Whither Trident?

Big debate in a small room at House of Commons 

On 22nd January a seminar was held in Committee Room 10 at the House of Commons by Progress, an organisation of Labour party members set up to discuss key issues of the 21st century, to debate the future of Britain’s weapon of mass destruction.  The four speakers were Des Brown, Defence Secretary, Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute, Lee Willett from the Royal United Services Institute, and John Kampfner, editor of New Statesman.


Des Brown opened proceedings.  He said that when he joined the Labour party unilateralism was party policy, and it was perceived as a ‘tactic’.  He did not explain how a tactic differed from a policy, but presumably he saw unilateralism as a means of getting to multilateral agreement, a condition we would all like to see.  He stood by the recent government White Paper on renewing Trident, saying that he ‘went over carefully every single word’.  He defended the executive’s clear recommendation contained in the White Paper to renew Trident by saying that ‘we are the government, and must have a position’.  By ‘we’ he must have meant the executive, which he evidently equated with the whole government.  He went on to state flatly that ‘maintaining a deterrent is crucial’, that ‘deterrence works’, and also that ‘the decision can’t wait’.

‘In this uncertain world’ the future being unpredictable, you never knew who your enemies might be.  Iran?  North Korea?  We should not ‘deny future generations the opportunity’ to use nuclear weapons.  After all, future generations will be free to get rid of nukes if they wanted to.  It was up to us to give them the choice.

He claimed that ordering new nuclear weapons was ‘entirely in line’ with the NPT.  He ‘does not believe’ that our example will influence the actions of other nations.

Rebecca Johnson, from the Acronym Institute, spoke next.  She noted that speaking of ‘the deterrent’ was a linguistic device which conferred on nuclear weapons the virtue of protecting us, assuming something that was still to be proved.  Cold War platitudes were still in use today.  Talk of keeping nuclear weapons as ‘an insurance policy’ was sloppy.  An insurance policy was something that was compensatory, not preventative.

The security case for nuclear weapons had not been made.  Talk of ‘unilateral’ and ‘multilateral’ had been sterile in the ’80s, and was no good at all now. Britain was in a pivotal position, and needs to show a lead that the case for nuclear weapons is no longer valid.  A world without nuclear weapons has to be built, step by step. 

They were not ‘cost free’, in several ways.  Just when we are trying to get non-proliferation on the agenda, we should not be updating our own WMD.  She had chaired meetings of international scientists on this issue, and spoke with authority on Iran’s position (‘Iran is a long way from acquiring nuclear weapons’), emphasising that militant pronouncements from the US strengthened Iran president Ahmadinejad’s hand. 

The rush to decide on Trident’s future is ‘artificial’, and is aimed at tying the hands of Blair’s successor. [1][1] 


Lee Willett of Royal United Services Institute spoke next. He asked, ‘What is UK’s global position?  We are a force for good in the world, and nuclear weapons are a political asset.’  He liked the White Paper.  Who could tell what were the threats of the future?  Russia, rated as green until recently, has been deemed amber now.  If climate change happens, well, what will be the implications in terms of migration and so on?


John Kampfner ended the debate.  He started by declaring that no military case had been made for Trident.  The decision to renew had evidently already been taken, and had been dictated by politics.  A debate had been promised, but it would be cursory, and ‘parliament is going through the motions’.  As for real costs, these invariably far exceed original estimates.

The rationale for the new WMD was taken on the ‘you never know’ principle.  Such a principle applies to every country in the world.  All feel threatened now.  He described his ‘you never know’ thesis as ‘the precautionary principle taken ad absurdum’. He agreed with Rebecca Johnson that Britain was in a position to play a key role, but we must not allow ‘delusions of post-imperial grandeur’ to dictate policy.  He wondered why Britain was ‘so relaxed’ about proliferation when it concerned India and he told of discussions he had had with politicians, when he had discovered that two key reasons for us keeping nuclear weapons in their view was first, we would lose our status as a nuclear country, and second, France has it, so we need it.

The debate ended with several questions from the floor, but time was short, and the meeting ended quickly.

[1][1] See Worse than irrelevant?  British nuclear weapons in the 21st century.  Dr Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler, and Dr Pullinger   Published by Acronym Institute for Disarmament and Diplomacy.  ISBN 0-9554638-0-7  Phone 7503 8857   Or read it on line.

Harry Davis