have to compensate for the lost of international prestige that could follow defeat by a few thousand insurgents and Islamist fanatics. This is not the time to show weakness, we will be told.
Britain must be strong to face the challenges of a dangerous new world. It is up to those who would ditch Trident to prove that they will never be needed – that will be the line.
But that, of course, is impossible. You cannot base defence policy on hypothetical enemies. It is up to governments to assess the current risk and devise a security system that is appropriate to the times, not speculate about some future revival of superpower rivalry.
We keep being told that Britain faces a wholly new threat to national security in the shape of global terrorism. But we are developing a weapons system which is even more unsuited to the challenge posed by al Qaeda than invading arbitrary countries like Iraq. Or are we going to fire Trident missiles at Sadr City. Or Leeds, where the 7/7 bombers hailed from?
Renewing Trident will not only be a waste of money, it will increase the risk of nuclear proliferation. Britain’s decision will have immense international resonance. It will rob the West of any moral authority on the issue of disarmament and undo all the achievements of the last twenty years of multilateral negotiations. It will simply be impossible to lecture other countries, like Iran, against developing their own nuclear weapons while we are renewing our own.
So, it is replacing Trident, rather than dumping it, that will make the world a much more dangerous place. It is depressing that the government is apparently incapable of seeing this – as if Labour has forgotten everything it has said about nuclear weapons over the last twenty five years. Curiously, it took the First Minister, Jack McConnell, to remind them that Labour’s policy is supposed to be to use Trident as a bargaining chip in multilateral negotiations on disarmament.
McConnell, was laughed at in September when he originally proposed using Trident in talks with countries like Iran to prevent them developing their own nuclear deterrent – but events have vindicated him. With the Iraq Study Group, suddenly everyone is talking about talking to Iran.
It is very difficult to foresee the future of international relations.
But the one thing that we can be sure of is this: that if no one takes a lead on disarmament, the world will see more and more countries acquiring nuclear weapons. And eventually, someone, somewhere, will use them.