On the eve of the Commons debate on the future of Britain’s Trident weapons system, I counted at least three conspiracy theories doing the rounds at Westminster about why the government was rushing into renewal of our independent nuclear deterrent. Each was exquisitely detailed; each had a certain degree of credibility. The first can be labelled the Blair Legacy Theory. This posits that the Prime Minister was always determined to sign up to Trident renewal before he left office, as a way of yoking Britain for ever to the fate of the United States – no debate, no consultation. This theory is given weight by an exchange of letters between Tony Blair and George W Bush dated 7 December 2006 in which Blair stated: “We have therefore to set in train the steps necessary to maintain our current submarine-based nuclear deterrent system, replacing those elements – in particular the submarines – that will reach the end of their planned life by the 2020s.”
The second could be described as the British Aerospace Procurement Theory. This notes that the main beneficiary of any contract to replace the Trident fleet of submarines would be BAE Systems, currently the focus of corruption investigations in six countries across the globe. Is it any surprise, ask the proponents of this theory, that the decision by the Attorney General to drop the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE’s dealings with Saudi Arabia came just days after Blair had informed Bush of his intention to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent? Both were designed to guarantee the commercial future of the UK arms manufacturer.
No set of conspiracy theories would be complete without Rupert Murdoch, and so it is with Trident. The News International Theory has it that, over the summer, the media mogul became so concerned that Gordon Brown would distance Britain’s foreign policy from the US that he warned Blair his support was no longer guaranteed. According to this version, the new spate of tough talking on defence, the war on terror and Trident in particular can be explained in part by a desire to placate newspapers in the Murdoch empire. Murdoch is said to have been particularly concerned that Brown was preparing to model his foreign policy on Olof Palme’s: the Swedish centre-left politician of the 1980s was fiercely protective of his country’s independence. Brown’s support for Trident may not be enough to calm Murdoch’s fears, however. Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, has already coined the phrase “Olof Palme with nukes” to describe the direction of Brownite thinking.
There is another explanation. Perhaps Blair and Brown genuinely believe that Trident replacement is the best option – that the decision must be made now in order to have the new hardware ready for 2024 when the present Trident system becomes obsolete.
Brown is privately disdainful of the rebels. He speaks of modernising the system as just the right thing to do. He does not credit the idea that there is a popular groundswell of opposition: a recent demonstration in Glasgow could muster only 2,000 protesters.
Within parliament he would do well to be less dismissive. The leaders of the rebel amendment to Trident, which called for a delay in the replacement timetable, claimed among their ranks many of Brown’s closest allies. Even several ministers voting with the government confided privately that they were doing so with a heavy heart. “Politics is about compromise. Now is not the time to make an issue of Trident,” said one. The sensitive period of transition is not the time for a gratuitous act of conscience, they argue. Now is the time to knuckle down and prepare for difficult local elections and parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales. Now is the time to retrench and prepare for the succession.
Underpinning Brown’s resolve on Trident is also a calculation on timing. On 21 March, he will unveil his tenth and last Budget, setting it in the context of a new “ten-year challenge”. He will use that to help campaign for the May elections. It is only once those are out of the way that the real battle will commence. Brown argues that any policy intervention he makes before he formally announces his candidacy for the leadership will be counter-productive. Why give ammunition to either Blair’s supporters or to David Cameron? He is keen to get all difficult issues out of the way before then. The formal launch of his campaign will, in his view, mark a year zero.
In many respects he may be right. Politics will immediately feel different, but not entirely so – and possibly not for long. Brown appears not to recognise that Trident is precisely the kind of issue that convinces Labour members who left the party over Iraq that they made the right decision. If Brown takes the view, as he seems to have done, that the “security agenda” is the one where he will make no concessions to liberal opinion he will face more battles within the party and the wider labour movement in the months ahead.
On the face of it, the debate has been about the defence of the realm and the wisdom of Britain possessing an independent nuclear deterrent in the post-cold-war era. But, like the arguments over unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, this is an internal discussion in Labour ranks about what constitutes a progressive foreign policy. Although the renewal of Trident is seen as an important “legacy” issue for Tony Blair, its consequences (the £15bn-£20bn cost, the further alienation of Labour activists, the yoking of Britain to America) will all have to be managed by Brown.
Beyond the life-and-death issues of nuclear proliferation, Trident could also mark a turning point in Brown’s relationship with Labour.
After last year’s vote on trust schools, when the government had to rely on Conservative votes to push through legislation in the face of a back-bench rebellion, Brown told friends that he never wanted a repeat. This rebellion is far more serious, but there is a sense in the Brown camp that if the party is now prepared to defy its leadership so openly, perhaps the moment has come to think again about the party.
Whoever wins the deputy leadership contest can expect to be given a free hand with the party, such is Brown’s cooling to it. This is a remarkable turnaround for a man who is almost entirely the creature of Labour. Yet, in private, Brown is talking about ways of harnessing new forms of political expression in a country where membership of political parties has dropped from 10 per cent of the adult population to 1 per cent. He is even said to be considering the merits of (whisper it low) proportional representation, to renew popular engagement.
There is a contradiction here. Popular opposition to Trident may not have reached the levels of Brown’s beloved Make Poverty History demonstrations, but it is impossible to deny that anti-Trident protests are a form of engagement. The anti-war marches showed that people can get excited about politics, especially when fired up by a belief that the government is sidestepping the democratic process. Conspiracy theories grow to fill a vacuum, but the difficulty facing Brown as he struggles to rebuild faith in Labour is that so often with this government, the conspiracy theories have turned out to be true.