There has been a disinct lack of open, public debate about whether we should be spending vast sums of public money on updating our nuclear weapons systems. Its seems that even whilst debate is supposed to be happening both inside and outside of Parliament the government has already decided to update our nukes anyway! What a great democracy we have!
I wrote to my MP Kerry McCarthy about Iran/nuclear weapons a short while ago (see earlier blog posting) and have today received the reply below. Please feel free to contact her in response to what she says (my response to her points below are in bold italics).
Dear Mr Vowles,
As you are aware, the vote on Trident is taking place this Wednesday.
In reaching a decision as to how I intend to vote, my starting point was this: Labour stopped being a unilateralist party some time in the 1980s. It was clear at the time that the British voting public rejected unilateralism, and rejected Labour because of this. The Labour Party - and I, as a Labour Party candidate - stood in the 2005 General Election, and several elections before this, on a manifesto which said we would retain Britain's independent nuclear deterrent; we were elected on that basis. As a general rule, I believe that political parties should stick to the promises they make to the voters at a General Election, and that MPs should not vote against the Government on manifesto commitments, unless things have changed drastically since the election was held.
Many Labour MPs will be voting against the government on this issue! On such a major issue, which we have had no separate public vote or even widespread debate on, issues of conscience and principle and strong, independent thought and voting are highly relevant!
I certainly do not subscribe to the 'blind loyalist' view, that MPs should never vote against their own party - if Parliament had been recalled over last summer to debate the conflict in Lebanon (which I, along with a number of other Labour MPs, called for) and we had had a vote on whether to support the Prime Minister's stance, I would have felt compelled to vote against, and I made that clear to party officials at the time. That was not, however, a manifesto issue.
People vote for parties in general elections for all sorts of reasons. They dont go through manifestos generally and do not necessarily vote on the basis of one particular policy or another. Some Labour and other voters will certainly not like the government decision to update our nuclear weapons.
I am disappointed that there has not been more of a public debate since the White Paper was launched last year. I was unaware of Jon Trickett's EDM calling for more consultation until today - I might have signed it back in January when it was first tabled, in a bid to encourage more public debate before the vote in Parliament.
OK, this is somewhat encouraging to me as an anti-nuclear campaigner. Why not follow through forcefully and vote against the government because of the lack of debate!
Behind the scenes in Parliament, however, the issue has been debated at some length. I have attended several meetings, including one organised by Compass in opposition to Trident, and others where Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, has argued the case for Trident against Labour opponents.
Behind the scenes debate is not good enough. On such a big issue we need lengthy, open, public debate.
Having listened to those debates, I have reached the following conclusions:
(1) I do not accept that renewing Trident would put Britain in breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as that treaty was negotiated on the basis that we are a nuclear state and we would not increase our nuclear capability - in fact, we will probably be reducing it. I have been reassured to hear the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary propose a reduction in the number of subs from four to three, and a significant reduction in the number of warheads is also a possibility although I understand that this does not need to be decided for a number of years.
The destructive capacity we will retain is absolutely massive! We will be passing on to future generations the problem of what to do about nuclear weapons because we have not done anything significant about them ourselves. As time passes more and more countries have officially aquired their own nuclear arsenal (look at India and Pakistan..).
Some people have raised with me the question of double standards - i.e. why is it acceptable for the UK to have nuclear weapons and not Iran? In response to this, I would simply point to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory and, by signing up to the treaty, agreed not to develop nuclear weapons; whereas the UK, is signing the treaty, only agreed not to increase its nuclear capability.
The spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has certainly been breached by the UK by deciding to update its nuclear arsenal and retain a massive destructive capacity. Iran has not yet broken the treaty - I very much hope that through dialogue Iran will take a path away from both nuclear power and weapons.
(2) I do not accept the argument that , seeing as the Cold War is over and global terrorism is the main threat, a nuclear deterrent is unnecessary; we have no idea what the global political situation will be like in the 2020s and beyond, and who our political enemies will be, or whether they will have access to nuclear weapons. We therefore cannot base a long-term decision on a snapshot view of the situation in 2007.
We do know that very serious security threats are posed by climate change and energy security issues amongst others. Spending money on nukes means less money is available to counter known security threats. Retaining nukes may make us less secure, not more!
(3) I do not see much merit in the case for delaying the decision for a few years; it has to be made sooner or later. There is some dispute as to the lifespan of the current subs and the timescale for rebuilding them, although I cannot see how most people feel that they are in a position to judge; if the Defence Secretary says we need a 17 year lead-in time, then I accept that. At the very least, it would seem to me to be better to err on the side of caution and start the process now.
Far too unquestioning an approach for me to be comfortable with.
That leaves the question of cost. The Government says £15-£20 billion; others say it will be a lot more. Even if we operate on the Government's estimates, it is indeed a significant amount of money, which could fund a lot of other projects. However, that takes me back to my original point - if we accept the fundamental principle that we are not a unilateralist party, then we have to accept that it costs to have a nuclear deterrent.
Total cost over the life of the system are more like £75 to £100 billion. Not a bit of extra security against the real threats will be gained by spending this massive sum. There is so much else we could do with it and most other countries in the world are not spending such money on nukes.
I am sorry that this is not the answer you were hoping for.
It certainly is not what I'd like to hear from my MP.
Please do not hesitate to contact me again if there are any other issues you would like to bring to my attention.
Kerry McCarthy MP