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The special relationship – what’s a new missile system between friends

No Trident Replacement BadgeIn a globalised, increasingly multi-polar world, the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK might be expected to diminish, as twenty-first century reality supersedes Cold War imperatives. Nothing of the sort, it seems, when it comes to nuclear weapons.

In 1958 the US and UK signed the ‘Agreement between the UK and the USA for cooperation in the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes’. Also referred to as the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA), the treaty established a modus operandi between both countries to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapon systems. Originally, the MDA prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons, but an amendment in 1959 allowed for the transfer of nuclear materials and equipment between both countries. This amendment is extended through a renewal of the treaty every ten years, most recently in 2004.

The renewal has to be ratified on both sides of the Atlantic and Obama has already given the go-ahead from the US side. Much as successive UK governments may wish to view ratification as an automatic process to be slid through without question, there is a Westminster scrutiny process of which a number of parliamentarians are trying to avail themselves. The government is required by law to lay any treaty that it has signed before Parliament for 21 days. The text should be sent to relevant select committees and any requests for debates should be considered favourably.

In 2004, government essentially pulled a fast one to avoid debate. The treaty was laid before Parliament just before the Summer Recess with an announcement that it had been signed a week earlier. This was in spite of the fact that MPs had been asking questions for months about the government’s intention to renew the MDA. This was an obvious – and successful – attempt to avoid any democratic scrutiny.

This time the government isn’t getting away with it quite so easily. Thanks to repeated questioning and an Early Day Motion from Jeremy Corbyn and other concerned MPs, the treaty is currently on the table for its 21 days and a Westminster Hall debate is taking place on 6 November. MPs have no right to overturn the government’s ratification of the treaty’s renewal, but the very fact of open discussion is important in itself.

We all need to know what our government is signing us up to, and this year’s MDA renewal makes some significant changes to the agreement. Britain will become more dependent on US expertise for its own nuclear weapons programme and existing collaboration on warhead design will be extended to the nuclear reactors which would power a Trident replacement submarine.

Far from being just a routine paper exercise, as some would portray it, this new version of the treaty is poised to underpin the enormously unpopular and as yet undecided replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system. As public concerns about transparency and accountability in government increase exponentially, it is vital that this treaty – and the behind the scenes processes that are taking us towards a new generation of nuclear weapons – are fully understood and exposed.

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