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15 March 2007

The need for a new collective spirit

Tom Watson MP gives his take on the vote on Trident in the House of Commons

By Tom Watson

The first Labour MP to rebel against the first Labour government was the Reverend Henry Dunnico. When Henry voted with the ‘Noes’ on 21st February 1924 to protest at the procurement of five naval carriers he wasn’t to know that he would establish a Labour tradition of rebellions on major defence issues.

Of course, at the time, Henry couldn’t also predict the rise of Fascism and Hitlers Germany a little over a decade after his rebellion. The lessons of this piece of history were rehearsed again during the debate in the Commons on Wednesday.

The uncertainty of the world in 2025 and beyond convinced me that we should take the decision to replace Trident in principle sooner rather and later. I’m fairly certain that the decision could have been delayed, although this would have made the eventual costs of the project rise considerably as we would have had to reassemble a pool of engineering design experts in the UK.

But to postpone the decision was futile. In 12 months time we would still have faced an uncertain future where the risks of disarmament would have outweighed the cost considerations of replacement.

The Commons made the decision and made it decisively. This is not though, as Nick Harvey claimed in his speech, the end of the road for those that are troubled by the replacement programme. The replacement of Trident will, I have no doubt, be the most scrutinised defence procurement project in military history.

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There are many meetings of the Public Accounts Committee, the Defence Select Committee, Defence Debates, annual party conferences, CLP discussions and Labour Movement for Peace meetings between now and 2024. There are at least 1800 editions of the New Statesman letters page to print before the first submarine will enter service.

A political price will be paid for the decision though. To lose Nigel Griffiths and Chris Ruane from government, two sensible, moderate minded and well-liked colleagues, shows the depth of collective anguish we all share on big military decisions. For others, the haunting memory of the Iraq vote ensured that they would not accept the arguments put to them by government ‘experts’.

I do not agree with some colleagues who say that this is an inevitable result of 10 years in office. The truth is that the arrogant handling of backbench Labour MPs in the early years of our government makes it much harder to have a reasonable conversation on issues that matter today.

I won’t name the bright young Cabinet Minister whose Special Adviser’s assistant once called me to demand that I phone the said Special Adviser immediately, but I can tell you it leaves a little grudge. Every time a junior minister, or more likely their diary secretary, phones to say that they are too busy to meet a colleague on an important local issue, a tiny lifelong snub has been given.

Whoever leads the party next is going to have to rebuild a collective spirit in the PLP based on the principles of respect, mutual support and tolerance. It’s not going to be easy, as the vote on Wednesday showed us. Our new leader will have to assemble a ministerial team whose first task is to raise the morale of the PLP. The culture of ministerial self-importance has got to stop. I look forward to the day when a minister calls to ask whether their special adviser can do anything to help.

Click here to read Tom Watson’s blog

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