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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 84, Cover design by Calvert's Press

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 84, Spring 2007

In the News

Blair wins Trident vote after telling UK Parliament that the NPT gives Britain the Right to have nuclear weapons

Misinforming the UK parliament that "the non-proliferation treaty... makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons" (see below), Tony Blair imposed a three line whip on the Parliamentary Labour Party to force through the first House of Commons vote on keeping Britain in the nuclear business for many decades to come. The government's motion sought to garner support by linking the procurement of new submarines to carry Trident nuclear weapons with "further" (unspecified) steps towards disarmament.

The House of Commons Defence Committee, published just a week earlier had raised serious questions about the government's White Paper, and had noted, "there is a need for a much stronger narrative on the forward commitment of the Government to achieve nuclear non-proliferation."

The government refused to delay the vote or provide answers or time to address the Committee's concerns. Instead, it pushed through the motion on March 14: "this House supports the Government's decision as set out in the white paper The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent (CM6994) to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the UK's disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non- proliferation treaty".

After a subtantial debate (excerpted below) in which the most thoughtful arguments were made by Trident's opponents (according to one Tory MP, who intended nonetheless to vote with the government), the motion was carried by 409 votes to 161. A majority of MPs from all parties representing Scottish constituencies voted against renewing Trident, which is highly significant because the UK nuclear system is based at the Clyde Submarine Base near Glasgow. In a severe blow to the Prime Minister's prestige, several Scottish junior ministers and ministerial aides (and one Welsh aide) chose to resign government jobs in order to vote against the whip. While 88 Labour MPs opposed, several others failed to register votes, suggesting they also opposed but were less courageous.

An amendment from Labour MP Jon Trickett, supported by senior Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, called for a delay on the grounds that the government had failed to make an adequate case for Trident. Though several amendments were tabled, Trickett's was the only one the Speaker of the House put to the vote: 167 voted in favour, including 95 Labour MPs. Apart from the Conservatives, MPs from most other parties (the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru), voted against renewing Trident. However, the whipped majority of Labour and Conservative MPs provided 413 votes against, so the amendment fell.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, crowed that he would win the vote for the Prime Minister, and he did! Yet some senior Tory MPs spoke against Trident renewal and called for greater resources to be devoted to more effective non-nuclear means of defence and deterrence. Fearing a larger rebellion, at least in favour of Jon Trickett's delay amendment, Cameron had to make sure of his party's votes by copying Blair and imposing a three-line-whip of his own. A three-line-whip is the strongest possible voting instruction, and generally carries penalties for party members who go against it, so it is unusual for an opposition party to use the three-line-whip to mandate support for a government motion. This indicated a certain insecurity that if left to their own judgment, more Tory MPs might have voted to delay the decision.

Contrary to what the government would like (and many international observers seem to think), the Westminster vote is by no means the end of the matter. Throughout Britain the protests are continuing to intensify. The focus now moves to Scotland, where majority opposition to Trident could determine the outcome of elections for the Scottish Parliament on May 3, 2007. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which has from the beginning been staunchly opposed to nuclear weapons, is currently tipped to oust the Scottish Labour Party from its majority in the Holyrood (Scottish) Parliament.

A few months ago, the SNP Leader, Alex Salmond MP, warned that if the UK government insisted on continuing to transport nuclear warheads on Scottish roads, his party was considering charging the Ministry of Defence £1 million per warhead 'danger money' - as insurance against potential damage to Scotland's environment. London reacted indignantly, reminding the SNP that under the devolution legislation that re-established the Scottish Parliament, defence and foreign policy (which include the deployment of nuclear weapons) are "reserved" issues - for Westminster rather than Holyrood to determine.

The SNP, which is enjoying unprecedented popularity (in part due to its anti-nuclear stance), has responded with consultations on a draft 'Prevention of Crimes Committed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (Scotland) Bill 2007', which it intends to introduce in the Scottish Parliament after the May elections. Among other things, this Bill would prohibit the stationing of nuclear weapons in Scotland. In this, the SNP has the support of the majority of Scotland's people; some polls put opposition to Trident at 80 percent, up from 65 percent a few years ago.

In the run up to the March 14 vote and all through the day, groups of peaceful protesters blockaded the nuclear submarine base at Faslane and disrupted the nuclear warhead factory at AWE Aldermaston. Greenpeace climbers scaled a crane next to Big Ben and for 36 hours displayed their large banner protesting Tony Blair's love affair with WMD, while Faslane peace campaigners climbed atop the Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh and demanded that Trident be disarmed and evicted from Scotland. As lines of people waited patiently to get through House security to talk to their MPs, up to 20 nonviolent activists were arrested after locking their arms into a large Trident effigy filled with concrete that blocked one road leading to the Westminster Parliament for three hours.

After the vote, a succession of MPs assured the crowd of protesters outside Parliament that the fight to rid Britain of nuclear weapons was only just getting started. Political and campaign leaders vowed to intensify political pressure in Scotland, at the nuclear facilities at Faslane and Aldermaston, and in international and regional fora and meetings.

Just one week before the vote, on March 7, 2007, the all party House of Commons Defence Committee published its next report on the UK White Paper on Trident replacement, entitled The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the White Paper (full text available via Acronym Institute website). Chaired by James Arbuthnot MP (Conservative), the report argued that "Decisions on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent should be taken on the strategic needs of the country, not on industrial factors". Nevertheless, it also devoted considerable time to examining industrial and financial issues.

The Defence Committee raised some very pertinent questions that they called on the government to answer before any decision was taken. During the Parliamentary debate (see below), many MPs evoked the Committee's comments and questions, as well as briefings from the Acronym Institute, whose evidence the Committee had quoted several times. The government, however, did not deign to answer the concerns that were raised.

Annex I: House of Commons Defence Committee Report on The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the White Paper

(Excerpts from executive summary. Full text available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmdfence/225/22502.htm)

  • The Committee report called on the government to "say how it calculates the scale of a minimum deterrent" (para 64) and "do more to explain what the concept of deterrence means in today's strategic environment". (para 74)
  • With regard to the circumstances in which the government envisages using nuclear weapons, it argues that terms like "self-defence", in "extreme circumstances", and in defence of the UK's "vital interests" need to be clearer. In particular, "although we understand the need for ambiguity, the Government should be clearer that this ambiguity does not lead to a lowering of the nuclear threshold. (para 81)
  • With regard to the UK participation in the Trident D5 missile life extension, "the Government should clarify why decisions on the missile are required now." (para 50)
  • Concerning the government's statement that "decisions on a new warhead will be required in the next Parliament", the Committee called on government "to state whether the cooperation it envisages with the United States will include participation in the US Reliable Replacement Warhead Programme and why the UK could not re-manufacture warheads to the existing design." (Para 182)
  • Welcoming the reduction in warhead numbers announced in the White Paper, the Committee was "unclear whether this has significance as a non-proliferation measure [and] unclear that this reduction has any operational significance." (para 63)
  • "There is a need for a much stronger narrative on the forward commitment of the Government to achieve nuclear non-proliferation." (para 127)

Annex II: Prime Minister's Questions, February 21, 2007

Chris Mullin (Lab): What is my right hon. Friend's response to Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who said recently that Britain could not modernise its Trident missile system and then credibly tell countries such as Iran that they do not need nuclear weapons?

The Prime Minister: I should remind my hon. Friend of the non-proliferation treaty, which makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons. As Mohamed ElBaradei is the custodian of that treaty's implementation, I think it would be a good idea for him to act accordingly.

Annex III: Prime Minister's Questions prior to the Debate on Trident, March 14, 2007 (excerpts)

David Cameron (Conservative Party Leader): ...We are discussing this now because the system could take about 17 years to put in place, so the timing is right, the legality is clear and maintaining the deterrent is in our national interest. Because the Prime Minister has the support of the Conservative party, we can work together in the national interest. Will he tell us clearly that tonight's vote is the vote and that there is no going back after tonight's vote? Will he also confirm that he will stand by his policy and that he will not appease those in his own party, or the Liberal Democrats, who simply want to run away from a tough decision?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely because I believe that this decision has to be taken now that we have the vote today in the House of Commons. I entirely understand why people might want to put off this decision, but the fact is that we need to take the decision today if we want to get parliamentary approval for the work that has to begin now on the concept and design phase-of course, the actual contracts for the design and construction are to be left for a later time...

Sir Menzies Campbell (Liberal Democrat Party Leader): ...I cannot help remembering that the last time that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the Prime Minister voted together in the same Lobby on an issue of national interest was on Iraq, and that has not proved to be a comforting precedent. Does the Prime Minister accept that the most immediate nuclear threat is from other countries acquiring nuclear weapons? What then will be the role played by his Government at the nuclear non-proliferation review conference in 2010?

The Prime Minister: We will continue to play a positive role on this issue. However, I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is absolutely no evidence whatever that if Britain now renounced its independent nuclear deterrent that would improve the prospect of getting multilateral disarmament. On the contrary, I think that the reverse is the case. I must also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that although of course I understand why he wants to put off this decision-I understand that that is his position-the fact is that the 17-year programme is what has been advised by the experts who advise us on this issue...

Sir Menzies Campbell: The Prime Minister surely accepts that a hasty decision to replace Trident is bound to undermine our ability to have influence at the conference in 2010. Should we not now be offering to reduce the number of warheads on Trident in order to give a lead to others?

The Prime Minister: We are set to reduce the number of warheads, but it is absurd to say that we can somehow put off the question of whether we take a decision now on this concept and design phase. ..

Annex IV: The House of Commons Debate on Trident (selected excerpts)

Margaret Beckett (Foreign Secretary): "Let me set out the nature of the decisions that the House is being asked to support today. They are whether or not to take the steps necessary to maintain a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for the UK-a single system comprising submarines, missiles and warheads-and to take further steps towards meeting our disarmament responsibilities under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty."

Nick Palmer (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that all these issues must be subject to review over the years, and that many of us who will support her today reserve the right to review our positions when the warheads are considered in the next Parliament?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend is aware, we are not making any decision about the warheads in this Parliament, so the matter will inevitably come before a subsequent Parliament...

Frank Field (Lab): Is the Foreign Secretary saying that we are making a decision today to keep all our options open, or are we making a decision that would commit a future Parliament to large expenditures when we go through the big gateway decision in due course?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend will know that that question was raised with the Prime Minister a few moments ago and he answered it clearly. It is the decision of principle that we are required to make today. It is inevitable that there will be future discussions, and there will be decisions down the road as the programme proceeds.

There are four key issues. I will address each in turn. The first is what are we doing to fulfil our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The second is whether it is still in the national interest to maintain a nuclear deterrent. The third is why such a deterrent should be in the form that we now propose. The final issue is why we need to make this decision now...

The NPT created two distinct categories of states. Those that had already conducted nuclear tests-ourselves, the US, the Soviet Union, China and France-were designated nuclear weapons states and could legally possess nuclear weapons. All other states-signatory were designated non-nuclear weapons states. Article VI of the NPT imposes an obligation on all states "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament".

The NPT review conference held in 2000 agreed, by consensus, 13 practical steps towards nuclear disarmament. The UK remains committed to these steps and is making progress on them.

We have been disarming. Since the cold war ended, we have withdrawn and dismantled our tactical maritime and airborne nuclear capabilities. We have terminated our nuclear capable Lance missiles and artillery. We have the smallest nuclear capability of any recognised nuclear weapon state, accounting for less than 1 per cent. of the global inventory, and we are the only nuclear weapon state that relies on a single nuclear system. The Prime Minister has announced a further unilateral reduction in our nuclear weapons in line with our commitment to maintain only the minimum necessary deterrent. We will reduce the stockpile of operationally available warheads by another 20 per cent. to fewer than 160 warheads during the course of this year. This will involve the eventual dismantlement and disposal of about 40 warheads. The UK will then have cut the explosive power of its nuclear weapons by three quarters since the end of the cold war. That is more than any other nuclear weapon state has yet done...

Simon Hughes (LD): Obviously, as the Foreign Secretary rightly said, we are not the biggest player among the nuclear arms powers-and, yes, there have been steps to disarmament. Why, however, would the Government's position, which is in principle to retain the nuclear deterrent, be a better trigger for disarmament in the 2010 talks than a decision to defer on the basis of reduction now and prospective reduction or abolition of nuclear arms later?

Margaret Beckett: Let me first say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I have already pointed out, we have been disarming over the course of the past 10 years, with singularly little response. There is therefore no evidence whatever for the notion that if we defer this decision, that will somehow magically produce a different response from other players than we have had hitherto.

Mike Gapes (Lab/Co-op and Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Affairs): Before my right hon. Friend moves away from the issue of proliferation, can she give the House an assurance that if we vote for the Government's motion today, there will be renewed efforts to secure the measures on nuclear weapons disarmament mentioned in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty, particularly to try to get India, Pakistan and the other non-signatories to the NPT into the global nuclear arms control system?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance without any difficulty...

Richard Burden (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to be effective, two things are important: first, it has to be enforced; and secondly, non-nuclear states have to be convinced of the logic of it?...

Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party (SNP) Leader): If what the Foreign Secretary says is internationally accepted, why does Mohamed ElBaradei so fundamentally disagree with her on the impact that it will have on proliferation?

Margaret Beckett: I appreciate that Dr. ElBaradei has of late made a number of remarks about his wish that Governments-nuclear-armed states-should not pursue such measures. However, he knows, as we know, that all nuclear-armed states have indeed taken steps to modernise and keep up to date the weapons and facilities that they have. That is exactly the decision that the United Kingdom is making, no more and no less...

Britain remains committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons, and we are actively engaged, and encouraging others to be engaged, in a process that will lead to that goal. But progress will be steady and incremental, and only towards the end of that process will it be helpful and useful for us to include our own small fraction of the global stockpile in treaty-based reductions. So there is no basis to suggest that we have done anything other than fully comply with our obligations under the NPT. Indeed-I say this to the House with some respect-I regard it as dangerous folly to equate our own record, as some have tried to do, with that of countries such as North Korea and Iran, which have stood or stand in clear breach of their obligations as non-nuclear weapon states under the NPT. There is no legal or moral equivalence between their position and ours. I would urge people, whatever other arguments they might use to oppose the motion, not to use that one, because it undermines the very basis of the treaty itself: that those recognised as non-nuclear weapon states should not seek to acquire nuclear weapons. The international non-proliferation regime is not perfect, but it has prevented the wide-scale proliferation of nuclear weapons. I regard it as dangerously irresponsible to use the excuse that the UK is retaining its weapons to justify others seeking to acquire them, and it runs the real risk of increasing the global nuclear threat, not reducing it.

That brings me to the second of the four pivotal questions. Why does this country need to retain its nuclear weapons? I am inclined to turn the question on its head and ask instead whether this is the time for us to abandon our nuclear deterrent, or to deny future Governments and Parliaments the ability to maintain it...

Norman Baker (LD): The Secretary of State will know that our nuclear weapons have been pointing at nobody since 1994. Does she not recognise that the immediate, and perhaps medium-term, threat comes from those countries that are developing biological and chemical weapons? Does she not think that the money spent on upgrading and renewing our nuclear weapons system would be better spent on dealing with that particular threat, or on ensuring that our troops in Afghanistan were properly equipped with what they need?

Margaret Beckett: I shall come to the proportion of the costs in a few moments...

Jeremy Corbyn (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She will recall that, in the past, our party and others have campaigned against nuclear weapons and for disarmament. She has made much of the adherence to the non-proliferation treaty, but is it not the case that the message going around the world is that a vastly enhanced delivery system-achieved through a new generation of submarines-will be contrary to the whole spirit of the treaty and likely to encourage proliferation rather than reduce it?

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry to have to say this to my hon. Friend, but that is complete and utter rubbish...

David Chaytor (Lab): If the costs described by my right hon. Friend were exceeded-defence projects have a track record of exceeding their budgets-will she also guarantee that those excess costs would not impact elsewhere in the defence budget?

Margaret Beckett: ... I think that my hon. Friend will find a reference in the White Paper to the costs of the existing system, which, in real terms, are pretty close to identical to the likely costs of the new system. The kind of overrun that he describes has not been the case with that programme... The final question is, why must we make a decision now? Some have suggested that the decision can be delayed. Let us make no mistake-the net result of that would be not to delay the decision, but to run the risk of making it by default. All our advice is that if we do not start the process of designing the new generation of ballistic missile submarines now, it will already be too late.

Clive Betts (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has indicated that we must make a decision now to begin the design process for the new submarines... she indicated that future Governments and Parliaments will have to "discuss the most appropriate form of Parliamentary scrutiny" for those decisions... If this Government are still in power when those decisions come to be made, will she indicate whether she believes the most appropriate form of parliamentary scrutiny to be further votes and debates in Parliament on those matters?

Margaret Beckett: ... I simply draw his attention to the words uttered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to the clear facts before the House-the decision in principle must be made today, but the decision on the warheads, for example, will not come in this Parliament....

Some Members have sought assurances on whether this is only a provisional decision, dependent on further decisions down the line. Today's decision does not mean that we are committing ourselves irreversibly to maintaining a nuclear deterrent for the next 50 years, no matter what others do and no matter what happens in the rest of the world. That would be absurd, unnecessary and, indeed, incompatible with the nuclear proliferation treaty...

Of course, if there were a fundamental change for the better in the strategic environment-in particular, massive significant progress on non-proliferation and disarmament-it would obviously be right for future Governments to look at the issue again, and inevitably they would. As I have said, further decisions will in any case be needed on the precise design of the submarines, on whether we need four or three, on whether to renew or replace the warhead, and on whether to participate in any American programme to develop a successor to the D5 missile. It will fall to future Governments and Parliaments to discuss the most appropriate form of scrutiny for those decisions. As I have said, this Government will ensure that there are regular reports to Parliament as the programme proceeds, and we will give the Select Committee our full co-operation as it maintains its regular scrutiny of these issues... the Government believe that maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent remains a premium worth paying on an insurance policy for our nation...

Nigel Griffiths (Lab): After reading the White Paper, "The future of the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent", I have concluded that it has no future-that this country has to become a country for peace, not a country for war. We have led the world in campaigning to meet the Kyoto targets. We have led the fight to eradicate global poverty. Now we must lead the world in campaigning for the eradication of the nuclear threat-and we must lead by example. As the poet and essayist Emerson said: "The real and lasting victories are those of peace, and not of war." I have seen colleagues wrestle with their consciences and lose their beliefs. That is not a path that I have chosen to follow...

There are those who oppose any spending on defence and our armed services, but I am not one of them. There are those who argue that the decision is premature, but I am not one of them, either. Tough decisions must never be put off. However, there are those who question the wisdom of the £15 billion investment in Trident, and I am most certainly one of them, for I cannot foresee any circumstances in which this country or its territories would be threatened by a nuclear weapons state and we would need to retaliate with a nuclear strike, or where the threat of a nuclear strike by the UK would shape such a state's actions.

The truth is that we have led the world in decommissioning land mines and now in nuclear weapons. The world is watching us now. Let us be leaders for peace. Whatever the good intentions of the White Paper to ring-fence the budget, I remain concerned that funding will be diverted by future Governments from more pressing defence equipment needs.

I now leave the Government over this issue. I recognise that others hold equally sincere but opposite views, which I can respect. Perhaps I am a little self-indulgent in that. But others can still not seem to make up their minds, and of them I am less tolerant. To maintain the present Vanguard submarines and delay a replacement decision is not a credible stance, and I shall not vote for such options. I will, however, vote against the White Paper for the reasons that I have given. I go with a heavy heart, but a clear conscience.

Nick Harvey (LD): .... The strategic context is very dangerous, and that makes the forthcoming review conference of the NPT in 2010 all the more important. It should be Britain's objective to play as constructive, positive and progressive a part as it can at that conference, and we have done that in the past...

We need to establish a policy for Britain and not for British Aerospace.... Former President Gorbachev was exactly on the mark when he said that Britain should not make a decision before the 2010 NPT conference. He added: "The UK Government's rush to deploy nuclear missiles whose service life would extend until 2050 is...astonishing". He is entirely right. I also refer to the comments of Kofi Annan speaking in November. He recognised the more dangerous strategic context to which I have referred and said: "We are sleepwalking towards disaster...worse than that-we are asleep at the controls of a fast-moving aircraft. Unless we wake up and take control, the outcome is all too predictable."

He went on that to say that if Britain took the decision to renew our system now to take us through to 2055, it would inhibit and damage the part that we could play... I applaud the Government for the openness of this procedure. It is good that there has been a White Paper and that there is a parliamentary debate. But they are not asking us to approve the concept and design; they are asking us now, seven years before they are going to let the contracts, to take a decision on the whole thing. It may be the last opportunity that we get for the best part of 50 years.... the final approval of Parliament should be given at the point at which the contract is going to be let, when the money is going to be spent and when we reach the point of no return...

Jon Trickett (Lab): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: "notes the Government's decision, as set out in the White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the United Kingdom's disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but believes that the case is not yet proven and remains unconvinced of the need for an early decision."

... it seems that the Government lapse from time to time into the argument that the reason behind the decision is industrial, rather than political or in terms of defence...

I want to move on to address equally specious arguments that have been developed, such as that about the reduction of warheads. Obviously, the destruction of any warhead is a welcome development, so the Secretary of State's announcement in the White Paper-this was reaffirmed today-that the number of warheads would be reduced was good. However, that is not a non-proliferation measure. Everyone who has read the Defence Committee's report knows that the number of warheads active on the seas will still be 48. There will thus be no non-proliferation. While it is welcome that the stockpile of warheads in the UK is being reduced, that is not an argument that we are complying with our legal obligations to engage in non-proliferation. The Select Committee report clearly makes that case... Frankly, many aspects of the report argue clearly that it would be possible to delay the decision for some years...

Finally, I want to refer to the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President. Some 72 hours after the White Paper came out as a consultation document, the Prime Minister sent a letter, on 7 December, to the President in which he wrote: "We have therefore...set in train the steps necessary to maintain our current submarine-based nuclear deterrent system".

I asked the Attorney-General's view about the letter because it seemed to be a binding commitment effectively to bring about the process of beginning to rearm. The rest of the two letters referred to the missile system.

The Attorney-General's response failed to convince me that a decision has not already been taken. This afternoon's debate has thus been pre-empted by a Government decision. That is a serious charge to make, but the letters stand in an appendix to a Select Committee report for any Member to have a look at. If that is the case, surely the Government ought to say clearly where we stand legally. Today's edition of The Guardian reports that work has already begun on the process of rearmament. I wonder whether the House's decision has been pre-empted....

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Con and Chair of the Defence Select Committee)

First, I would like to go through the arguments against the Government's proposal. This is an awful lot of money to spend on something of doubtful usefulness. At a time when we are funding our armed forces at a peacetime level, this seems an odd priority. We believe that we are the closest allies of the United State of America, and what do we add by buying this deterrent? We add a bit of uncertainty in the minds of the potential aggressor, but that is an awfully expensive bit of uncertainty. And how can we say to North Korea and Iran, "We can, but you can't"? It is not that our going for unilateral nuclear disarmament would have any persuasive power with them-clearly it would not-but making such statements does reduce our moral authority.

The Government have made little attempt to explain how deterrence works. The purpose of having nuclear weapons will have failed if we ever have to use them, yet the only point of having them is that someone might think that we might use them. It is on the basis of such arguments that we are spending £20 billion. When could we use them? Perhaps the only scenario is that the United Kingdom will not know who has exploded a nuclear weapon, and then what would we do? Could we use them in retaliation? I believe that retaliation, as such, is illegal. We can use them to hit back in self-defence, but by the time that we are involved in a nuclear exchange, all thoughts of stopping anyone else from doing anything again will be long dead, along with most of us. Perhaps those rules are suspended in war, but that is far from clear. Legally, perhaps we could only use the weapons if we were firing them in first use, and that is a rather scary prospect.

The Foreign Secretary said that the deterrent was an "insurance policy" against an uncertain threat, but talk of an insurance policy is simply wrong. If someone destroys a house, the purpose of an insurance policy is to pay to rebuild the house; it is not to destroy the house of the person who destroyed it. Let us find a better analogy. The best one that I can think of is a booby trap. The Secretary of State assures us that if someone walks into our "house", there is a likelihood that that devastating booby trap, wandering round the oceans of the world, will go off. That is not like any insurance policy of which I have ever heard. In what circumstances could the horribly high rate of collateral damage caused by a nuclear weapon be justified? It is hard to deter those who have a religious conviction that death is better than life, or who are irrational, so the weapons are aimed at a tiny proportion of the threats against us-those from rationally led states. That is not a conclusive argument, but the equipment is very expensive for deterring that sort of threat...

As for the arguments in favour of the decision, given that other countries are pursuing nuclear weapons, it is an odd time to be disarming unilaterally. While our moral authority may be reduced if we tell Iran to do as we say, and not do as we do, our actual authority is increased by the possession of nuclear weapons. Unilaterally disarming would not have any beneficial effect on non-proliferation. Nobody reduced the number of their warheads when we reduced ours to 200. We gave ourselves moral authority by doing that, but countries such as Iran and North Korea were interested in military authority, not moral authority....

... I am not inclined to take the risk of allowing the unilateral nuclear disarmament of this country to send us naked into the conference chamber, as Nye Bevan once put it. The trouble is that those considerations apply just as strongly to Iran as they do to the United Kingdom. Why should we expect a proud Iranian nation to go naked into the conference chamber? It is a difficult question. My answer is that we have the world that we have. We would like a world with no nuclear weapons in it, but there is not the smallest hope of achieving that without gradually reducing the nuclear weapons of those states that have them, while doing our utmost to ensure that no new countries acquire them... We now have the ability to destroy the world, and I regret to say that it is natural human behaviour that when we have the ability to do something, sooner or later we try it out. I believe that that will happen before climate change has had time to do its work. .... .... ....

Dr. Gavin Strang (Lab): The end of the cold war brought a window of opportunity to make real progress in fully implementing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The tragedy is that this is not the way in which it is turning out. In recent years, there has been growing disillusionment among the non-nuclear weapons states. They fear that the nuclear weapons states are not prepared to fulfil their disarmament obligations. The world's non-proliferation mechanisms desperately need strengthening. That window of opportunity still exists...

No country is better placed than Britain to make a major contribution internationally in this field. After all, neither Britain nor western Europe is subject to any direct military threat and the Government have stated that no such threat is foreseen. This is the time when Britain should be taking the initiative to encourage nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is profoundly depressing that the Government want to procure a new generation of Trident.

The decision to buy a new generation of Trident would damage non-proliferation efforts. After all, we have an obligation to move towards complete disarmament, and making provision to renew Trident clearly runs counter to that obligation. We seek to persuade non-nuclear weapons states not to pursue nuclear weapons programmes, and we seek to persuade the international community of the need to strengthen the world's non-proliferation mechanisms. Those exhortations will be met with increasing cynicism if, at the same time as we make them, we buy a new generation of Trident. It will not be just our credibility that is damaged-faith in the world's non-proliferation regimes will be further undermined. By renewing Trident we will effectively say to other countries that nuclear weapons are so vital that we are prepared to spend billions of pounds to make sure that we have them in the 2020s and beyond, even though the Government admit that we do not face a foreseeable direct military threat. Far from persuading other nations to remain non-nuclear, we will send a signal that nuclear weapons are vital.

The Government argue that we should renew Trident, not because of any foreseeable threat, but because we cannot accurately predict the nature of the world in 30 or 50 years' time. Surely, the same is true for any country in the world. Germany, Japan and Egypt, for example, do not know what threats will face them in the 2020s and beyond. There is nothing in the Government's justification for renewing Trident that does not apply to every country in the world. That clearly undermines our argument that non-nuclear weapon states should continue to forgo nuclear weapons. The Government rightly say that we do not know what the future holds, but we can be sure that a decision not to renew Trident would avoid the damage that would be done to non-proliferation efforts if we go ahead with renewal.

I would like the UK to decommission Trident. Other countries have given up nuclear weapons: South Africa abandoned its nuclear programme, as has Libya, and Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons too. We applauded those countries for the course that they took. None of the countries that abandoned their nuclear programmes are any less secure, and neither would we be. Indeed, Britain would be a safer place if we did not renew Trident because, first, we would avoid the detrimental impact of Trident renewal on the non-proliferation regimes and, secondly, we could spend our defence budget more effectively. Instead of spending £20 billion on renewing Trident and £1.5 every year running it, Britain could put more resources into defence equipment and operations more relevant to our security needs in the 21st century.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Con and former Shadow Defence Spokesperson): The effective decision to replace Trident is premature, it has not been fully considered, and it is not justified. The debate is not about being for or against nuclear weapons. I was strongly supportive of Trident and our other nuclear deterrents during the cold war. Trident will be with us for the next twenty years, and possibly longer, so that is not the issue.

This debate is about the deterrent which, in 17 years' time, we will bequeath to the next generation. None of us can predict what international relationships will be like so far ahead, yet we are being asked to make a full commitment to a highly expensive weapons system that, in the event, could prove ineffective as a deterrent and is questionable in its justification. We are committing not ourselves but the next generation, who may have very different views on deterrence and, indeed, on which defence priorities we should spend the massive sums involved...

There are three key questions. First, do we need a deterrent? My answer is yes. In an uncertain world, it is surely better to deter aggression than to respond to it after it has occurred. To be successful, however, a deterrent must be proportionate to the perceived threat; it must be clearly effective and credible; and therefore need never be used. Belief in the aggressor's mind that there is the will if necessary to use that deterrent is essential to its credibility, which is why it must be proportionate. Cold war deterrents worked because the balanced threat of mutually assured destruction and the nuclear doctrine between two rational enemies who understood the consequences assured its success. Any future deterrent must be powerful enough to create fear in the potential enemy; its nature must be such that the enemy believes we would really use it if attacked; hence it must proportionate to the threat that the enemy poses.

The next question, which is crucial, is: does the deterrent need to be nuclear?

Since 1989 things have dramatically changed. The enemy today and in the future is unclear and its threat is unquantifiable. Proponents of replacing Trident argue that there might be a revival of the Russian confrontation. That is a pretty long shot. Even longer is the scenario of a new cold war-style ideologically-driven nuclear arms race where our nuclear deterrent would once again become relevant. The only ideological conflict that I can see is one where it would not be a deterrent anyway, because of the nature of that ideology. We are told that Trident is an insurance against such remote possibilities, but £20 billion is a pretty hefty premium against a pretty unlikely threat.

Today's and, I suspect, tomorrow's threats come more from international terrorism and so-called rogue states. Iran is sometimes cited as encompassing both. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that she could pose a nuclear threat to the United Kingdom. Does the House really believe that a British Government, even in response to an attack, would in the 21st century be prepared to obliterate Tehran? I do not believe that and, more importantly, I do not believe the Iranians believe it, yet that is the stark key to successful deterrence, and if that belief does not exist, it is not a deterrent...

To me, Trident was a deterrent of the 20th century; it is not a deterrent of the 21st. We should be looking for something more proportionate and therefore more credible, and that might well not be nuclear. If we need time to do that, we should make that time...

If the deterrent is nuclear, should it be Trident?

... In fairness to the generation upon whom we are effectively seeking to dump an irreversible commitment to "son of Trident", we should at least show that we have examined the options before doing so. I believe and have argued previously that before the House takes a final decision, we need a senior independent examination of and report on all the options, not just those in the White Paper. The decision is far too important to railroad through the House.


Alex Salmond (SNP): ... Perhaps we could have a virtual nuclear deterrent in order to have deterrence. ... Scotland is, after all, to be the scene of the deployment of this new weapons system for the next 50 years, so what the people of Scotland think about it might be of some interest and concern to the House. It is not just that 80 per cent. of people oppose it; throughout Scottish civic society, people are pointing out, led by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, that it is unacceptable. Some Labour MSPs make the mistake of saying that there will be a jobs boost. They claim that 11,000 jobs will be created, but unfortunately, parliamentary answers in this House reveal that the figure is 1,300. The cost works out at £5 million a job. As the Scottish TUC has pointed out, the alternative cost is the many thousands of jobs anywhere in the public sector that could be generated by such a figure.

However, there are not just economic arguments but moral arguments, too. Scotland's Cardinal, Keith O'Brien, has written to me enclosing a statement not just from the Catholic Church in Scotland, but from all the Christian Churches in Scotland: the Church of Scotland, the Quakers, the United Free Church, the United Reform Church, and the Scottish Episcopal Church. Talking about the Churches coming together to make such a statement, our Cardinal said: "I think you would be right in saying in your own statement to Parliament that this is a unique even in the history of the Christian Churches in Scotland"...

When people in this House say that there is no possibility that Iran or North Korea-or even the French-would respond to our renunciation of nuclear weapons by doing the same, they miss the point entirely. They miss the encouragement that will be given to proliferation if we go ahead and invest in a system for the next 50 years... In a world of 200 nations, 10 of which are nuclear powers and 190 of which are not, I would like an independent Scotland to be one of the 190, not one of the 10...

Mr. Michael Meacher (Lab): Like others, I do not believe that the Government have adequately or convincingly answered certain fundamental questions about renewing Trident, in particular its true cost, why a decision has to be taken now, whom it is meant to deter, and how it is genuinely compatible with non-proliferation.... Nor has there been a real opportunity to obtain fuller answers, because the process of consultation has been unjustifiably squeezed. There is an unmistakable sense in this latest exercise that both Parliament and the electorate are being bounced into this decision...

John Barrett (LD): If anyone is still wondering why there is a rush to make a decision now, the answer is clear. The Americans are extending the life of their D5 Trident missiles and they want answers in 2007. They need to know whether we are willing to join them. There is no pressing military, political, technical or other reason to make the decision now. The only reason we are being bounced into this decision is because of the current Prime Minister and his wish to leave the country's hands tied long after he has gone. It is not the submarines that are reaching the end of their shelf life; it is the Prime Minister...

John McDonnell (Lab): ... There are allegations of a done deal with President Bush and the pre-emption of the parliamentary vote. That does not convey the impression that the country is at ease with the decision-making process that the Labour leadership has fixed on for this critical policy decision, and that is no way to determine a fundamental policy that will affect the lives of the next generation.

Joan Ruddock (Lab): Many right hon. and hon. Members tonight have acknowledged that the cold war is over, but the White Paper on the future of Trident is still rooted in cold war thinking. It makes no real analysis of the future role of the US-led and nuclear-armed NATO alliance of which we are a part, nor of the new Europe in which we live. It is a mass of assertions with no attempt to examine how best to approach security in a world where climate change and competition for resources and markets will be paramount... The White Paper asserts continually the deterrent value of British nuclear weapons without advancing a single plausible threat scenario. But it is not even that simple... At the 2000 non-proliferation treaty review, Britain made "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons". Tonight, however, we have been asked to spend billions of pounds and years of endeavour so that we can deploy new weapons of mass destruction to patrol the seas until 2050...

A weapons system is credible only if it can be used, and I have not heard any argument showing how Trident could be used to our advantage. I know the consequences of using it, however-thousands of innocent people would be vaporised; millions would die in agony; and radiation would persist for generations. The health and environmental consequences are incalculable: I have never been willing to be party to such a barbarous act, and I will not support my Government tonight.

Clare Short (Ind Lab): First, the decision does not need to be made now... The Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's Question Time that the next Parliament could revisit the decision, which makes it clear that the decision does not have to be made tonight... The Prime Minister is trying to lock the Labour party into policies that he supports, and the Chancellor is suddenly trying to prove that he is tough on security by spinning on the back of a speech about the economy his support for a replacement for Trident, without any proper debate about Britain's foreign policy and its role in the world after the disastrous mistakes in Iraq. Secondly, there is no argument in the White Paper, in the Prime Minister's introduction to the White Paper, or in the speech by the Conservative spokesman, that could not be reasonably made by Iran and many other countries... The third reason why the UK should reconsider its approach to nuclear weapons is that they chain us into the role of US poodle... Lots of the speeches that have been made today have sought to re-run the old arguments about unilateral nuclear disarmament, but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about whether we commit ourselves to replacing our weapon in 20 years' time or whether we could look for a strategy that uses our influence and our willingness to disarm to strengthen non-proliferation, with a stronger multilateral system, greater equity, more authority for the United Nations and a just settlement in the middle east.

Linda Gilroy (Con): ...I believe that retention gives us a more powerful hand in working for non-proliferation. ... We should maintain the multilateralist position of seeking something for something, not something for nothing.

Jeremy Corbyn (Lab): I remind the House that a few years ago we debated with great earnestness the situation in Iraq in relation to weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear weapon is automatically a weapon of mass destruction. It cannot be targeted individually at a military target. It can be used only to destroy a whole area and to kill a very large number of people. It has no deterrent effect whatsoever. We are promoting this position largely through a sense of vanity, rather than anything else. If we pass the resolution tonight to endorse the Government's position, we will be set on a road that is both costly and illegal... I want to make two points about the law relating to this issue. There is something called international humanitarian law and there are two important principles that are part of it. First, there is the general rule that a party to an armed conflict must always seek to distinguish between the civilian population and the combatants. A weapon that is incapable of drawing such a distinction is unlawful under international humanitarian law. A nuclear weapon cannot, by its very nature, make that distinction. Secondly, there is the principle that a party is entitled to use only that force that is required to achieve a legitimate military objective. A weapon that is bound uselessly to aggravate the suffering of combatants is unlawful under international humanitarian law... I would also make the point that in 1996, the International Court of Justice ruled that "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally contrary to the rules of international law applicable to armed conflict and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law." We face an important decision tonight. Either we endorse this vast expenditure, or we encourage a public debate that I believe will come down on the side of sanity, sense and peace in the world, and we do not go ahead with this vast expenditure that can lead only to a more dangerous world.

Anne Milton (Con): There is considerable misunderstanding in the House about what we are deciding. The Foreign Secretary's comments that we are not committing ourselves irreversibly to a nuclear deterrent, but are taking steps to maintain a nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system, are important...There are three points that I would like the Secretary of State for Defence to clarify in simple terms... We need a justification for why the decision needs to be taken now...We need to know whether the replacement of any part of the deterrent will remain solely and completely in the control of the UK. We also need to know whether the process would harm or compromise any part of the non-proliferation treaty. Will we continue to pursue a reduction in nuclear weapons and will multilateral disarmament continue to be our aim?


Alison Seabeck (Lab): My support for the new programme is not based simply on its economic benefits for the south-west defence-based industries...

In Plymouth, a city associated with the armed forces and one of the cities most heavily bombed during world war two, we understand the deterrence process. Equally, we understand the importance of the SSBN-ship submersible ballistic nuclear-programme to the economy of our city and the wider south-west, as well as to the UK's maritime industrial base... What we have in Plymouth is unique and what the defence industry requires is also unique. Admittedly, our skills could be used in other fields, but only the Ministry of Defence buys submarines and wants maintenance programmes for them....

Bernard Jenkin (Con): ... The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that the world was watching us today. The one way of making sure that the world will watch us no longer and give us no influence is to wantonly throw away the influence we have. By wantonly throwing away possession of our nuclear weapons, we will give something for nothing... If we throw away our weapons, the world will watch us no more and will take no interest in anything that our Government have to say...

Jim Devine (Lab): I hope that Front-Bench Members recognise that when someone like me votes against the Government and resigns as a parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Health, it is not an easy decision. It has been a hard decision, but I believed that I should come to the House to explain it... Robin Cook was my predecessor. The week before he died in August 2005, the very last article he wrote was in The Guardian on this subject. He said: "...There could not be a more convincing way for Tony Blair to break from the past and to demonstrate that he is a true moderniser than by making the case that nuclear weapons now have no relevance to Britain's defences in the modern world... the spirit of the cold war lives on in the minds of those who cannot let go of fear and who need an enemy to buttress their own identity. Hence the vacuum left by the cold war has been filled by George Bush's global war on terror...nuclear weapons are hopelessly irrelevant to that terrorist threat. The elegant theories of deterrence all appear beside the point in the face of a suicide bomber who actively courts martyrdom. And if we ever were deluded enough to wreak our revenge by unleashing a latter-day Hiroshima on a Muslim city, we would incite fanatical terrorism against ourselves for a generation." I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence sums up, he gives some indication of when he would see a nuclear weapon being used.... It is absurd that Britain should maintain its nuclear weapons to guarantee its security while lecturing Iran, et al, that the safety of the world will be compromised if they behave in the same way. Despite the anxieties about proliferation, more nations have given up nuclear weapons in the last generation than have developed them.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Con): [in the] Thames valley... see the rooftops and chimneys of the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston, which I revere for the work that it has done to safeguard this country's security in times past and, I hope, in times future... If the hon. Gentleman came with me to the hill above my house, and looked further into the distance, he would see Greenham Common, which is a living, breathing example of the peace dividend. More people work there in real jobs than were stationed there at the height of the cold war. The arguments around the perimeter of Greenham Common now are about planning issues and whether the missile silo should house a museum or be used as a storage site for cars.

Willie Rennie (LD): ...What hope do we have if the Government have already given up on those talks in 2010? What hope do we have if this Parliament decides prematurely to renew Trident? The Government seem determined not to give the talks a chance. The message that will be sent to Iran and North Korea by the Government deciding to proceed today is: "Do as we say, not as we do." the real test in this debate is whether the White Paper furthers the cause of nuclear disarmament. That is why we reject the premature bid to renew Trident...

Diane Abbott (Lab): ... In reading past debates on this issue, I came across a quote from the current Chancellor, then the Member for Dunfermline, East, who said about Trident that it is "unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound."-[ Official Report, 19 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 188.] I defer to no one in my admiration for the Chancellor. He was right then, and what he said he is even more right today.


Mohammad Sarwar (Lab): ... In the past three months, I have received hundreds of campaign postcards, letters and e-mails that are against the replacement of Trident. To date, I have not received a single letter in support of its replacement. That is a clear indication of the strength of public opinion in my home city of Glasgow and in Scotland against the replacement programme...The Government have not made the case for the need to replace Trident and for that decision to be made now... Why do we believe that it is right for Britain, the United States of America and Israel to possess weapons of mass destruction and expand their nuclear weapons arsenals, but that it is not right for other nations to develop nuclear weapons? Is it because we have more wisdom, because we are more responsible or because we are a rich nation? If we spent the billions of pounds that we are spending on war and our nuclear arsenal on alleviating poverty, we would live in a safer world.


Mr. Gordon Prentice (Lab): The White Paper is full of assertions...It asserts, as if it were a truth, that "Renewing the current Trident system is fully consistent with the NPT and with all our international legal obligations." I simply do not believe that.... When I asked Ministers three weeks ago to supply me with the Attorney-General's advice-the legal advice that allowed the Prime Minister and the Government to say that-I was told that it was confidential. I am not prepared to take these matters on trust, not after Iraq, not after weapons of mass destruction and not after the "45 minutes" assertion. If the Prime Minister came here and told us that we had to invade Iran, do you think the military would go along with that without having sight of the Attorney-General's [interrupted by Speaker]... The way in which the Government have consulted the Labour party has been an absolute disgrace. All the motions that were put before the Labour conference in September were ruled out of order as the matter was going to be referred to the national policy commission. When it was discussed at the national policy commission there was a debate-there always is-but no vote, because under new Labour nothing crystallises into a vote...

Katy Clark (Lab): It is with great pleasure that I say that I-along with... several other Scottish Labour MPs-will vote against Trident's replacement this evening. I would vote against Trident's replacement wherever in the United Kingdom it was based, but the reality is that it is based in the west of Scotland and for many decades vast majorities of people in Scotland have made it clear that they oppose nuclear weapons being based in Scotland. I think that that is because they, perhaps more than people in any other part of Britain, are very aware of what those weapons represent. They are weapons of mass destruction that have been designed to target civilian communities and to maximise death and suffering.

Dr. Liam Fox (Con): I want to take head-on the argument in the amendment to the motion.... There is no way that what we are voting on tonight could be described as rearmament. We have a single delivery system and a minimum credible deterrent, with a falling number of warheads, and there has been a 70 per cent. cut in our nuclear arsenal since the cold war. We are within not only the letter but the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty... We in the Conservative party have been consistent and clear about our belief in nuclear deterrence. The cold war did not just end; it was won with a clarity of purpose and political resolve, not least on the part of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Peace through strength has a strong historical track record. This is no time to abandon that track record, or our security.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): This is a significant day for Parliament. There is no denying that deciding to build a new generation of submarines to maintain our nuclear deterrent is a big decision, costing billions of pounds, having implications over several decades and committing us to continue as the guardians of a weapon of terrible destructive power, with all the responsibility that that brings... Our position was set out earlier today by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he said, "It is absolutely right that this Parliament cannot bind the decisions of a future Parliament and it is always open to us to come back and look at these issues...when we get to the gateway stage-between 2012 and 2014-when we let the main contracts...it will always be open to Parliament to take a decision." This happened when the previous generation of submarines was built, and it would be surprising if it did not happen again. However, the precise details of how future Parliaments should approach this issue is something that they must decide. As the Prime Minister went on to say, the fundamental point is that we need to take a decision now to start the process, and we have deliberately chosen to bring this decision to Parliament at the right time at the start rather than proceeding in secret and then presenting it later as a foregone conclusion...

See also: Worse than Irrelevant? British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, by Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger, published by the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, December 2006.

Rebecca Johnson

© 2007 The Acronym Institute.