The voters have good reason to feel let down
Published: 15 March 2007
Margaret Beckett may not have distinguished herself greatly as Foreign Secretary, but as a parliamentary performer in the cause of this third-term Labour government she has been second to none. She opened the debate on the renewal of Trident with confidence, professionalism and style. Her speech was, as her Conservative shadow, William Hague, noted, all the more powerful because of her record as an anti-nuclear campaigner in the past.
In the end, neither Mrs Beckett's persuasive qualities nor the last-minute concession offered by the Prime Minister did much to limit the damage. The vote saw the biggest Labour revolt since the Iraq war. Nor, as Sir Menzies Campbell pointed out for the Liberal Democrats, was the precedent for the Tories voting with the Government on a controversial subject of national interest very comforting.
We agree. The renewal of Trident, like the Iraq war four years ago, is an issue of paramount national significance that cried out for a thorough debate. Instead, a succession of mostly lacklustre speeches preceded a vote that the Government was never going to lose.
The voters, and taxpayers, have good reason to feel let down. Mr Blair's suggestion that a future Parliament may decide about contracts for the new submarines was neither here nor there. Mr Hague was correct when he said that the decision taken yesterday was the decision. Unfortunately, it went through on the nod, in the last months of Mr Blair's decade in office. Could it not have waited - or was the timing less about Trident than about Mr Blair's determination to leave Labour shorn of its unilateralist tendencies?
This newspaper is not unilateralist. We believe that Britain should have strong defences. Immediately after the end of the Cold War, we argued that it was too soon to make any irrevocable change in defence provision. Fifteen years on, the picture is clearer. Trident was conceived to counter the military threat from the Soviet Union. Both concept and purpose are now obsolete.
We sympathise with those who contend that some of the money earmarked for Trident - a cool £20bn or so - would be better spent on equipping our troops properly for the wars they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this argument is short term. Our troops should be properly equipped regardless. The more compelling arguments against upgrading Trident relate to the future direction of British defence policy.
To renew Trident means to renew a commitment to an outdated policy. It means to tie ourselves for another 20, probably 40 years, to the existing alliance with the United States on the present terms, even though Iraq has raised all sorts of questions about its usefulness. It means to perpetuate the illusion that this nuclear deterrent is truly independent.
Nor can we ignore the international signals we send. The Government insists that, even as we acquire new submarines, we will press for a stronger nuclear non-proliferation regime; the two are, it maintains, completely compatible. We seriously doubt that Iran, North Korea and any other country that may harbour nuclear ambitions will find that equation so obvious.
The years before Trident becomes obsolete gave Britain time to review its defence priorities, its alliances and its interests for the world as it is, rather than as it was. It is regrettable that neither the Government nor David Cameron's new Conservatives could suggest anything more original than an expensive renewal of the current arrangements. Regrettable, too, that the Liberal Democrats, so staunch in opposing the Iraq war, asked for nothing more than more time to make up their minds. A unique chance for new thinking has been lost.
There's more on CiF, including this remarkable account of the Labour Party's infidelity to its roots. It includes the startling revelation that "Instead of entering into multilateral negotiations to fulfil our commitments to the NPT, as [Fred] Mulley (UK minister of state for foreign affairs and later Lord Mulley) had promised, the next Labour government in the mid-1970s, secretly modernised our Polaris nuclear WMD with Chevaline, without consulting or even telling, parliament."
Predictably, the Tories- in the form of Willy Hague, are spunking in their neatly ironed Y-fronts over their ability to dictate policy.