The government is playing fast and loose with Britain’s security

by John Woodcock

David Cameron and Nick Clegg look more like a political yin and yang with every day that passes. The unseemly deal we have just witnessed between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on Trident and tuition fees highlights the way the two leaders have intertwined their fate.

We should be in no doubt about what has happened – the Lib Dems have spectacularly broken their word on higher fees in return for securing a delay on renewing the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent.

On one level, this is simply base horse trading upon which the dynamics of coalition politics have shone a light. But it is initially hard to understand why Nick Clegg should have been prepared to swallow such humiliation for himself while his coalition partners seem relatively unscathed. Until, that is, you consider the less obvious but potentially equally severe damage to Cameron’s reputation from messing around with Trident renewal in the way that he has.

The reaction from key Conservative backbenchers on this has been derisory and unremittingly hostile. They point out that the UK’s ultimate means of defending itself is the last issue on which a prime minister should have been prepared to trade. They worry about the extra cost and risk piled on the project by delaying the build timetable and punting the ‘main gate’ investment decision to the other side of a general election.

As the MP representing the thousands of workers in Barrow shipyard whose economic future depends on continuing orders, and as part of an opposition which wants Britain to remain credible on protecting its citizens, I am not afraid to say that I share those concerns.

The prime minister will realise that those who have spoken out so far are part of a group whose numbers are far more important to the continuing passage of government business than their counterparts on the Liberal benches.

But he will be more concerned by the potential for the public to latch on to the charges these Conservative colleagues have laid at his door: of playing politics with Britain’s national security, putting political interest ahead of the national interest.

That is potentially just as toxic for the Conservative prime minister as ripping up a cast-iron campaign promise is already proving for his Lib Dem deputy.

Ed Miliband and new shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy are rightly seizing on Cameron’s vulnerability on the deterrent by exposing the shabby way he has acted. It is in Labour’s interest that they succeed in holding the Conservatives to account on this vital issue. But, far more importantly, it is in the interest of the country.

The future of our nuclear deterrent will always be controversial, and for good reason.
Maintaining possession of weapons capable of unimaginable devastation in order to make such devastation less likely has always been a difficult call. Yet it remains the correct one.

Labour must continue to lead the way in pushing for progress in multi-lateral talks towards our goal of a world free from the horrors of nuclear weapons. But we are right to remain robustly committed to renewal now, when we cannot possibly know what the threats to the country will be in several decades time.

It took many years for Labour to arrive at its current hard-headed attitude to achieving nuclear disarmament while ensuring Britain’s security. When our political opponents act in the way they have, they place an even greater responsibility on us to maintain that attitude.

By accepting this responsibility we will contrast our determination to do what is best for the country with the government’s willingness to play fast and loose with arguably the most important issue of all.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness.

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One Response to “The government is playing fast and loose with Britain’s security”

  1. Skiamakhos says:

    To be honest I’m more concerned that we’re renewing Trident but crippling our conventional forces. We’ve needed the conventional forces far more often than we’ve ever needed to rattle our nuclear sabres, but without much of a conventional option, surely that means we’re more likely to end up in the position where we feel we have to use nukes? I agree that we currently do need some kind of nuclear deterrent but not nearly so much as we need versatile & cutting edge conventional forces. Even if we cut loose from the US & refused to become involved in any foreign wars of aggression, we’d still need the same level of conventional military that Switzerland can field.

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