As Britain and Europe reeled from Brexit Theresa May rushed through the vote on Trident replacement. Was this strong leadership or our human security being sacrificed to expediency? Part 1.
In her first parliamentary debate as Conservative leader, the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, decided to go ahead with a debate and decision on Trident on18 July. With Conservative MPs under a “three line whip” to vote in favour, and the Labour Party bitterly divided by a leadership struggle, the numerical outcome of the 18 July vote Twas no surprise. The motion was passed 472 to 117. All but one of the Conservative MPs filed into the ‘yes’ lobby. They were joined by 140 Labour MPs, freed up because the rush to vote just before parliament’s summer recess pre-empted the Labour Party’s review of nuclear policy, security and defence, which had been due in September. Lacking an agreed, up to date policy on nuclear weapons, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long time advocate of nuclear disarmament, agreed for his MPs to vote “according to conscience”.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) MPs joined 47 Labour MPs, most of the Liberal Democrats, the sole Green MP and a handful of others in voting against. Because voting in Parliament is an arcane ritual requiring the MPs to physically transport their bodies into either the ‘yes’ room or the ‘no’ room, options are constructed in binary terms. Labour’s Shadow Defence and Foreign Affairs spokespeople, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry, called on colleagues to abstain in protest against the vote being taken before Labour’s review was completed. The numbers don’t show how many joined them, as abstainers are traditionally lumped in with absentees. Only one – who reportedly managed to get counted in both rooms – was recorded as an abstention. Prime Minister May was therefore given a majority of 355.
The decision paves the way for contracts to be signed with BAE Systems to build four new nuclear submarines to deploy US ballistic missiles until the 2060s. While MPs disagreed on the size of the overall price tag, the government has set aside £41 billion just for the submarines. Though not mentioned in the government’s motion, the vote is also likely to accelerate expenditure on redesigning and enhancing nuclear warheads, putting more taxpayers money into US arms manufacturers Lockheed Martin, which makes the Trident missiles, and Jacob’s Engineering, who together with Serco run Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) as a profit-making enterprise.
The motion that May introduced (though it had been filed by the outgoing PM, David Cameron), wrapped the multi-billion pound nuclear spending decision in layers of unsubstantiated assertions about past and future deterrence with references to continuously armed submarine patrols and Britain’s defence jobs and skills. It ended with a passing nod to “key steps towards multilateral disarmament”.
Ringing particular warning bells in the United Nations, where the UK has this year been boycotting multilateral disarmament talks, the motion rather significantly departed from long-standing language in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), derived from years of important consensus agreements in the review conferences of 1995, 2000 and 2010. Instead, the motion echoed Russian preoccupations with stability instead of the broader international commitments that the UK had previously endorsed. These included President Obama’s call to work for the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, which was adopted as an NPT-related commitment in 2010, to “achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons”, together with a disarmament action plan comprising a spectrum of approaches spanning unilateral as well as multilateral steps. These changes in commitments and tone were unmistakeable, but were they deliberate and intentional, or for some other reason?
It is important to read the government motion in full: “that the UK’s independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent, based on a Continuous at Sea Deterrence posture, will remain essential to our security today as it has for over 60 years, and for as long as the global security situation demands, to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life and that of our allies; supports the decision to take the necessary steps required to maintain the current posture by replacing the current Vanguard Class submarines with four Successor submarines; recognises the importance of this programme to the UK’s defence industrial base and in supporting thousands of highly skilled engineering jobs; notes that the Government will continue to provide annual reports to Parliament on the programme; recognises that the UK remains committed to reduce our overall nuclear weapon stockpile by the mid-2020s; and supports the Government’s commitment to continue work towards a safer and more stable world, pressing for key steps towards multilateral disarmament.”
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