Thursday, 21 July 2016

Nuclear Nuance

A guest post from my friend and comrade, Trudie McGuinness. She is a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum and sits on the International Policy Commission. In 2015, Trudie stood as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Staffordshire Moorlands. Here she gives a flavour of the discussions on the IPC.

You are a leadership-defying Blairite war-monger who is happy to nuke children. Or so it might be claimed if you were one of the 140 Labour MPs who voted on Monday night to renew Britain’s at-sea Trident nuclear deterrent.

The Tories did not need to secure the backing of Parliament to progress fully with the plans that are already underway for the successor nuclear deterrent programme. They did so because they wanted to pick at the scab of the wounded Labour Party. The newspapers dubbed the vote the biggest rebellion against the Labour leader to date. Yet conversely, it could seen as the biggest rebellion of a Labour leader against his party’s policy in nearly one hundred years. The vote was designed to ferment further division. We are vulnerable to attack and the Tories – indeed, all onlookers – know it.

What is also clear to see is that Labour Party members, supporters, MPs, MEPs and councillors are increasingly being judged in binary terms. We ourselves in the Labour Party are some of the harshest accusers. Blairite (nearly always pejorative), Brownite (shades of dull) and Corbynista (depends on your stand point and we only allow two) are the confetti currency of discussions.

In contrast, the reality of life is that it is full of nuance. Nuance sits also at the heart of the nuclear deterrent debate. It is not, as Ken Livingstone when he was Chair of the International Policy Commission declared, a division between the war-mongers and the pacifists. Our unity is in wanting a nuclear-free world. Our debate is in how we get there.

Labour’s NEC gave the International Policy Commission on which I sit the specific focus of reviewing party policy regarding Britain’s defence and security priorities. For the past six months colleagues and I have met and listened to fifteen experts giving insights into international strategic context, nuclear deterrence and Trident renewal and the defence sector and jobs. Their knowledge and experience carried weight. Their words and arguments carried nuance.

We were all seeking answers. We all have own starting point, with our own history and prejudices. My own starting point, as a child of the Cold War, is an abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Colleagues and I were all agreed on that. The idea of one nuclear bomb going off, let alone a full nuclear conflict, reminds us anew of the need to inject pace into securing a nuclear-free world. I was not sure, though, that replacing Trident was compatible with that. Lisa Nandy MP shares this view and reasoned to vote against Trident renewal on the basis that it sets back multi-lateral nuclear disarmament.

But does it? In Policy Commission meetings I have actively sought to challenge my own bias and have asked lots of questions along the way. It was notable that some of the experts, the majority of whose party political views remained unknown, looked deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of Britain failing to secure a replacement for Trident when it finally faces decommissioning. James Nixey from Chatham House and Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute warned of a resurgent Russia seeking to flex its military might. They warned months ago of the danger of Brexit and the impact that this would have on the strength of the EU and, by association, NATO in meeting the strategic challenges that Russia will present, especially now that it has form in Ukraine – a country which forfeited its nuclear deterrent.

Insight into the changing nature of nuclear weapons possession came from RAND Europe’s Paul Cornish. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons amongst known nuclear powers have reduced significantly in the past two decades, yet more states are seeking to acquire them. The risk of the use of a nuclear weapon by a rogue state has grown. The de facto understanding on which nuclear deterrence has worked is that of mutually assured destruction. This same assumption is being applied to rogue states. With rogue elements, this is applied in hope rather than expectation. So whilst there is a high probability that nuclear weapons will deter a potentially aggressive Russia, the same surety cannot be applied to non-states. Nuance emerges.

Whilst some have wavered on renewing our nuclear deterrent either on the basis of jobs lost or overall cost. I will push for a defence industrial strategy and want to see a default policy of using British workers to meet the UK’s defence and security needs. But unless a piece of equipment is needed, there can be no sensible argument for its manufacture just to keep people in jobs. As for overall cost, actual spend must be scrutinised against forecast spend. But since the defence and security of its people is the primary duty of the UK government, then if something is fundamentally needed in order to secure that aim, then it must be supplied. The central question for me was always, Is it needed?

I have come to the view that it is.

I want to see a nuclear-free world. I want us to fast-track efforts to secure multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. I do not, though, believe that scrapping plans for the successor programme will expedite that. I actually believe that right now it would make us more vulnerable to attack.

Not since I was that girl of the Cold War have I felt that our world to be so dangerous. We face terrorism and we must meet it. We face potential conflict from global warming consequences and we must be prepared. We face cyber and technology attacks and we must scramble to stay one step ahead. We face as yet unknown threats and yet we must be ready for them. Our complex world requires complex answers. It needs nuance.


David Parry said...

The author talks about nuance, but for me, the matter is very simple. To justify possession of nuclear weapons on the grounds of providing a deterrent implies the possibility of their usage. However, to my mind (and, I would submit, that of anyone with any sense of morality), the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances is utterly unconscionable, given the economic, humanitarian, ecological and environmental devastation that would ensue. Our expenditure on nuclear weapons, regardless of whether the £180 billion is staggered over decades or not, is a waste of public money and should be ended.

John said...

Need some help as struggling with the conclusion here. Scrapping Trident would lead us more vulnerable to attack; the known threats are terrorism, potential conflict from global warming, cyber and technology attacks. How does Trident reduce the vulnerability from such attacks?

Igor Belanov said...

It's right to say that it is not necessarily about 'warmongers' vs 'pacifists', but there is definitely a sense that nuclear weapons are considered essential by the political establishment, and thus also vital to being considered 'serious' by the political class. That's the only way that you can follow the line of the OP piece. As John suggests above, the possession of nuclear weapons does nothing to safeguard the UK against any known or foreseen threats. As a response to a 'complex' world it is the equivalent of a sledgehammer vaporising a nut.

Yet the OP says it is necessary. The only real reason for this is that it requires some courage and independent thought to go against the consensus of the political establishment and its need for nuclear weapons as a form of status and a symbol of its own strength. To suggest that 'unknown' threats require the UK to possess weapons of mass destruction that more than nine-tenths of the world's states happily go without is just more of the fear-mongering that the establishment indulges in so often these days to safeguard its position.

David Timoney said...

Trudie suggest we need nuance. Agreed, so the first thing she should do is separate the emotive (the principle of using nuclear weapons) from the pragmatic (whether particular weapons are up to the job). But, as ever in British political analysis, the two are hopelessley muddled up, leaving us with a dialogue of the deaf between "psychopaths" and "traitors".

Trident should not be renewed because CASD is of declining military utility (due to developing anti-sub technology), of questionable deterrent value (because the subs are too few in number to be invulnerable to a first strike), a waste of limited financial resources (whether diverted to other weapons or the NHS is a second-order consideration), and clearly a geopolitical gesture way past its sell-by date (not unlike HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in 1941).

Trudie says "I want us to fast-track efforts to secure multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. I do not, though, believe that scrapping plans for the successor programme will expedite that". If you follow that logic, there will never be a suitable time for dumping CASD. We have too few missiles to disarm in stages (unless we put them on land), which is why we've always sat out the SALT talks. We'd only participate once everyone else had reduced their stocks to a similarly small number, which isn't going to happen.

We will, literally, be the last nation on Earth to contribute to multilateral disarmament if we stick with CASD. In contrast, cancelling the Trident successor programme would actually be a positive step towards that goal.

BCFG said...

Britain's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, particularly it's Nuclear stockpile is about keeping Britain's supremacy in the world, so it can punch above its weight and order other nations about.

It is from a supremacist position that people defend nuclear arms. All the guff about evil Russia is the same guff we heard about the criminal war in Iraq, I.e. dressing something nasty and aggressive into something noble. Why do war criminals always dress up their murder in such high ideals? From Hitler to Blair.

These people have no intention of striving for a peaceful world, all they care about is keeping that supremacy, like the gangsters they are.

You can have peace as long as you do as we say and jump when we say jump, this is the message of trident.

Maybe this nihilistic, dystopian and hopeless view of the world is the correct one just don't tell me how noble you are, don't give me your nuance!

Speedy said...

"don't give me your nuance!"

Yes, I was thinking that - we live in a post-nuance age.

BCFG said...

" we live in a post-nuance age"

No, it would be more precise to say that we live in an age where nuance is used to mask base motives. So nuance is something one has but ones opponents lack. Nuance is the fairy story written over the real story. When Blairites use 'nuance' to justify mass murder this is the same thought process that led the Yorkshire ripper to claim his crimes were on the orders of the lord almighty! I.e. the killing of prostitutes was not the work of a sick mind but was the rather a mission of high ideals!

Nuance is a weapon!