It is not time to give up our nuclear deterrent

by Jim Murphy

Where the Government does the right thing it is important that the Labour party supports them, especially over issues of national defence. That is why this week I made clear in parliament the shadow defence team’s support for the government’s announcement to proceed to the initial stages of Trident’s renewal.  Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent has been the cornerstone of our peace and security for over half a century and in today’s world, as long as there are other countries with such capability, it is right that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent.

Most of us believe in a world free of nuclear weapons and a multilateral process to achieve that. Others take a different and unilateralist view born from traditions such as faith, pacifism, political commitment or concerns about the costs. I respect all of those views, but take a different approach.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty has three pillars – non proliferation, disarmament and the right to peacefully use civil nuclear power – which must provide the framework around our policy.  The greatest nuclear threats we face today come from unilateral proliferation, specifically from North Korea, who we know has a nuclear capability, and Iran, who we know has nuclear ambitions. The most robust response to these threats is for the UK to remain committed to the NPT and to be an active disarmer alongside our allies and other nuclear weapon states.

In government we met commitments to reduce the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160, meaning the UK now has reduced the UK nuclear arsenal by 75% since the end of the cold war, and we welcome the government’s announcements to reduce operationally available warheads and to reduce the overall weapons stockpile.

We of course hold the position that the UK would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states who are part of the NPT and who uphold its obligations, but in a security landscape of few guarantees our independent nuclear deterrent provides us with the ultimate insurance policy. It is one which both strengthens our national security and increases our international influence and ability to achieve long-term global security aims.

In 2007, parliament took a view to support the position set out by the last government to replace the current class of submarines and maintain an independent continuous at sea submarine based nuclear deterrent.  That decision was based on evidence and military advice. The government has now announced that there is a logic to looking again at some of the defence capability and financial issues surrounding how we best maintain a credible independent nuclear deterrent. What is absolutely crucial is that this process is evidence-based and in the interests of national security, not driven by the dynamic within the coalition parties. Defence of the nation not defence of the government needs to be the focus.

In amongst what is often a detailed debate on the military, technical and financial aspects of nuclear armament there is a fine judgement to be made about the nature of the global threat we face.  Today it would be wrong for the United Kingdom to ourselves volunteer to enter a situation where we dispensed of our own weapons at a time when the danger of nuclear proliferation by other powers and actors remained.

In opposition we must responsibly engage with the issues we would have to in government if we are to remain a credible alternative. While Wednesday’s decision was controversial in some quarters, it was also important and the right thing to do.

Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence.

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9 Responses to “It is not time to give up our nuclear deterrent”

  1. Tom says:

    Your argument is about as convincing as your ability to spell deterrent.

  2. Ben S says:

    Jim, given we all “believe in a world free of nuclear weapons” the question is how we should arrive at that policy aim.

    Britain, as one of only 8 or 9 nuclear states is clearly a major player in shaping how and when we reach a nuclear free world, yet your policy seems to cast the UK as a bystander, observing passing word events and doing little to positively shape them. In no other area would we state a policy goal and then just leave it to others to see if we can achieve it.

    You say “as long as there are other countries with such capability, it is right that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent” – were we to apply this ‘you all go first, we’ll follow on when you’re done’ approach to other areas – from banking regulation to CO2 emissions – we’d never reach our policy goals. This is a frankly bizarre way to show Britain’s independence and leadership.

    Sadly this excuse arrived at during the Cold War by people who genuinely did see a nuclear war as ‘winnable’ and permanent possession of nuclear weapons as desirable has been adopted by those who genuinely (I’m very much hoping) want to see a nuclear-free world. If we’re showing leadership, where is the plan to reaching our policy goal?

  3. iain ker says:

    Sweet Jesus – a Shadow (ie pretendy) Secretary of State for Defence who can’t spell ‘deterrent’.

    I notice that one of the shopping list of sweeties promised to those who would vote for (what they laughingly call) independence for Iceland-on-the-Clyde is a nuclear free zone.

    Fine – but don’t come crying to us when you suddenly find you need them.

  4. Well Jim (and how nice of this site to give space to the discredited apparatchiks of New Labour: I remember you unfondly from your NUS sandpit), I’d be much happier about your ability to comprehend the complexities of nuclear weaponry and morality if you could spell ‘deterrent’.

    But on to the salient point: if you think that wielding the ability to kill millions of civilians and poisoning the planet gives you international credibility, then you’re adopting the code of the gangster.

    Bevin’s (I think) reference to going ‘naked into the conference chamber’ seems to be the core of your argument. The analogy is apt: the weapons are a phallic replacement for the Empire, and possession of either is no substitute for mutual respect and diplomacy. It’s about time Britain made some friends by being a candid and disinterested friend to weak and strong alike, rather than waving missiles around.

    There isn’t even a ‘deterrent’ effect associated with the nuclear deterrent: countless bloody wars have erupted since Hiroshima. We haven’t had ‘peace’ or ‘security’ (recently, thanks to your enthusiasm for invading the dictatorships with which you fell out).

    I notice that you couldn’t resist using the phrase ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. It’s one which indicates that you’ve abandoned all pretence to independent thought: how is a weapon designed, leased and controlled by the United States independent in any way? Can you conceive of any circumstances in which the UK would launch one without American approval?

    I’m finding the constant references to North Korea and Iran as the nuclear bogeymen quite tedious. Why not add India, Pakistan and Israel to that list? Without tackling all the nuclear states, your commitment to multilateral disarmament is simply humbug of the worst sort. Nukes for our friends, isolation for our enemies.

    Can you, in fact, conceive of any circumstance in which you would personally approve the launch of a weapon which you know is going to kill civilians (illegal under the Geneva Convention) on an apocalyptic scale? I know that talking tough on military affairs is a test of Labour politicians’ loyalty and pragmatism, but that’s a Cold War, rightwing tabloid test. Why you all fall for it is a mystery to me: I suspect that the public are less impressed by these willy-waving competitions than you think.

    I know that what I’m about to say will expose me to your ridicule as an example of the namby-pamby bourgeois Labour past that you personally have worked so hard to abandon, but why not be bold? Why not say that nuclear weapons are morally repugnant, militarily useless (we now seem to spend our time fighting shepherds armed with Kalashnikovs and car-bombers, neither group particularly ‘deterred’ by Trident) and outdated.

    There are several small states with imperial pasts with massive international credibility on the world stage, none of which threaten anybody with nukes. They’re called Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and they’re doing rather well. If you’re more ambitious, how about Germany?

    Finally, how is nuclear weaponry part of the ‘defence’ of the realm. It’s not a deterrent, and it can’t protect us. If attacked, launching nukes will simply kill a lot of people. It might make you feel better if you’re one of the lucky few with a place in a bunker, but it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the rest of us.

    Still, at least your position ensures your continued membership of the political class, and the Tories can’t accuse you of being ‘weak on defence’. What a shame that you lack the imagination to essay a novel position while you’re out of office.

  5. Editor says:

    Obviously, we write the headlines, not the writers. On this occasion, there was a typo, which we have now corrected.

  6. Ben S says:

    @Iain Ker: Could you suggest a credible scenario where an independent Scotland would be need nuclear weapons yet the rest of the UK would not be facing a similar threat – i.e. one where Scotland would ‘come crying to us when you suddenly find you need them’?

  7. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Trident’s dependence upon the Americans is well known. But so is our whole nuclear justification. Can you really imagine North Korea nuking us, and not going for America too (who would definitely respond in kind)? Let’s leave aside the likelihood that they couldn’t build a missile robust enough to reach us, we’re not their biggest enemy and we don’t even have a colonial past there. If they’re a threat to anywhere, it’s to the US west coast, and they don’t need us to defend them.

    Similarly, under what circumstances would Iran nuke us but not Israel (which wouldn’t just respond in kind, it might very well try to take it out before launch)? Yes, we are the Little Satan but we’re number three on the enemies list. And one is powerful enough and the other belligerent enough to carry out all the retribution needed.

    A deterrent doesn’t require us to reduce their cities to ruins, cause the deaths of tens and thousands and force every member of the government and civil service to avoid the ICC tribunal signatory countries indefinitely. It just requires somebody to be willing to retaliate as disproportionately as possible. And as we hang around with a bunch of trigger-happy global and regional powers who are more than happy to do that job (and more likely to actually be targetted), why exactly do we need to pay for it?

    The tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we only have a deterrent because we still don’t really trust the French sometimes seems worryingly plausible.

  8. iain ker says:

    @ Ben S

    Could you suggest a credible scenario where an independent Iceland-on-the-Clyde would be need nuclear weapons yet the rest of the UK would not be facing a similar threat?

    In that case why do your First Subsidy-Shuffler and Deputy First Subsidy- Shuffler pretend that ‘no nukes in IotC is a credible policy? Ie we’ll have the benefit of being protected by England’s nuclear warheads thanks but we’d rather not pay for them if that’s all right with you.

    Well actually, you pair of pompous jumped-up parish-councillors, it’s not alright with us.

  9. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Iain, why exactly do you think Salmond would care whether it’s alright with you? Scotland’s under the nuclear umbrella anyway and Alex Salmond’s career has hardly been guided by a burning desire to make the English feel happy.

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