On 4 December the government published a White Paper outlining its preferred option for the continuation of Britain's nuclear weapons programme, committing the country to a new fleet of nuclear submarines and to a service life extension for the US-owned Trident D5 missiles. Buried on page 30 was the news that the future of Britain's nuclear warheads would be determined in the next parliament. For now, a reduction in existing warhead numbers, from the equivalent of approximately 1,600 Hiroshimas to 1,280, was offered as a minor sop to critics.
Cabinet ministers met towards the end of November for preliminary discussions and the prime minister's office confirmed then that, following publication of the White Paper, there would be a three-month period for debate in the Commons, followed by a vote.
Right choice for Britain?
Campaigners and disarmament experts were swift in their condemnation of the decisions outlined in the White Paper, with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament chair Kate Hudson stating that, “To pursue another generation of nuclear weapons, without sufficient consultation and consideration of all the options, is irresponsible in the extreme.” Representatives of the national antinuclear campaign had been joined by MPs earlier that day to deliver their “Alternative White Paper” to No 10 (pictured below).
Block the Builders and Greenpeace both issued statements calling for construction work currently in progress on new facilities at Aldermaston - Britain's nuclear warhead factory - to halt until the country has had a full and genuine debate. The call is reinforced by the government's own admission that the warheads are the one part of the system on which a decision is not yet needed.
Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy asked whether, “In view of Mr Blair's demonstrably bad judgement on so many other security issues, including Iraq, how could anyone trust that his prematurely-decided position on a replacement for Trident would be the right choice for Britain?”
Commenting on the Blair legacy, former Home Secretary David Blunkett MP said “I do say to the prime minister `You are going to be remembered for lots of things ... You don't have to be remembered for replacing Trident'.”
BAE Systems chief Executive Mike Turner said the company welcomed “the decision that the UK's future nuclear deterrent will be deployed by submarine”. The arms giant - which is currently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over its deals with Saudi Arabia - stands to profit considerably from any new UK submarine contracts.
In the run up to the publication of the White Paper, hundreds of antinuclear campaigners descended on the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire to carry out a citizens' weapons inspection.
The action, on 27 November, saw Greenpeace join forces with nonviolent direct action group Block the Builders and resulted in hours of temporary walking blockades of the site due to sheer numbers.
Campaigners also presented a new legal opinion prepared by Philippe Sands QC, in which he warned that the British government is likely to break the same international treaties that Iran and North Korea are told they should abide by.
Cart before the horse
Campaigners, church leaders, MPs and commentators have been outspoken in their criticism of the current massive investment in new nuclear weapons facilities at Aldermaston, stating that it effectively pre-determines the outcome of the forthcoming debate. Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, was quoted earlier this year saying, “This work would appear to pre empt the proper debate the prime minister has promised.”
Former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix told international lawyers at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law last month that modernising Britain's nuclear weapons system would put a “strain” on the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.