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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.

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

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.