Where next on nuclear weapons?

If Britain is to help bring about nuclear disarmament, we must cease to co-operate with America's na

One of the big foreign policy questions for the new Brown government is which way to go on nuclear weapons. Margaret Beckett’s speech in Washington this week – apparently strongly endorsed by our new Prime Minister – indicates that some change may be on the horizon.

Mrs Beckett spoke passionately in favour of progress on disarmament, urging that Britain should be a ‘disarmament laboratory’. Good. Now let’s see the action. But the government must review other policies that it pursues which militate against moves towards nuclear disarmament.

Consider the recent controversial US plans to site its national missile defence bases in central Europe, which provoked such a strong reaction from Russia. There is little understanding of the role that Britain already plays in this system. The system as a whole is already increasing global tension and a new nuclear arms race. Britain’s role within it puts us on the front line in future US wars.

Whilst the US describes it as a defensive system, because it allows the US to shoot down incoming missiles, in reality it will enable the US to attack other countries without fear of retaliation. And although facilities are located in Europe, they do not actually ‘protect’ the continent – only the US, hence the term ‘national’.

President Bush insists that the US needs missile defence in case terrorists or ‘rogue’ states develop missiles able to reach them. This is extremely unlikely, as terrorists or states without long-range missile technology could deliver nuclear weapons much more easily in other ways. Not surprisingly, US national missile defence is widely understood to be a system deployed against major state actors such as Russia or China. It is no doubt understood as such within those two countries.

Over the past few years, Britain has assumed a critical role in the programme, without parliamentary scrutiny or accountability. A recently reported offer by the Tony Blair to host interceptor missiles – to shoot down enemy missiles on their way to the US - was made without any public or parliamentary consultation.

There are two key bases used for missile defence in Britain, both in Yorkshire. Fylingdales is one of five US Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar stations across the world. The US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – which outlawed such systems - in 2002. In 2003 Blair gave permission for the base to become part of the NMD programme.

Despite major public and political opposition on the grounds of international security and local health concerns, the process continued, without planning permission, and is due to be completed this year. This US base is intended to track enemy missiles and locate their intended targets, allowing interceptor missiles to be fired from other locations to knock them off their trajectories.

Menwith Hill is run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), operates outside US law and is not accountable in British law. It is part of a global network of bases used to spy on all forms of international telecommunications - including private phone calls, emails and faxes - and is crucial for the intelligence-gathering necessary for any US-led military attack. In 2002, Britain gave permission for the installation of a Space Based Infra Red System (SBIRS) at the base. SBIRS is another aspect of the Early Warning system.

But this role for Britain is not a popular one. There is significant public opposition to Britain’s current commitment to the NMD programme: a 2004 poll showed that 67% of the British public are opposed to UK involvement. But no significant parliamentary debate has taken place and decisions relating to the role of Menwith Hill and Fylingdales are made behind closed doors. Britain is increasingly involved in this system without public or parliamentary consent. This must be challenged. And if Britain is to help to bring about nuclear disarmament, we must cease to participate in a system which is already provoking a new arms race. We cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

Kate Hudson is chair of CND