Is Trident New Labour’s shibboleth?

Fear of a return to the 1980s has prevented an open debate on nuclear weapons.

On 25 September, the next leader of the Labour Party will be announced. This is the person Labour believes should hold the keys to Britain's nuclear arsenal.

Yet, despite one of the longest leadership campaigns in memory, there has been no detailed debate about the role and scale of Trident, Britain's continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

The clearest positions have been adopted by Diane Abbott, who supports unilateral nuclear disarmament, and David Miliband, who argues that a full renewal of Trident is the only minimal deterrent option Britain has.

To many Labour observers, David Miliband's views represent the head and Abbott's the heart of their party's attitude to nuclear deterrence -- that Britain gets behind Trident or gets out of the nuclear game.

This is a missed opportunity, as a growing number of military experts are voicing scepticism about the current cost and strategic benefit of a defence system designed for the cold war era.

In July, the leading military think tank Rusi published the excellent report Continuous at Sea Deterrence: Costs and Alternatives (PDF). Written by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, one of Britain's foremost nuclear experts, the report lays out four clear options short of full renewal.

According to Chalmers, simply delaying the decision to renew fully for another five years could save as much as £5bn over the next decade. This at a time of severe government debt. Other options considered, such as reducing the number of submarines, could make even more savings while maintaining an appropriate deterrent.

In response to claims that anything less than the immediate renewal of Trident endangers Britain's ability to retaliate to a nuclear attack, Chalmers says it is a matter of "balancing the risk".

He makes the case that Britain's nuclear response is at present maintained in anticipation of a massive surprise attack, which could destroy that response outright. By contrast, the rest of Britain's armed forces are designed on the assumption that the UK would have a long warning period of threat to its homeland. This has allowed conventional forces to be designed primarily to fight expeditionary wars abroad.

Chalmers argues that if a cold-war-type threat to the UK re-emerged in the next 20 or 30 years, then Britain could re-equip as that threat began to loom on the horizon.

The failure to discuss the full range of options on Trident renewal properly suggests Labour leadership candidates are still defined by the battles of the 1980s. Eric Joyce MP, a former PPS to the defence secretary, has observed that Labour's "strict nuclear line" comes from the perception that advocating unilateral disarmament was a key failing in Labour's 1983 manifesto -- nicknamed the "longest suicide note in history".

Since then, Britain's nuclear deterrent has become a shibboleth for those in the party to define themselves against.

But it is easy to overemphasise the importance of this policy to Labour's wilderness years. Given issues such as the Falklands victory, the split that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party and the miners' strikes, the role of nuclear disarmament in losing Labour elections was perhaps more emblematic than critical. When the policy was dropped after the 1987 defeat, Labour appeared no more electable for it in 1992.

It is also important to remember that Labour in the 1980s was not simply made up of a unilateral disarmament left and a pro-nuclear right. A third way was followed by a group of more than 60 Labour MPs who supported the European Nuclear Disarmament Campaign (END).

While END never captured the public consciousness in the manner of CND, it successfully built a broad coalition of unions, politicians and civil society groups across the continent in favour of a European nuclear-free zone "from Poland to Portugal" (PDF). The main focus was to rid Europe of short-range "battlefield" or tactical nuclear weapons, which were seen as increasing the chances of a nuclear exchange.

This was a multilateralist, pragmatic disarmament movement, mainly supported by left-leaning Labour MPs, such as Robin Cook. It could claim a tangible success in putting pressure on the superpowers for the eventual withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons by the end of the 1980s from Europe.

Such a third way is missing from the debate, which is still split between backing a maximal deterrent or unilateral disarmament. There is an opportunity for Labour's next leader to support a cost-effective, credible nuclear weapons system, built to protect against the threats of today, not the ghosts of the past.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor for Brixton Hill, Lambeth

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.