There is strong public demand for debate about the future of Britain's nuclear weapons system, to which the government has recently appeared to acquiesce. But there are serious problems about the way in which it is trying to frame the debate.
The recent Greenpeace-commissioned MORI poll results show a popular preference for non-replacement, particularly when it is made clear how much taxpayers' money is actually spent on these weapons of mass destruction and what could be bought instead. Yet the government does not seem to have the possibility of non-replacement even on the table.
How are the terms of the debate being set? Blair says Britain needs nuclear weapons even though they are useless against the threat of terrorism. Defence Secretary John Reid argues that Britain faces a long-term, more traditional type of nuclear threat and needs to plan accordingly. He is appealing to a past view of nuclear weapons, supposedly never to be used, but existing to “deter” attack. Reid is playing on fears of the re-emergence of Russia as a potential nuclear opponent, or the emergence of another nuclear armed super-power, possibly China.
Back to the edge?
Reid's argument presents some fundamental problems. Firstly, if this were a genuine concern, then rather than preparing now for a future rerun of the edge of abyss nightmare of the Cold War, surely it would be better to start working towards nuclear disarmament. Britain should be promoting disarmament, as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- to which Britain and other nuclear weapons states are signatories. Knowingly and willingly entering into decades of the nuclear arms race and the massive waste of resources that entails -- combined with potential destruction of the planet -- seems irresponsible in the extreme.
Secondly, Reid completely ignores the actual developments that are already taking place. For some years, both US and UK nuclear policies have shifted towards nuclear first use, even against non-nuclear weapons states, and the development of nuclear weapons for battlefield use. In its recent draft doctrine on nuclear operations, the US talks of nuclear use against conventional threats. Reid may talk about long-term threats and repeat shibboleths about “deterrence”, but it is widely believed that the government plans to replace Trident with tactical nuclear weapons for actual use in wars. Taken together with Blair's orientation towards legitimising pre-emptive wars, this is cause for great concern.
No mandate for nuclear
October's poll results show how out of step the government is with British public opinion on war and nuclear weapons. There are overwhelming majorities -- significantly increased over polls 50 years ago -- against using nukes against countries without them, and against nuclear first use against nuclear-armed countries. There is even a substantial increase in those who would not want to use them even if we had already suffered nuclear attack.
There is no popular mandate for replacing Britain's nuclear weapons, and there is overwhelming opposition to Britain's current nuclear use policies. This debate must be brought out, and our government must be brought into line with the humane and moral positions of the vast majority of the British population. There are a number of ways in which we can shape the parliamentary debate, but it is crucial to put pressure on MPs to demand a full debate, including the possibility of non-replacement and a deciding vote by parliament.
Obviously, MPs are susceptible to a certain amount of pressure because they rely on their constituents' votes. The most immediate way of addressing this is to ask your MP to sign up to EDM 1197, put down by Michael Meacher MP, which calls for both considering the option of non-replacement and for a deciding vote in parliament. Another way of influencing the political process is to take the issue through your trade union, if you are an activist. CND has a model resolution opposing Trident replacement which you can take through your union branch and work to get it on the national union agenda, where we already have strong support from a number of trade unions. Wherever we have a voice we should make it heard against Trident replacement -- now is the time!