The scale of the parliamentary rebellion against Trident’s replacement on March 14 indicates a significant shift in attitudes on nuclear weapons. Forced to rely on Conservative support to get the vote through, the government faced the largest backbench rebellion on a domestic issue since Labour came to power in 1997. Indeed, the size was of historic significance: it was also the biggest rebellion on defence policy since Labour first entered government in 1924.
Even better news is that this parliamentary opposition is just the tip of a massive iceberg, which represents greater opposition to nuclear weapons than ever before. The size of that iceberg was revealed by an opinion poll in early March. According to the poll, 72 percent of the population is opposed to proceeding with a replacement of Trident now. And we know from our work over the past months that the iceberg is made up of people from all walks of life—from trade unions, faith communities, and all political parties to people who oppose a Trident replacement on a huge number of grounds: moral, legal, costs, security.
In every case, we have had the best arguments on our side. Those arguments have convinced many people that our future safety cannot be provided by weapons of mass destruction, and they are irrelevant to our security needs.
What is most significant for me is how many people have changed their minds about nuclear weapons and now oppose them. Countless people have demonstrated their minds are open to change and new ideas. Now our government has to come in line with the people and abandon its Cold War thinking.
What is striking is the obvious lack of confidence displayed by the government on this issue – it is clearly aware it is on the back foot. Not surprising, having lost countless debates throughout the country and numerous votes on television and radio programmes. This is nicely summed up by the Foreign Secretary, who pointed out that the decision to replace Trident was ‘not irreversible.’ Indeed, it is not. We are working to reverse that decision and we will be successful.
But there must be two strings to our campaigning bow in the months ahead. First, to work to reverse the replacement decision. Second, to put pressure on the government to pursue genuine multilateral disarmament initiatives. The Defence Committee Report on Trident replacement called for a ‘stronger forward narrative’ on multilateral disarmament, and internationally there have been calls from Kissinger, Gorbachev, ElBaradei, Annan and Blix for progress toward a nuclear-free world. The second part of the government’s motion on March 14th called for progress on our nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments, and this is very positive, providing we take care not to endorse erroneous government claims to have made progress already on disarmament.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference in Vienna in May is the first major opportunity for the government to make progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament initiatives. We need to know what the government is going to do—above all that it does something to break the nuclear logjam out there. Every day in the press there are reports about nuclear issues: Iran, North Korea, Israeli nuclear weapons, the US/India nuclear deal, body parts at Sellafield, the award of $1 billion compensation to Marshall Islanders exposed to fallout from US nuclear tests. None of the news says anything positive about nuclear weapons; it is either potential dangers posed or the tragic consequences of their development and manufacture. When will we learn that abolition would be the best for everybody?
A draft Nuclear Weapons Convention is already lodged at the UN, which, like those already in existence for landmines and chemical and biological weapons, would outlaw nuclear weapons and cover issues such as verification, inspection, criminality and control of fissile materials. A new push is beginning, internationally, towards progress on achieving a Nuclear Weapons Convention. CND, together with Medact, the British section of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, is working to advance public awareness and support for this practical and highly desirable goal. There is strong support for such an initiative internationally, and opinion polls show a strong majority for it in Britain. Now let’s work to get the government active on it. Our future may depend upon it.