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Trident advocates must answer their critics

Trident II missile (US Defense Dept)On 23 February the Guardian carried an article entitled Labour’s Trident debate needs to be based on facts by former Labour Defence Ministers John Hutton and George Robertson who start by saying that disagreement over Trident is “legitimate” but that the case for nuclear weapons is “self-evident“. This ‘my opponent has a right to his/her views but they are obviously barmy’ line of rhetoric might pass muster in a student debate but it is not worthy of serious discussion about our future defence strategy. Unfortunately the whole article continues in this vein.

Hutton and Robertson claim that the Labour Party defence review is descending into “chaos and incoherence” but provide no evidence of this. Perhaps they feel that their say-so is sufficient. In fact Emily Thornberry has produced a very calm and rational review paper which invites all strands of opinion to reconsider defence from first principles. It is remarkable that our two authors fail to refer to it. I guess that for them the failure to  proceed from “self-evident” conclusions is evidence of both chaos and incoherence.

The sure sign of the ill-considered nature of this article is that at no point do Hutton and Robertson consider the best arguments against Trident. In fact they don’t consider any serious arguments against it at all. They only refer to material which supports their view. This is the position of people with closed minds who are not able to engage in genuine debate i.e. debate in which their views are not treated as a foregone conclusion. They simply don’t get the idea of the debate very rationally proposed by their Party. And, of course, they have reason to worry since polls suggest that the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members are inclined to think that Trident should be scrapped. They were ministers in the days when Labour leaders felt that the views of members were something to be manipulated or, if necessary, ignored. I am sure that Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of policy determined by members is highly disagreeable to them.

Only two counter-arguments are referred to in the article, both of which are declared at the outset to be  “completely spurious”. The first is “the contention that the submarines could be disabled by cyber attacks“. The second is that “a new generation of underwater drones … will be able to seek out and destroy Trident submarines in the open ocean”. Neither argument is given any serious evaluation. Cyber attacks are said to be impossible because the submarines are not connected to the internet. However, another former Defence Minister, Des Brown, is not so sure and has raised concerns about possible cyber-attacks including techniques for getting viruses across non-connected (“air-gapped”) networks. This may or may not be a serious problem but it is clear that Hutton and Robertson dismiss it on the basis of no serious argument.

Although you would not guess it from their article there is a very considerable body of informed opinion which is opposed to views that Hutton and Robertson regard as “self evident“. These have been detailed repeatedly, for example by the Guardian’s defence correspondent Richard Norton-Taylor (Trident is useless. That’s why we must debate its renewal) and by many others such as the Labour CND group which has issued an excellent summary of the arguments against.

H and R are also badly informed about technological developments. They seem to think that underwater drones are a “fiction”. One wonders why they think that military establishments round the world are spending large sums of money on their development.

Even Tony Blair said of Trident in in his memoirs: “The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use.” He said he could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought that giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.

And that is what this is all about: politics and the dreams of Britain’s one-time super-power status. Now we can add to that the desire of some Labour politicians to do everything they can to undermine the new Labour leadership. Trident is seen as a key way of doing that.

If this is the best that Trident advocates can come up with, and if the rational debate from first principles proposed by Emily Thornberry takes place, then its conclusions seem unlikely to concur with what seems to Hutton and Robertson to be “self-evident“. Everyone on the left should read the Thornberry paper (it’s not very long) so that they are in a position to defend its reasonable approach and to fend off ill-informed criticism from people like Hutton and Robertson.


  1. David Ellis says:

    If I was Scottish the number 1 reason I’d be voting for independence would be so that we could get Trident off our soil and remove a weapons system that makes Scotland the number one most likely place on earth to be hit next by nukes with the possible exception of Pyongyang. Why Scottish people put up with it I have no idea.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Does this have anything to do what either what I wrote or what was in the article by Hutton and Robertson?

      1. David Ellis says:

        Well it’s about Trident. But I think the most important argument against it is not cost or the fact that it won’t work or is only an unusable prestige weapon but that it actually puts Scotland in serious peril.

  2. gerry says:

    Good article – you hit the nail in the head, as – ironically- did Tony Blair: Trident is 100% about politics, not about defence or about a deterrent.

    Put simply, its advocates believe that possession puts the UK in the premier political league, which may or may not be true. Opponents of renewal, like most of us in Labour, need to convince not Hutton or Robertson, but voters: large majorities of whom apparently back Trident renewal precisely because it symbolises “Great” Britain.

    The only other real argument they have is that North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and no major power would dare attack them because of this fact. If the UK gave up its nuclear weapons, then we might be more vulnerable to attack….so your article is a good start: we who want nuclear disarmament need to decouple renewal from defence, and keep arguing that renewal is only about politics: is making the UK feel like a great power once more worth £20 billion? What could the army and the NHS and low paid workers do with reallocation of those billions? And how do we answer the North Korea, Pakistan, Israel question?

    1. David Pavett says:

      First thoughts on your question re the North Korea, Pakistan, Israel.

      Each is different.

      It is the aggressive politics of the Israeli government that put Israel at risk. The nuclear option is therefore a response to a situation created by Israel itself. If the Israeli government decided on a policy of accommodation with the Palestinians and with the countries of the region generally the fundamentalists who want it destroyed would be sidelined. In such a process the US could should both pressurise Israel into a proper and lasting accommodation AND act as a guarantor of Israeli security.

      Pakistan is not under threat of attack from anyone, certainly not India. Neither it nor India have any good reason, beyond idiotic sabre rattling, to have nuclear weapons. Both nations are threatened by the presence of nuclear weapons. Both would be more secure without them. A nuclear-free Britain would be in a possession to act as an honest broker to set up moves towards a non-nuclear pact between the two nations.

      North Korea is perhaps the most difficult case. With politics as irrational as theirs who knows what they are capable of? I guess that the Chinese do know and are monitoring its neighbour’s crazy behaviour closely. China could bring North Korea to its knees. North Korea is effectively held on a lead by China. We may disagree with many of the Chinese policies but the Chinese leaders are not irrational and must be concerned about the mad regime on their border. Be that as it may Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons will make no difference to the situation one way or the other.

      None of the three nations present a threat to the UK. If it is argued that the NK leader(s) are mad enough to target Britain (if they ever have the capacity to do that) then there is no reason to think that such madness would be deterred by UK possession of nuclear weapons. If it appeared otherwise then NK’s nuclear facilities could be taken out with conventional weapons. We tend to forget the immense power of modern non-nuclear weapons.

      With the chaotic and unpredictable becoming such a feature of the international scene the need to step up the fight for denuclearisation is more important than ever. The UK could play a major part in winning public support internationally for that fight if it itself were prepared to renounce nuclear weapons.

      There are risks involved but one has to compare these with the risks of a world in which nuclear weapons continue to spread. Who’s next?

      1. Susan O'Neill says:

        Many thanks for this response to concerns posted by Gerry. the more information available the better and a sound argument as presented by your other comments holds real merit.

  3. Tony says:

    This pair do not even pretend to support a global ban on nuclear weapons.

    “It is self-evident that a British nuclear deterrent (sic) will be essential to our security for decades to come.”

    The reason they support nuclear weapons is for reasons of status. British nuclear weapons have never been about defence at all.

    As Denis Healey once said:

    “I was very doubtful about the need for Britain to have nuclear weapons but I didn’t express it in public. The main reason we had them was not to deter a Soviet attack but to reassure the Americans”.

    14/03/2011: “Document” Radio 4:

    1. James Martin says:

      Yes, I’d take ‘multilateralists’ more seriously if they ever bothered to try and do anything to achieve their alleged aim.

  4. John Penney says:

    A good article. Though the Trident system and its future replacement does of course have a very real ,viable political, though obviously not military, role, ie, aimed at Jeremy Corbyn and the newly renascent Labour Left. The Labour Right are understandably terrified of engaging with the Left on any area of social policy/Austerity/their economic record and past and current recommended policies. They got seriously drubbed on these vital issues during the Leadership election, and , despite some like Phil , who insist the Right have started to transform their neoliberal nostrums – in fact their ideological “new thinking” closet is entirely bare.

    The Robertsons,Huttons,Benns, et al, therefore desperately cling to the chauvinism and bogey-man fear mongering “dog whistle” political nonsenses around iconic issues like Trident, to clothe their unbending determination to destroy Jeremy and the Left , and return Labour to the halcyon New Labour days of sucking up to Big Business – and cushy directorships for ministers following the end of the Westminster phase of the career.

    It is a pity that the key craft trades unions currently justifying support for Trident because of the, admittedly, significant numbers of jobs their members have in the nuclear submarine manufacturing sector , can’t broaden their perspectives, and see that a scrapping of the lunacy of Trident does not mean that their members need to be out of work. Scrapping Trident does not require that every skilled worker is redeployed to “green energy” etc, projects, On the contrary, the navy in particular is crying out for a huge range of ordinary naval vessels to carry out a range of defence tasks. In fact the entire , much boasted about, Type 45 destroyer fleet is now known to be unusable crap, and will need to be pretty much rebuilt or even replaced ! The irony is that the Tories , and their New Labour era Defence procurement predecessors have actually squandered our defence budget across the board through a series of grossly defective strategic purchases, leaving the UK chronically ill equipped to defend itself in any believably likely future conflict or international emergency. Some examples of this incredible waste , beyond the lunacy of an unusable nuclear ballistic missile system , are:

    The two total white elephant “Elizabeth Class” mega aircraft carriers, without vital, future aircraft flexibility providing catapults – able to fly off only the now widely acknowledged to be utter crap, F35 vertical take off fighter bombers.

    The Typhoon “Eurofighter” programme – after ten years still, unable to fire key missiles, or operate in all conditions.

    The attack helicopter programme – still unable to operate in all conditions.

    The short termist scrapping of perfectly viable weapons systems, based on ludicrous “Defence Review projections” , like the airborne reconnaissance Nimrods and the Harrier VTOL force, leaving vital gaps in our defence capability (we currently ask the French to cover our huge gaps in maritime air reconnaissance ).

    The entire MOD arms procurement programme is , and has been for decades, enmeshed, in both long term incompetence, quite obvious internal corruption (dodgy connections between serving senior officers and ministers and the key arms firms, in the usual “revolving door arrtangements” ), and a woeful lack of forward strategic vision. Hutton and Robertson were, and are, up to their necks in all of this shambles/dodgy relationships, and should have no credibility at all over any aspect of the UK’s defence needs.

    1. Susan O'Neill says:

      I like the fact that you have knowledge regarding the state of our “Britannia Rules the Waves” naval capabilities. Such information is likely the key factor in persuading some of the pro Trident Unions to jump ship no pun intended and ensure that our navy has a much needed overhaul. Witness the lack of vessels able to intercept the refugees drowning in the med. because we just didn’t have enough speedy sea going craft at our disposal. Keep the information coming and spread the word.

      1. THOMAS FRIEDRICH says:

        As Gen. Gavin pointed out in the 60’s,while we spend billions on ICBMs and other nuclear bomb delivery systems,China may be using laundry trucks.

  5. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

    foregone conclusion. They simply don’t get the idea of the debate very rationally proposed by their Party. And, of course, they have reason to worry since polls suggest that the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members are inclined to think that Trident should be scrapped.

    There are far too many that play out their own agenda and never worry about the facts of the matter, winning is all never minding how they get there. Spin is the language that falls off their tongue, the truth is for us to decipher.

    Well written David, in all reality Jeremy chose well putting Emily Thornberry in charge of her portfolio, she has done well to combat the onslaught from the media.

  6. David Pavett says:

    I agree with your points. In particular I agree about the lack of clarity of the TU (Unite) response regarding Trident. McClusky gave a particularly unhelpful interview to Radio 4 about this on 17th January. This should, in my view, give pause for thought for those on the left who think that TU involvement in Party politics provides some kind of bedrock for working class politics ensuring that Labour policies will serve the interests of working people.

    What you say about the bungling of the UK defence elite is important and makes it particularly important that Emily Thornberry’s paper, which invites us to start a discussion from first principles, is taken up with enthusiasm.

  7. Bazza says:

    The good news is that only 9 countries in the World out of 187 have nuclear weapons.
    Ranking them in order of possibly (a) stupidity or (b) national machismo: Russia has 7,500; the US 7,100; France 300; China 250; UK 225; Pakistan 120; India 110; Israel 80; and N Korea 10.
    And perhaps this tells us who is wary of whom and who is perhaps paranoid.
    The waste of money on these weapons is criminal when the money could be spent much better on human beings.
    I would not be heartbroken if we scrapped Trident as an example to the World but accept some people do feel worried without them.
    So there are 4 possible options which could be something like:
    (a) scrap trident and encourage others to do too.
    (b) have a dinky one and 95% cuts – World to follow suit.
    (c) 50% cut world wide.
    (d) keep trident.
    I am torn between (a) and (b) but would not be heartbroken if (a) won. (c) is not enough although some movement and I oppose (d) but it is interesting that it is the left that is pushing for nuclear disarmament whilst the right is stuck in a rut with little to say. Yours in peace.

    1. Susan O'Neill says:

      Bazza, at the last count, by their own admission after the US discovered the truth, Israel has at least 230 first generation nuclear warheads in the Negev. The CIA is aware that many thousands of mini nukes are now available which use degraded pl and Israel would have no problem chucking a few of them about if it were not for the fact that Russia and China might have something to say about it. Whilst I would sooner see all nukes abandoned under International Unilateral Disarmament it is a forlorn hope with the US interventionism and promoting of terrorist wars continuing unabated. There can be no question of China and Russia moving away from MAD, nor would I wish them to. If the US and Israel and the NK were the only ones left holding nukes, we could all kiss our asses good bye. They are mad(all of them) stark raving bonkers!

      1. David Pavett says:

        Your first sentence seems to suggest that the Israel government has admitted that Israel has nuclear weapons. I don’t believe that this is correct (unless evidence can be provided). What is true that disclosure of official documents in the US last year showed that the US believes Israel to have the weapons.

        I think that the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons protects us from madmen who also have them has a flaw in it: it relies on their ability to make rational calculations.

        1. James Martin says:

          Don’t forget that it was Israel (who else!) who helped apartheid South Africa develop their own secret and illegal nukes, something that is highly relevant today for two reasons. First, one of the first actions of the Mandela led ANC government was to scrap the nuclear weapons programme and to put beyond all use their existing nuclear capacity (in other words they took a unilateralist approach, and have been no less ‘safe’ for getting rid of their ‘deterrent’ since). Second, and as an aside, after the attacks of the Zionist lobby in the Labour Party last week over the Labour students supporting ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ in the universities how ironic that one of the biggest supporters of original apartheid was none other than Israel itself (who also of course remain the only country still backing the US over the economic attacks and sanctions on Cuba).

      2. Bazza says:

        Susan, I remember in 1983 (as a relatively young Labour member and then passionate unilateralist) standing all day outside of a polling stations (in a working class areas) with my ‘Vote Labour’ sticker and wearing a large CND badge with the dove of peace sign on it.
        But on reflection after all these years I think I may have been probably driving more Labour voters away from us?
        My heart is with option scrapping Trident (a) but my head is more with a 95% cut (b) which is probably better politics. I would go along with (c) a 505 cut reluctantly (although feel it is not enough) and I would oppose (d) keeping Trident.
        But perhaps whatever we do we should frame our argument by saying any savings will fund adult social care (looking after older people), addressing poverty (and particularly child poverty) and towards flood defences.
        You do make a powerful point that it is a MAD World but I would argue it is more of a SAD World!
        Yours in hope and peace.

  8. Bazza says:

    (c) 50% cut.

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