So the UK will now be going overdressed into the negotiating chamber. At the preparatory session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva next month, countries facing international criticism over their nuclear programmes will naturally look askance at calls from the UK not to continue down the weapons development path. “You claim that in an uncertain world you need these weapons,” they will say. “What makes the situation any more certain for us?” Of course there is no adequate answer.
The risk is that instead of multilateral moves towards disarmament to make the world a safer place, we will see a cascade of nuclear weapons development and proliferation. Rather than going to the Geneva conference armed with proposals to demonstrably reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, we will be uncomfortably denuded of any moral or political case that could lead to wider disarmament.
A total of 95 Labour MPs voted for the amendment rejecting Government approval for renewal. The strong efforts made to reduce the size of the backbench rebellion, not least remarks ahead of the debate from Gordon Brown about his success in persuading MPs to vote with the Government, belie the claims that taking the decision now was a favour from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown (or any indeed other successor), in order to avoid such a divisive vote in the future. Indeed, Des Browne said as much on the Today Programme yesterday, when he admitted further decisions on submarines, warheads and delivery systems would be taken by Parliament in future years.
This makes it all the harder to understand why the Government opposed Frank Field’s amendment, which deleted nothing from the government motion but merely added a call to ensure a vote in Parliament ahead of the money being committed.
Thatcher made a virtue out of her perceived refusal ever to compromise. Blair’s attempt to appear similarly determined has been far less successful. It is this aspect which is most worrying for the future of the Labour party – an unwillingness to build bridges to MPs dissenting because their constituents express strong concerns. It’s a failure of parliamentary work that we last saw over the debate on detention without charge. Charles Clarke agreed to consult MPs further and see if a new consensus was possible. Blair’s determination to stick to the original 90 days proposal generated much disquiet amongst backbench Labour MPs and was a significant cause of the government’s defeat. The letter from Margaret Beckett and Des Browne circulated to MPs yesterday had a similar effect and magnified the size of the vote for the “case not proven” amendment.
The knock-on effects of yesterday’s vote will be seen most dramatically among party activists, causing immense disquiet. The sad fact is that we can expect to see fewer people out campaigning for Labour in the regional elections in May. Despite the repeated avowals of “respect” Tony Blair offers members who disagree with him, they would be more interested in taking part in a real debate.
In his speech yesterday, Gordon Prentice rightly described the lack of consultation as “a disgrace,” from the point when all motions discussing Trident at Labour Conference last September were ruled out of order to the truncated timetable for debate that ended yesterday. I have already said that if elected leader I would re-open this question entirely, not just on the timing, but on the principle. The Government has avoided an opportunity for promoting multi-lateral disarmament now and greater security for decades to come. We must continue to campaign so that future promised votes have a more positive outcome.
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