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. 

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.