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 

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.