Stop speaking with forked tongues on Trident, says John McTernan

So the 80s revival doesn’t only stretch to big hair and cheesy music. Unilateralism is back and it’s just as toxic as that other political revival, mass unemployment (coming to a community near you shortly.)

It is a real shame that the entry of Diane Abbott into the Labour leadership race has pulled the centre of gravity of the debate to the left. (Indeed it’s a real shame that Abbott has entered the race. Just what we didn’t need – another Oxbridge graduate, though this time one with a track record of voting with the Tories.)

The shock is to hear candidates flirting with unilateralism. For that, in reality, is what the proposal to put Trident into the strategic defence review amounts to. Let’s be clear, the search for a cheaper option is a snark hunt. There was a white paper in 2006 which exhaustively explored this. To achieve deterrence in any other way than at sea involves many more warheads and greater cost.

I am sure that all our leadership candidates know this, because I am sure they have all read the White Paper. (They certainly all – with the exception of Diane Abbott – voted for the renewal of Trident.)

So if any review is only going to confirm that Trident is the right answer, why signal support for it? Obviously in order to imply that you actually don’t really support Trident after all.

This violates a fundamental principle of politics that New Labour learnt the hard way – the route to victory is by saying what you mean and meaning what you say. If you are really a unilateralist then say so, and then explain why you think the British people are now willing to elect a party committed to one-sided disarmament. (And when you visit Barrow and the Clyde, explain how you plan to re-employ the workers you want to make redundant.)

If, on the other hand, you’re actually a multilateralist (as is the President Obama whose quotes you use to bolster your equivocation) then please have the decency to tell the party the truth.

First, we are bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be a nuclear power (the NPT is based on asymmetry). Second, we are bound by the NATO Treaty to hold nuclear weapons – we (along with France and the US) provide a shield for our fellow members. Third, of course nuclear weapons are bad, but we have a no first strike policy. And if we say that it is morally wrong to hold such weapons and therefore we must rid ourselves of Trident, then we are accepting a world in which only bad people can own these weapons.

Finally, a decision not to modernise Trident deprives future British governments of a key element of defence. Renewal preserves a capacity for 50 years – are we so certain about the coming half-century that we can safely eschew nuclear weapons? Just think of the last 25 years which has seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of Iran as a wannabe nuclear power and the renunciation of nuclear ambitions by Libya and South Africa.

So, come on, let’s banish forked tongues. They should have no place in Labour debate today.

John McTernan was Political Secretary to Tony Blair and Special Adviser to Defence Secretary Des Browne.

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8 Responses to “Stop speaking with forked tongues on Trident, says John McTernan”

  1. Ben says:

    It is truly scary that such ill-informed people were making policy at the highest levels in a Labour government. I’ll refrain from political arguments and just note what are either shocking misunderstandings or, dare I say it, the distortion of the truth that goes way beyond a forked tongue:

    The “white paper in 2006 which exhaustively explored [alternatives to Trident]”
    Really? The ‘Options Assessment Process’ runs to less than 2,000 words and doesn’t even consider submarine launched Cruise missiles as a discreet option.
    The process was so exhaustive that the White Paper notes “the only ballistic missile which we considered in any detail in the analysis was the Trident D5 missile.”

    “we are bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be a nuclear power”
    Please show us which article says that?
    You appear to confuse being ‘bound’ with a fact being recognised. The UK had nuclear weapons at the time the treaty was negotiated (1968) – the treaty merely recognises this fact, and requires the UK and other nuclear weapons states to disarm. It would have been a nonsense to require non-nuclear states to undertake nuclear disarmament, hence the recognition that the UK and four other countries already held these weapons.
    We are however bound by Article VI:
    “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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”

    “we are bound by the NATO Treaty to hold nuclear weapons”
    Funny that – the NATO Treaty was signed in 1949, several years before Britain tested a nuclear weapon. Are you suggesting the UK was in breach of the treaty upon signing it?

    “we have a no first strike policy”
    Really? NATO has rejected adopting a ‘no first use’ policy and Trident is assigned for possible use by NATO.

    John, the world has changed since the 1980s. The Cold War is long gone. You don’t have to behave like a lost Japanese soldier still fighting the war decades after it ended. Several of the leadership candidates are thankfully recognising this. They are the future of this party.

  2. Richard says:

    John’s hostility to the left being in the race makes clear he is not interested in the new politics of celebrating our ‘broad church’ or welcoming a more pluralist politics. Sadly for him though, that is what Labour members want to see. As Ed Miliband said at the New Statesman hustings, members are fed up with a managerial, top-down party which, as Ed Balls also said, did not even allow the Blair-creation of the NPF to examine policy.

    Unfortunately for John, thousands of people who slogged their way around the streets for Labour in the general election do want to see Britain disarm its nuclear weapons as soon as possible. In addition to that, one might expect the political secretary to Tony Blair would have seen a few of the numerous opinion polls over the last four years that make clear the public opposition to Trident replacement – an opposition that can only increase as the Tories engage in massive spending cuts…

    On some factual points, if John was a special advisor to Des Browne he presumably knows we are not ‘bound’ by the NPT too be a nuclear state, but that the treaty simply recognises we were one when it was signed. And given both Blair, Brown and now Cameron’s government have repeatedly recognised their NPT commitment to complete nuclear disarmament, to claim we are ‘bound’ to this status is disingenuous in the least and either stupid or an outright lie at worst.

    And John should try to clarify in what way the UK is bound by NATO to possess nuclear weapons. Aside from the point raised in the initial comment, many NATO states do not have nuclear weapons. Indeed the US has a number of tactical nuclear weapons stationed in other NATO states – potentially in itself a contravention of the NPT – but those states are currently petitioning the US to remove them, including the governments of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.

  3. […] John McTernan says it’s pointless for candidates to posture about Trident. […]

  4. Richard says:

    John McTernan needs to listen to leading disarmament advocate David Miliband who said at the New Statesman hustings this week that the NPT “requires every nuclear weapon state to disarm to zero.”

  5. Dan says:

    All those who claim that Trident is some sort anachronistic luxury because we no longer have a Cold War regulating irrational players in the international system must be extraordinarily far-sighted.

    Can they also provide us with Saturday night’s lottery numbers? Or if that’s too much of a push, how about the winner of this afternoon’s 4.45 at Market Rasen?

    Because if you’re willing to stake world peace on your knowledge of the future indicating that we will never again have to rely on an effective nuclear deterrence, then your advice as to how to risk a quid or two over the weekend would be most welcome.

  6. […] this subject, incidentally, I agree with John McTernan: It’s a real shame that Abbott has entered the race. Just what we didn’t need – another […]

  7. Dan says:

    Richard – you confuse the advocacy of multi-lateral disarmament and non-proliferation, for support for unilateralism.

    How do you expect be to be able to negotiate multi-lateral disarmament (where everyone gives up nuclear weapons, maybe completely) if you pursue unilateral disarmamament (where only you give them up, and totally so)?

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    Scrappijng trident is not a matter of left or right, it is matter of common sense.

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