Can Labour find a way to bridge its divisions over Trident? Or will a policy to scrap the nuclear warheads strike a final nail into the party’s electoral coffin? BARRY WINTER calls for a national debate and a Labour-led referendum on the issue.
Britain’s nuclear defence strategy has often sown deep divisions within the Labour movement. No less so today given Jeremy Corbyn’s ardent opposition to the party’s current policy to renew Trident. While 68 per cent of members today share his views, he faces formidable, not to say fierce criticism from within the party and the unions.
Among the critics are two Labour peers and former MPs, John Hutton and George Robertson. They were very quick to dismiss the party’s new defence review as “sliding into chaos and incoherence”. For them, the shadow defence secretary’s argument that nuclear submarines will be more detectable in the future, and therefore more vulnerable to attack, is a fallacy. They confidently insist that the updated system will provide Britain “with a powerful, invisible, secure and invulnerable deterrent for many years to come”.
Both are former Labour defence secretaries and presume to speak with authority. They also claim that other, cheaper nuclear alternatives – whether land-based or using aircraft – are simply non-starters.
Robertson is a former secretary general of NATO and now earns an estimated £0.5 million a year on the boards of several large companies. One of them sells weapons to the Royal Navy and another is involved in military aerospace. While this does not of itself disqualify his remarks, it signals how much of an establishment figure he is. Not an infallible one, however. As secretary of state for Scotland in 1995 he confidently pronounced: “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.”
John Hutton was formerly the MP for Barrow where the nuclear submarines are built. He sits on the board of an American nuclear power company. Described as a highly capable “ultra-Blairite”, Hutton was one of Tony Blair’s closest supporters. Of course, this does not invalidate his views. However, it suggests that he’s part of the rough-and-tumble of politics rather than above it.
Interestingly, Blair’s memoirs reveal that during a conversation with Gordon Brown in 2007 both were rather dubious about renewing Trident. “Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion,” he declared. However, they agreed to take the line of least resistance. Blair wrote: “As I said: imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I’ve decided to scrap it. We’re not going to say that are we?”
Blair also admitted that in terms of the utility and cost (£31 billion, with another £10 billion in reserve, plus lifetime costs predicted to exceed £180 billion) Trident was a problem. As he put it, both “common sense and practical argument” suggest we should get rid of it.
He chose not to because he feared it would downgrade Britain’s international status. In other words, for him, Trident was a symbol – albeit an expensive one – of British nationhood. Since then, the estimated replacement costs continue to spiral upwards.
The Labour government’s Bill to proceed with the first stage of Trident renewal was taken formally in Parliament in 2007. Its passage was ensured by support from the Tory opposition, overcoming what the Guardian described as a “massive Labour rebellion”. The paper reported that 85 Labour rebels “disobeyed a three-line whip and voted against the government”. It also pointed out that before the vote “four members of the government resigned in protest at the plans”.
Doubts, indeed, dissent over Trident renewal is not to be found exclusively in the Labour Party, however. As Tariq Ali records: “A number of retired generals have questioned Trident’s utility.” Last year, Michael Portillo, a former Tory defence secretary himself, joined the debate. He declared: “Our independent nuclear deterrent is not independent and doesn’t constitute a deterrent against anybody that we regard as an enemy. It is a waste of money and it is a diversion of funds that might otherwise be spent on perfectly useful and useable weapons and troops. But some people have not caught up with this reality.”
Another fervent opponent of Trident is the former Labour foreign secretary, David Owen, one of the founders of the breakaway Social Democratic Party and a member of the House of Lords. He wrote that Britain should never have bought Trident in the first place, adding, “Many senior people in the Ministry of Defence want to keep a minimum deterrent, with Astute submarines with cruise missiles” rather than retain Trident.
In 2010, Owen made a sweeping attack on the government’s defence policy, describing the estimated £15-£20 billion it would take to replace Trident as “no longer credible”. He argued: “Unless we learn to focus our defence budget far better than in the last decade Britain will look increasingly like a toothless lion. That will diminish our influence and power in the UN security council far more than moving to a non-ballistic cruise missile minimum nuclear deterrent.”
So you don’t have to be a Corbynista – or a member of CND – to doubt the validity of continuing with the current nuclear defence programme. Even a former defence chief, Field Marshall Michael Carver, asked bluntly of Trident, “What the bloody hell is it for?”
Blunt is also an apt description of the stand taken by those trade unions that are keen to keep Trident. Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s largest union, Unite, has made his union’s position very plain. It supports the nuclear programme because it provides members with much-needed jobs. He warns that if Labour rejects Trident, Unite could disaffiliate. This would be a serious blow to the party.
A senior official of the GMB has warned that the union will also reconsider its links with Labour over the issue. Its Scottish secretary was equally forthright. He told the BBC that Labour’s opposition to Trident would be like “trying to throw our members out of jobs… and we aren’t going to have it”. Both unions represent many thousands of shipyard and defence workers in Barrow and Devonport.
So the political stakes for the party are very high.
In response, Jeremy Corbyn has tried to find a compromise. Labour, he says, would agree to the construction of the new submarines to protect jobs, but it would not purchase the US-built nuclear warheads.
While I respect his attempt to respond to the unions’ concerns, this idea does not impress. Surely there are more creative ways of preserving workers’ jobs than making four very expensive submarines that serve no purpose? The democratic socialist journal, Chartist, put it more firmly. It argues, “The idea of keeping a form of submarine purely to provide employment is absurd.”
Several left commentators, including Chartist, have suggested the Lucas Aerospace plan from the 1970s offers a far better alternative. Encouraged by the then industry minister, Tony Benn, and facing the threat of closure, members of the workforce devised a range of creative ways to turn swords into ploughshares. These included solar and wind power, hybrid engines and battery packs for electric cars. However, the Labour government took no interest in the proposals and, sadly, a valuable opportunity was lost.
So, if Labour wants to scrap Trident, it should guarantee the workforce is given every opportunity to develop an alternative programme, a plan that’s fit for our times. This will certainly present a challenge, and is not a quick fix. But it could offer a constructive and co-operative way forward.
Of course, even if Labour does suggest such an alternative, the party’s Trident problems do not end there for there is a wider issue which must be faced: Labour’s electoral prospects in 2020. How far is the electorate likely to agree with a party aiming to get rid of nuclear weapons? Might such a policy provide the final nail in Labour’s electoral coffin? After all, Labour already faces an uphill struggle to widen and deepen public support, to put it mildly.
The Independent in January reported that “the public supports the government’s proposal to fully renew Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons programme” with a “narrow majority”. Fifty-one per cent of people were in favour of doing so, “while a total of 49 per cent prefer either non-nuclear submarines or reject any renewal”. Not surprisingly, opposition to full renewal is highest in Scotland where the Trident fleet is moored. One in four Labour voters rejects any form of renewal, while the others are divided between full renewal and Jeremy Corbyn’s option.
Scrapping Trident with a divided electorate and a divided Labour movement presents a huge challenge for the party, and that’s without considering the Tories’ efforts to rig the electoral system, the malign influence of the right-wing media, and the political sea-change in Scotland.
During a general election campaign, the Conservatives, their media allies and their wealthy backers will stoop as low as necessary to ensure Labour’s defeat, giving it a very rough ride. As has been widely acknowledged, older voters are more inclined to keep Trident and more likely to vote, compared with younger people, who are much less likely to be in favour of nuclear defence and less likely to vote.
Fears that an anti-nuclear stance would pose a great risk to Labour’s uncertain electoral prospects has led the radical commentator, Paul Mason, to call for a very different approach. He writes: “The urgent policy issues for Labour are defence, industry, Scotland and welfare.” Therefore, “the party needs to bury its differences on Trident around a solution that involves both wings compromising on their principles”.
What he means by this is spelt out in a short, punchy video, entitled ‘The left-wing case for nuclear weapons’. Here he argues: “I think Labour should vote to keep Trident. If Jeremy Corbyn can bury this issue, Labour could in 2020 form the first radical, left-wing government in a major country.”
Mason feels that Britain today faces two rapidly evolving threats – terrorism and a “newly aggressive and unpredictable Russia”. He dismisses the Tories’ defence policy as “dangerously incoherent”. The government, he says, is building up “a massive expeditionary force and a massive naval base in Bahrain”. He argues that we should “step back” such expeditions noting their failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have “set the Middle East on fire”.
Instead, Britain should focus on being part of the NATO mission to defend eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic, and deal with terrorist attacks. Like President Obama, Britain should communicate a clear set of conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, instead of the Cold War policy of keeping the Russians guessing.
He earnestly wants Labour back in government to stop the NHS being destroyed, to prevent the Tories “shovelling public assets” into private hands, and to stop social “cleansing of our cities”. For these reasons, he argues, it’s worth spending the money on Trident, which has helped to keep the peace, and which “will never be used”. Then “we should be able to focus on what really matters for ordinary people”.
One could easily add to his wish list – not least a desire for Labour to tackle the Tory-induced housing crisis and to revive social housing.
While some of his arguments tread on my emotional toes, and others need clarifying, I admire his courage in taking this stand. Needless to say his stance has attracted plenty of criticism from the left, although some critics fail to engage with his main points.
In her more considered response, Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND, makes a good case against Trident. But she steps rather too lightly over Mason’s basic argument. She simply claims that he’s mistaken in his belief “that opposing Trident would be detrimental to Labour’s electoral chances”. For her, Mason “clearly doesn’t realise the scale of opposition to Trident, across society and across the political spectrum”.
Sure, there’s considerable opposition to Trident. But I don’t share her confidence about Labour’s electoral prospects with a manifesto pledged to scrap it. In these unstable times, her certainty could prove to be a bit of a luxury. It’s not illegitimate to ask her to consider what happens if she’s wrong: another five years of Tory government with all that entails, including Trident’s renewal.
Paul Mason’s argument does force us to face up to what is a genuine dilemma. However, I do accept that what he proposes is a very Big Ask for people who oppose nuclear weapons. It’s probably a compromise too far for many party members, not least the Corbyn leadership. Of course, until the party’s defence review is published, we cannot be sure how the debate will develop.
However, there is an alternative to his proposal to retain Trident.
The party should promise in its manifesto that a Labour government would hold a national debate on the future of Trident, and a referendum on what course of action to take. This process should involve a commitment to take the issue to every locality through a series of events and discussions.
It should then be possible for the peace movement to make its presence felt, but without denying pro-Trident voices. That means MPs like Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle would be free to express their views without being stigmatised.
If anything, the forthcoming referendum on EU membership serves as a warning about how not to proceed – from David Cameron’s phoney ‘agreement’ with the EU, to the blood-curdling splits within the Tory party.
A referendum on Trident does not need to be done that way. And it could help Labour get back into power.
Moreover, if those of us opposing Trident’s renewal can’t win the argument with the public when it is the main focus of attention, then so be it. We lose. That’s democracy. Better to have a full and frank debate without the encumbrance of a general election. Labour should do its best to ensure that it’s a well-informed, lively but respectful discussion on what is, after all, is an important but complex topic.
Hopefully, it should be possible to encourage a political debate that rises above self-righteous emotionalism and private financial interests. In the process, if we can begin to reduce people’s cynicism towards all things political, this would be an advance, for it is this alienation that hinders the development of a credible progressive movement in the UK.
It will not be easy, but it is possible. It’s certainly worth trying.