A Trident nuclear submarine. Photo: Getty
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The government is trying to slip Trident replacement through the backdoor

The Mutual Defence Agreement is a US-UK nuclear deal that lays the foundation for replacing our Trident nuclear weapons system – it must be exposed and challenged.

In the last months of its political life, the Coalition Government is stepping up nuclear cooperation with the United States, under the guise of a routine treaty renewal. But far from being just another piece of foreign policy housekeeping, the renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) in July of this year, is actually a further step towards replacing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system – but without the open, democratic debate which such a momentous decision warrants. Majority public opinion is against the replacement of Trident, and with concerns about transparency and accountability in government increasing exponentially, it seems ill-advised for our political leaders to try and pull a fast one on nuclear weapons behind the scenes.

The treaty in question dates back to 1958 when the US and UK signed the "Agreement between the UK and the USA for cooperation in the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes". Generally referred to as the MDA, the treaty established an agreement between both countries to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapons systems. It is this treaty which ensures that Trident is both technically and politically dependent on the US. Originally, the MDA prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons, but an amendment in 1959 allowed for the transfer of nuclear materials and equipment between both countries. This amendment is extended through a renewal of the treaty every ten years, most recently in 2004. Changes to the historic amendment this year are a cause for significant concern.

The treaty already ensures that the two countries’ nuclear programmes are inextricably linked. The UK warhead is a copy of the US one, with some components directly bought from the US. With the UK’s nuclear warheads expected to be non-operational by the late 2030s, a decision on their replacement will be intrinsically linked to the work taking place as part of the MDA. The UK leases from the US the Trident II D5 missiles it uses and British submarines must regularly visit the US base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for the maintenance and replacement of these missiles. The UK government recently paid the US £250m to participate in a missile life extension programme and participates in numerous exchange visits with staff from the US nuclear weapons laboratories. Britain also participates with the US in ‘sub-critical’ nuclear tests (tests which fall just short of releasing a nuclear explosion).

With the new amendments to the treaty, Britain will become even more dependent on US expertise for its own nuclear weapons programme and existing collaboration on warhead design will be extended to the nuclear reactors which would power a Trident replacement submarine.

The renewal has to be ratified on both sides of the Atlantic and Obama has already given the go-ahead from the US side. But much as successive UK governments may wish to view ratification as an automatic process to be slid through without question, there is a Westminster scrutiny process which a number of parliamentarians are availing themselves of. The government is required by law to lay any treaty that it has signed before Parliament for 21 days. The text should be sent to relevant select committees and any requests for debates should be considered favourably.

In 2004, government managed to avoid debate. The treaty was laid before Parliament just before the Summer Recess with an announcement that it had been signed a week earlier. This was in spite of the fact that MPs had been asking questions for months about the government’s intention to renew the MDA. This was an obvious – and successful – attempt to avoid any democratic scrutiny.

This time the government isn’t getting away with it quite so easily. Thanks to repeated questioning and an Early Day Motion from Jeremy Corbyn and other concerned MPs, the treaty is currently on the table for its 21 days and a Westminster Hall debate is taking place this week on the 6 November at 1.30pm. MPs may not be able to overturn the government’s ratification of the renewal, but the very fact of open discussion is important in itself. Correctly understood, this renewal is part of the attempt to impose Trident replacement on the British people through a number of seemingly unrelated steps. It must be understood and exposed as such.

Kate Hudson is general secretary of the CND 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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