Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A few thoughts on yesterday's Trident debate

Nick Harvey: "[Trident] is assumed to be beyond debate"
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

A fair bit has been made of yesterday's Opposition Day debate on Trident - although arguably the media have not given it quite as much attention as it merits.

True, it's a debate on a motion that has zero chance of being passed. This, however, does not make it irrelevant - in fact, Trident renewal is of huge interest to voters, especially in Scotland where attitudes are more clearly defined.

The nuclear "deterrent" has long been an issue that has plagued, and to some degree defined, the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties (anyone remember Eastbourne in 1986?). There are a polarity of views within the party, but essentially there has always been a sizable section of the membership vehemently opposed. And so, in spite of an official line to abstain, it was going to be interesting how Lib Dem MPs would vote.

The first thing I should do is to thank the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party for securing the debate. Please understand me - I fully appreciate their politically-motivated reasons for doing this (especially the SNP, who are seeking to cement in the public imagination their determination to make Trident renewal  a "red-line issue" in any post-election negotiations) - but we should be grateful that Trident renewal has been placed on the Commons agenda. We should not be afraid to debate what is of interest to many British voters, and this is an issue that will not go away.Whether we should continue to commit to £100 billion renewal at a time of austerity is something that at least deserves to be discussed openly.

As Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey observed during the debate, "keeping a nuclear deterrent going at the level we thought necessary at the height of the cold war in 1980 gets an automatic bye and is assumed to be beyond debate. Nobody even wants to put it on the table and debate it alongside those other things that are there to mitigate the dangers that our own security assessment said in 2010 are first-league threats that we face here and now." And so the opposition parties deserve real credit for ensuring the debate took place at all. 

The second thing to note is how united the Conservative and Labour leaderships are on the issue. The Conservative position is for a like-for-like replacement; Labour want to create a similar, submarine-based system - but both are committed to the principle and scale of the project. What was more surprising is that there was not more opposition from Labour backbenchers. A party once almost synonymous with nuclear disarmament now has only a few voices of dissent. And those voices were the predictable ones: Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Flynn, Diane Abbott and David Lammy. I was also pleased to see Ayrshire MP Katy Clark among the noes, but aside from that Scottish Labour were conspicuous by their absence.

I appreciate that this was a motion introduced by the SNP, but the scale of Labour opposition - and Scottish Labour's decision to ignore it - was unexpected. Yes, this is an Opposition Day motion. Yes, it was introduced because the parties behind it have political motivations for doing so. But here was an opportunity for Jim Murphy to demonstrate that he is aware of public concern, that he has a grasp of the vital issues, that he can take on the SNP. Which brings me to my third point - Scottish Labour are running scared on Trident. Why else squander the chance to make their case? Scottish Labour seems as paralysed on Trident as UKIP is on the NHS - afraid to go against public opinion while simultaneously refusing to support it.

The fourth observation I'd make is that it was very obvious this issue was being debated against the backdrop of a pending General Election. There was much evidence of tribal put-downs, especially from Conservative minister Michael Fallon, who referred to Labour as "the shower opposite" and accused the Lib Dems and SNP of pre-election scheming: "It is contemptible for the Scottish nationalists or the Liberal Democrats to suggest that they might use the ultimate guarantor of our freedom and independence as some kind of bargaining chip in some grubby coalition deal. To put it more simply, it is only the Conservative party that will not gamble with the security of the British people." This was naturally predictable, but perhaps it is right that Trident renewal should become an election issue. Why should something so important, as Nick Harvey asked, be "assumed to be beyond debate"? Make no mistake - Trident will play a significant role in the 2015 General Election, and not only in Scotland. Jim Murphy may not wish to discuss it, but in this case he's not set the political agenda.

My fifth point is in relation to the Liberal Democrats. Our MPs generally did as they were told, and abstained. But four MPs did vote for the motion - Julian Huppert, Mike Crockart, Mark Williams and Andrew George. Crockart tweeted prior to voting: "Trident is out-dated, unaffordable, cold-war relic. It can never be used. Doesn't relate to today's security threats. Voting against renewal." Other Lib Dem voices expressed similar concerns, on social media and in the chamber. Nick Harvey (who didn't vote, but ripped to shreds the government's position) made an impressive contribution to the debate: "The world has changed. The cold war is over. The iron curtain has come down. The Soviet Union, which was our known adversary, no longer exists. In 1994, Britain and Russia de-targeted each other and changed their policy to say that we were not nuclear adversaries of each other. Yet nothing changed: since that time, we have continued with 24/7 patrolling. I join the Secretary of State in saluting those who have been involved in sustaining that for all that time. The Royal Navy and all those at the Faslane base and in the supply and support chains have mounted a gargantuan effort to keep continuous at-sea deterrence going, and they deserve great praise for that. It has been at considerable human cost and very substantial financial cost, but it is very much harder to discern quite what practical utility it is fulfilling in 2015 when we do not have a known nuclear adversary."

This is the kind of thing that we need to say in the lead-up to the election. The Conservatives have set out their stall, as have the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Labour is also clearly committed to some kind of renewal, although Scottish Labour seems reluctant to sell its product. The Lib Dems need to find their teeth and be willing to talk about the nuclear deterrent. We need to say that it is unsustainably expensive and militarily unfit for purpose. It does nothing to deal with the current and very real threats of the 21st century. It belongs in a different era and should be consigned to the history books. We should not be afraid of saying this.

Of course, how we get there might be a matter for discussion, but our essential position needs to become clear.

Conservative MP Oliver Colvile observed yesterday that the Liberal Democrats website affirms that “Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which consists of four Trident submarines, is out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain. Nowadays, most of our threats come from individual terrorist groups, not communist countries with nuclear weapons.The Liberal Democrats are the only main party willing to face up to those facts."

All we have to do is say what we've always said, and communicate the same messages. It should not be hard. While  five years in a coalition with the Conservative inevitably makes these messages seem less credible, we cannot stand by while other parties champion the causes we've passionately campaigned on for decades. We must become more courageous in being ourselves - and we too must be willing to take our sensible position on Trident to the electorate. I certainly have no problem in taking my own views of Trident as outdated, expensive and unnecessary to the voters of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.

Finally, any Lib Dem members interested in joining Lib Dems Against Trident may wish to take a look at their facebook page.


Anonymous said...

Excellent well written piece. Thank you! You are quite right that this weaponry is overly expensive, outdated and has no real purpose.

cynicalHighlander said...

You say this is an important issue in Scotland yet more than 50% of Scottish MPS took a day off, disgusting.

Missing in action expensive cowards.

Joseph Tierney said...

This is a muddled and strained piece of writing, where you ignore the immorality of Trident and repeatedly hark on about the 'political motivation' of the SNP and other opposition parties for staging the debate but you imply your motives are pure. You imply the SNP motive is tainted by political opportunism even though their opposition to nuclear weapons has always been consistent. LibDems abstain or qualiify their opposition based on cost and geo-political changes but completely ignore the moral dimension. That is the worst kind of Westminster game playing. Retention of a nuclear arsenal is morally wrong and a crime against humanity. Have the guts to say that. We invaded Iraq for fewer reasons than this.

Andrew said...

Joseph - I'm not "harking on" about the motivation of the SNP and others - I'm taking the objections of some Labour/Lib Dem activists (who might accuse me of being naive) and suggesting they overlook them. I'm saying that whatever anyone might think about such "motivations", they're actually irrelevant. The main thing is that this has been debated. I don't actually care what the motivation is; why shouldn't political parties have political motivations? I'm not attempting to moralise at all.

As a writer of a political blog, I find it absurd that "political motivations" are assumed to somehow be immoral. I also don't see anywhere that I suggest I'm "pure"...I really try not to be, you know. Can't stand puritanical politicians...

You have to realise I'm writing for Lib Dems, and discussing what I took from the debate...which is not the same as preaching against Trident replacement (I do that elsewhere).

Retention of a nuclear arsenal is pointless. I don't go into the moral arguments here (valid as they are, and which I make elsewhere, frequently) because I'm seeking to demonstrate what a flawed political decision renewal would be. I happen to think it is also morally wrong, but there are those who may not take that view and are also convinced by economic/military reasons that Trident renewal is idiocy. As I mention, the Lib Dems can be a bit divided on this, but ultimately we all believe that like-for-like renewal is stupid and that in its current state Trident is outdated. I'm not attempting to suggest all Lib Dem members share my personal moral viewpoint, but that they see the importance of setting out their stall.

To some degree I suppose it depends on whether you see the question as a political, ethical, economic or militaristic one. Whichever way I look at it, however, retaining a deterrent is the wrong decision.

My main reason for writing this, however, was to suggest there there are opportunities for Lib Dems here if they can be sufficiently courageous to take them. That's a big if.

CynicalHighlander - it's an Opposition Day motion. These are generally poorly attended. MPs did not "take a day off". That said, I am surprised and disappointed that more Scottish MPs did not make some attempt to put across their views given that an election is on the horizon in which they may very well be judged according to those views.

Anonymous said...

Nick Harvey did make one of the better informed and interesting speeches, but by the end I was still non the wiser as to how he would vote. Thanks for clearing that up. He abstained. Typical 'cake and eat it' Liberal.

Andrew said...

Anonymous - to clear it up - the Lib Dems, now being a party of government, have a policy of abstaining on Opposition Day motions. Ministers rebelling would have to resign.

The vote was never going to be won. I'm not sure why so many are putting so much emphasis on the vote itself. What matters most is that this issue is now up to be debated. The wider matter of Trident renewal should now be up for consideration, and Nick Harvey's long-standing opposition to Trident speaks volumes to me. He destroyed the government's position in the debate while ostensibly obeying the party's "abstention" line out of duty.

It might not have been what I would have done in the same situation, but we need to see the bigger picture - and that's not the vote itself.