Why Labour should make the case against Trident renewal

Spending £30-100bn on a new nuclear weapons system should be unthinkable when frontline forces are enduring dramatic cuts.

A short while ago, the 50th anniversary of an event so profound it almost wiped humanity from the face of the planet passed us by – with little media interest. 22 October, 1962 – the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sat on a ringside seat for humanity's brush with oblivion was Robert McNamara – US secretary of state for war. McNamara oversaw much of the Vietnam war and the build-up of US nuclear capability at the height of the cold war. And yet in 2004, he declared: "The indefinite combination of human fallibility with nuclear weapons leads to human destruction. The only way to eliminate the risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons."

He developed what became known as "McNamara’s Dictum": 1. nuclear weapons make nuclear war possible; 2. human fallibility means that a nuclear exchange is ultimately inevitable; 3. a major nuclear war has the capacity to destroy civilisation and threaten the survival of the human race.

In all likelihood the UK’s current independent nuclear deterrent could, on its own, achieve point 3. Each Trident warhead, of which there are 40 per submarine, is estimated to be able to kill over 1 million people outright. The vast majority of those killed would be civilians. Countless more would subsequently die from secondary radiation exposure. All of this possible at the mere push of a button or, as McNamara feared, as the result of simple human error or a technical glitch.

If a rational debate on Trident were ever held in the Labour Party, the inevitability of McNamara’s dictum alone should be enough to end our party’s dalliance with nuclear weapons. Common sense and a Darwinian instinct for survival should ensure that.

But it’s a mistaken clamour for political survival not humanity’s survival that motivates the proponents of nuclear weapons within the Labour Party. Elements cling to nuclear weapons like a religious mantra. To even question the need for one is akin to blasphemy of the highest order and would supposedly presage the re-authoring of another lengthy political suicide note. But scaremonger as they will, the cold weight of logic, military reality, economic necessity, political pragmatism and moral rectitude means the terms of debate have shifted out of their favour.

In a recent exchange in the House of Commons, one of Labour’s shadow defence team trotted out the same old tired mantra: "In a security landscape of few guarantees, our independent nuclear deterrent provides us with the ultimate insurance policy, strengthens our national security and increases our ability to achieve long-term security aims."

On the surface it sounds like an authoritative and credible position. But dig a little deeper and its vacuous nature becomes apparent – namely that an almost unimaginable destructive capability can actually defend us.

To describe "Mutually Assured Destruction" as an "insurance policy" would be comical if it wasn’t such an appalling concept. Nuclear weapons "strengthen our national security"? In the past 30 years, often with national interest or security being cited, the UK has been involved in a number of overseas conflicts but the use of Trident has never seriously been considered.

The one consistent factor throughout all these conflicts was under-equipped conventional forces. In today's current financial climate, with demands being made on the MoD to cut spending, forking out anywhere between £30-100bn for Trident replacement is unthinkable in terms of the cuts our frontline forces will have to endure. 21st century Britain will become an increasingly toothless tiger that can do little more than posture with its finger over a button it will never use. Our forces deserve better. The country deserves better.

Do nuclear weapons "increase our ability to achieve long-term global security aims"? Since the 1980s, non-nuclear armed Germany and Japan, not nuclear armed Britain and France, have had more clout with Washington. Political status does not necessarily depend on nuclear capability. Increasingly, nuclear weapons are a fig leaf for our political poverty on the international stage. What both Germany and Japan did possess was economic clout.

No doubt relinquishing our nuclear arsenal would irritate Washington but what would the US rather have, the UK able to assist in military operations or an ill-equipped conventional force and a nuclear arsenal which will never come into play?

Ultimately, any decision the Labour Party makes must not only factor in political considerations but military ones too. Understandably, the electorate places great faith in the professional soldiers and strategists that run our military. So, when some of the country’s most senior former officers – Field Marshall Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham, General Sir Hugh Beach, Major General Patrick Cordingley and Sir Richard Dannatt – express "deep concern" that Trident was excluded from the 2010 Strategic Defence Review, we should pay attention. In fact they went further saying there was: "…growing consensus that rapid cuts in nuclear forces…is the way to achieve international security."

These men are not doves. They are hard-headed strategists who understand many of the military realities we face as a nation. They have provided an opportunity the Labour Party must not miss.

It is rare in politics that logic, morality, economic sense, political pragmatism and, in this case, military reality converge. And yet, clearly, on the issue of nuclear disarmament they have. Party policy must change on this matter if we are to have any hope of fulfilling our core desire for a better, fairer, safer world.

HMS Vanguard sits in dock at Faslane Submarine base on the river Clyde. Photograph: Getty Images.

Clive Lewis is the MP for Norwich South and an Opposition frontbencher. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.