Monday in the House of Commons saw a vote on whether this country should replace Trident nuclear weapons, or, rather more specifically, replace the four Vanguard submarines which carry Britain’s continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent.
There was no need at this stage for the House of Commons to vote on this issue. It was used by the Tory Government to highlight divisions in the Labour Party about this issue. Of course it is disgraceful that senior Government Ministers want to play silly parliamentary party politics with something as fundamental as national security and as important as whether Britain should keep nuclear weapons.
However, I don’t think the decision should be avoided or ducked. On something like national security, the country doesn’t want to see MPs abstain. Equally, on the matter of Trident replacement, the Labour Party has a very clear policy position, approved at Party Conference and included in our manifesto for the General Election last year, upon which every Labour Party candidate stood. That position is that the Labour Party would replace and retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
I support the decision to replace Britain’s nuclear deterrent. I come from a position of wanting to ensure that the world rids itself of nuclear weapons. However, this has to be done with international agreement and on a multilateral basis. The idea that Britain unilaterally gives up our nuclear capability just makes this country look weak.
I also am acutely aware that the global threats are increasing and are changing. We saw only too tragically in Nice last weekend the ongoing threats from terrorism in western democracies. Drone technology and the use of robotics in military tactics are also going to radically change the notion of warfare and national security. Cyber security is not given the attention or priority it deserves at either a governmental or company level in terms of the devastation and risk it can pose to our way of life. And yet, even in these changing times, I do think that a nuclear deterrent is important. We have no idea what the global threats will be or will look like in 30 years. We are seeing the growing aggression of Putin’s Russia, with expansionist ambitions in Eastern Europe and the Crimea. Russia is placing nuclear forces on the border with Poland, in what looks like a horrifying replay of the Cold War. In these circumstances, and as a strong member of NATO, Britain needs to consider these concerns and have that strong and flexible defence.
People often mention the cost of Trident and I think, certainly in terms of austerity, that this is a legitimate concern. National security is paramount and defending the country should be the first priority of any government, but a blank cheque simply cannot be provided. There needs to be tight financial management of this project and costs cannot be allowed to spiral out of control. The estimated costs of the Trident replacement project is £31 billion over the 35 year life of the programme. That works out at about £885 million a year, a vast sum, but should be seen in the context of government spending of close to £800 billion every year.
Trident is an insurance policy against attack which I think, even in changed times, remains important for Britain to retain.