At Workers’ Liberty’s Ideas for Freedom event (7-10 July) Luke Akehurst of Labour First debated Labour left activist Laura Rogers on whether the Labour Party should be in favour of renewing Trident.
Luke Akehurst: I’m in favour of the renewal of the Trident system, of buying a new set of submarines to enable the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
What is the nature of the British deterrent? It’s a minimum, independent, strategic deterrent. The most important concept here is deterrent. The whole point of having this system is not because you want nuclear war.
Anyone who wants that is insane; humanity would be destroyed if anything over two such weapons were used. The idea is as the Ministry of Defence puts it on its website, “to make the cost of attacking the UK outweigh any possible benefits”. It is a kind of national security ultimate insurance policy. It is not something you would ever deploy as “first use”. The fact of its existence creates a stalemate. It deters the use of nuclear weapons or the other two types of weapons of mass destruction — chemical or biological weapons. It could deter, in theory, [and in the future] an existential conventional threat.
I’m not trying to claim that Trident is any use in deterring ISIS, or Al Qaeda, or rogue states. That is not its purpose. You need different types of military capability, different political strategies for dealing with those kinds of threats. It’s a response to what a few years ago looked like old-fashioned major state threats, such as the Soviet Union in the Cold War [and now do again]. But we can already see with the way Putin is behaving that Russia though might not have a ideological difference with western liberal democracy, it doesn’t have a benign attitude, but sees it as a strategic challenge that needs to be dealt with.
The evidence for that includes the resumption of flights trying to buzz UK airspace by Bears — Cold War-vintage strategic bomber aircraft converted for reconnaissance use. Russian is testing whether the UK’s conventional military response times are fast enough. And Russian espionage is prepared to do quite astonishing things on British soil, like the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with nuclear material.
Russia’s stance towards its near abroad, Crimea and the Baltic states, [is such that] NATO has announced Britain will take responsibility for having a permanent battalion in Estonia; the Estonians feel threatened by Russia. And it’s obvious that the Russians have been using cyber warfare, probing and attacking their smaller neighbours, and their national infrastructure.
The new UK nuclear system will come into service in about 20 years, and last for another 30 years will deal with potential threats in the future. In security planning you have to prepare for the worst. The entire strategic situation can change rapidly, far faster than the lifetime of this weapon. Things changed almost overnight with the collapse of the Soviet Union, something that wasn’t predicted.
The UK is not going to have lots of benign friends all the time. A Jeremy Corbyn government with an incredibly progressive foreign policy would probably piss off some other states. As soon as you try to be proactive in the world you begin to irritate people. The equivalent level of conventional weapons [to Trident] would need a far larger level of defence spending, far larger than the Trident renewal.
People are understandably suspicious that the UK’s current closest ally is the USA and does that mean that our nuclear system is not fully nationally independent? Only one component of this system comes from the States. That is the missiles, and that’s just because it’s cheaper. People say that the system is reliant on a US guidance system, GPS. But because it is assumed GPS would be knocked out in the event of a major war, the Trident system uses Astro Inertial Guidance, an earlier technology, of navigating using the stars in the sky. We don’t rely on the US for this system because a future US government, led by Trump for instance, might decide to make the US more isolationist and not protect the UK with their own nuclear umbrella. It’s a minimum system because it is just the four submarines that are necessary to continuously keep one at the bottom of the sea where people can’t find it.
Finally let’s look at the cost, often the focus of the left’s argument against it. Renewal will cost a lot of money, but not such a lot when you look at the scale of the MoD budget or of UK government overall spending. The official figures are that to build, test and commission submarines costs £31 billion and then there is a £10 billion contingency in case of overspend. But that’s spread over 35 years and adds up to 0.2% of government spending. And extra 0.2% to play with isn’t going to solve austerity.
I was in local government in Hackney for 12 years so I know the size of a local government budget. Hackney council had about £1 billion a year. It’s a similar order for the cost of the deterrent. It’s about 6% of the MoD annual budget. If you got rid Trident the generals and admirals would say this leaves a hole in the way we defend ourselves, we need a 6% lift in conventional spending. Perhaps a left Labour government would be able to resist that but the pressure would be there.
I don’t think the jobs issue is critical to this but it does explain the position of some comrades in the trade unions. There are about 10,000 highly skilled jobs involved in this project. Some are in places where there could be replacement jobs. The guys at Rolls Royce in Derby for example, could make other engines. But at places like Barrow and Dunbarton, where the system is based, there isn’t a lot more that those workers could make or do.
We all want a nuclear free world. How do we get there? I think the answer is multilateralism. As long as non-democratic states or, states like Russia that don’t have a benign attitude toward the world have [such weapons] I wouldn’t want the UK not to have a nuclear deterrent. We have tried unilateral steps before, and it has no impact [Blair, Brown and Cameron reduced smaller parts of the nuclear arsenal]. The ministers who took those steps accept that they have failed to trigger reciprocal disarmament. The only multiple disarmament that has taken place has been through multiple steps under the Strategic Arms Limitation processes
The CND thesis is that if you do disarm it sets a moral example. Sadly the kind of people we are talking about don’t decide their politics morally, they decide it on national interest. We have to be real about the kind of world we are living in, and which our children and grandchildren will be living in 50 or 60 years time.
Laura Rogers: Emily Thornberry’s recent Labour Party defence review recommends a fudge and Corbyn has apparently signed up to this. Instead of having a vote for or against at Labour conference there is going to be a vote on renewing Trident under a set of conditions. If it is value for money for instance.
This is a massive failure of the Party to get its house in order. Regardless, this issue is absolutely central to our labour movement. On 18 July a huge body of Labour MPs are planning to vote for renewal in Parliament [140 in the event], largely to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.
The treacherous attack of Labour MPs on Corbyn — a leader who had a huge electoral mandate — demonstrates a lack of respect for the democracy of the Party, for democratically-made decisions. That is nothing new. In 1960, the Labour Party voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament, only for the then leader, Hugh Gaitskell to announce the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) would not be bound by a decision it did not agree with. Instead they said they should “fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love.” Fight, in other words, to ride roughshod over the will of the Party and line up with the Tories to keep the bomb.
In the same speech Gaitskell said that the leader of the party has nothing to do with conference and it should be up to the PLP to decide. I have read some of Luke’s articles, one of which is titled with these rousing words from Gaitskell. It seems like quite a few of Luke’s colleagues in the Party have taken these words to heart as well. If this contempt for the membership were not offensive enough, there also seems to be a complete lack of substance over style. We hear how ineffectual Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is, without people, for the most part, being brave enough to argue about his
The renewal of Trident is one of those issues which shows up the gulf between the majority of the PLP and how the Labour Party under Corbyn could be. [Labour could] exist to build international working-class solidarity rather than seek to maintain our muscles, like the biggest bullies in the playground who threaten mass destruction in the name of “keeping the peace”. I’m have been a trade unionist, a feminist and socialist activist for over a decade but am relatively new to the Labour Party.
I joined because I was inspired by Corbyn and McDonnell and their long and principled fight to make the Labour Party stand for working-class solidarity. I might be one of those people described so charmingly by Luke as “riding through the party in their jeeps like ISIS”. I’m not an expert in military strategy. I’m a primary school teacher. But there is wealth of children’s literature about nuclear war. None of it makes it look very good.
As a socialist I believe that the rational argument for disarmament far outweigh any attempts to justify renewal. Luke says weapons of mass destruction have kept the peace since the Second World War. I would say this is a very precarious peace that has also involved a huge amount of war, built upon the threat of unimaginable destruction. This peace is far inferior compared to a peace that could be secured by working-class internationalism. The nuclear deterrent is only a deterrent if the government of the day is willing to use it.
We in the UK labour movement should be unequivocably against the use of these weapons in all forseeable circumstances. The reasons are simple. Even the use of the smallest nuclear weapons, risks triggering a war that could reduce our civilisation to rubble in days if not hours. The use of these weapons necessarily involves indiscriminate slaughter of people like us who are ruled over by unaccountable ruling elites who hold immense military power. People who bear no responsibility for the actions of their nuclear-bomb-wielding rulers. People who are trade union activists and are struggling against the tyrants that rule over them.
Nuclear weapons are a part of and perhaps the most striking example of the grotesque inequalities that plague our civilisation. Inequalities of wealth and power. While most of us are relatively powerless, nine men, — and they are all men — the heads of the nuclear states, hold world-destroying power, literally at their fingertips.
The advocates of Trident renewal argue that one of these men, Cameron or whoever, makes us safer. I say that so much power in so few hands is about as unsafe as it can get. The only way we can make sure such weapons won’t be used is to get rid of them. The advocates of multilateral disarmament argue that we should get rid of our nukes as soon as the other powers are prepared to get rid of theirs. They want to call a meeting of the nine men and set a date for when they will all give up their arsenals. I suggest this is complete fantasy. Our allies in the struggle for a nuclear-free world are not the likes of Vladimir Putin, or Narendra Modi or even Francois Hollande. Our allies are the people who these men rule over.
The organised working-class is infinitely more rational, humane and civilised than the class currently in power. Our task is the same the world over – to build our organisations, to take power to remake the world according to labour movement principles of equality and democracy and solidarity. We should send a very clear message to our sisters and brothers across the world that when the British labour movement takes power we will remove the threat of triggering or exacerbating a nuclear war against them. And our hope is that this will give the working-class movements in other nuclear states the strength and courage to dispose of their own ruling elites and follow our lead.This is a more radical approach to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. But it is also a much more realistic one.
It’s very important that in carrying out this policy we do not ruin the lives and the communities of thousands of workers – in Barrow, Aldermaston, Plymouth and elsewhere — currently dependent on Trident renewal. In our CLP we had a GMB representative from Plymouth debate us on this and they lost the debate. Our CLP passed policy against Trident renewal. From the start the Labour leadership has made clear its commitment to alternative employment for workers on Trident. Unions such as the GMB have said the jobs guarantee is empty rhetoric. It’s not surprising that many workers wouldn’t automatically believe the guarantee of politicians. But the idea of defence diversification, using the skills and the machinery of the defence industry for socially useful production is a key policy in the labour movement is one of its great innovations. We should draw on it as with recreate our vision of socialism for the 21st century. The workers at Barrow in the 1980s devised a plan called Oceans of Work which detailed how they could use their skills to build off shore energy plants.
In 2007, Steven Schofield found with minor alternations to this plan it is workable today. With serious resourcing (and there is billions of pounds to play with), and by involving the workers in the planning, we can make a convincing case. Luke says that with a policy against Trident renewal Labour is unelectable. But this is just another policy that has made Labour almost indistinguishable from the Tory party, on which we’ve lost two general elections and almost the whole of Scotland to the SNP.
We need to stop playing the game of guessing what people are thinking and instead give political leadership, saying with conviction what is right and setting out to persuade people clearly and honestly why it is right. I don’t think you lose elections because you fail to correctly guess the public mood. I think you lose elections because you fail to win the political argument. The Labour Party needs to give people the option to vote for a party that stands for something, that says what it believes and has the integrity to act on those beliefs once in power. In the last few years we have seen a shift in politics.
We have seen the potential re-emergence of working-class socialism as a major political force. The Labour Party needs to be bold and brave enough to listen to its members, abide by the democratic channels of the Party and fight for unilateral disarmament. If there is a lesson to be learn from the Chilcot enquiry and Blair’s role in taking the UK to war in Iraq, is that unaccountable power is the most significant risk to our safety. As long a nuclear weapons exist there will be no democratic check on their use, the security risk will be deemed too great. The decision will rest in the hands of one individual. A labour movement that is democratic at its core and representative of the interests of the working-class majority would dispose of nuclear weapons at the earliest possible opportunity.