Peter Rowlands looks at Labour’s deepening Trident Troubles
I am puzzled as to why there has been little comment on the news in the Guardian (Feb 11th) recently that the vote on Trident replacement might be delayed until after the EU referendum, on the stated grounds that there would not be time to establish a national consensus on the issue before then. Emily Thornberry has said recently (Feb 15th) that it is because the government’s proposals will not stand up to scrutiny and it is trying to hide its difficulties.
The government will of course try to hold the vote at the time it thinks will be most damaging to Labour, and while this news might be calculated misinformation it may be to the Tories’ advantage to delay the vote, even if they think their proposals are credible. This would probably be the case if Labour, instead of allowing a free vote on the issue, which appears to be the prevailing consensus, sought to promote a general abstention on the grounds that its own defence review had not been concluded and that there was insufficient detail for a decision to be taken. The Tories cannot of course know that Labour will do this, but they might calculate that the risk was not worth taking as it would be more damaging to Labour to hold the vote after Labour’s autumn conference when a position will have been arrived at and it was no longer credible to abstain.
I came to the conclusion recently that abstention would be the best course of action, and it was mentioned as a possibility by Emily Thornberry on Feb 9th. It would, provided it was largely followed, mean that Labour was presenting a united front and that pro Trident votes that would otherwise be cast in a free vote that would inevitably elicit calls from sections of the left for deselections, thus promoting division and rancour on the eve of vital elections,would not be. Instead, as rightly called for in an article by Owen Jones (Guardian Feb 9th) Labour can conduct a full and public debate on the issue over the coming months (Yes, I know that we have some elections and a referendum to fight as well – it’s going to be a busy time). This is the only satisfactory way of settling it, and abstention the only way of avoiding damaging divisions now. Such a debate would not only settle the issue within the party but at least start to engage with the wider public with the aim of changing opinion, although while there is no conclusive evidence either way there is at least a very substantial minority against renewal. Lord Kinnock has said the the British people will never vote for nuclear disarmament. This is too pessimistic a view, accepting defeat before we start. Mrs Thatcher set out to change opinion, and unfortunately succeeded. We must do the same.
For some, on both the left and right of the party, there is nothing to debate. The opposing view, for both sides, whether abolition or retention, is manifestly wrong and those holding it should be fought. But not only does this risk ruinous division within the party, it is wrong. The issue is not simple, because it cannot be separated from what we mean by defence, how that is best achieved, what system of alliances, if any, is appropriate, to what extent and how should the UK engage in military activity in the world and for what purpose, as well as the specific questions of how nuclear disarmament is to be achieved on a worldwide basis and how the UK can best contribute to that. As a serious political party it surely is our duty to address all these issues, and I look forward to a comprehensive document which provides the basis for doing so.
I conclude with two observations. Firstly, the ‘submarines without nuclear missiles ‘ suggestion. This should be killed off now. We should make it quite clear that while the issue of ‘defence diversification’ is a serious one we do not intend to spend £30 billion to placate the GMB. We risk being ridiculed over this, and such things stick. Secondly, there is an implicit pacifism in some of the arguments made for nuclear disarmament, often unfairly attributed to CND. We must make it clear that we are in favour of robust defence as well as the resolute pursuit of peace and nuclear disarmament.