A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Vanguard Party

There's a very interesting piece about the replacement of the Trident strategic nuclear deterrent and the Vanguard Class submarines that carry it in the FT today.

Headlined "Trident upgrade to be used against Tories" it looks at the most important decision any PM will ever have to make: whether to ensure the UK keeps its ability to defend itself against strategic threats from any other global power. If the wrong decision is taken and the deterrent downgraded, it puts every successive British PM in a position of greater risk, vulnerability and national weakness, at a time when we cannot possibly predict the strategic threats Britain might face many decades in the future when the replacement deterrent will still be in service.

Bizarrely the Tories have decided to allow a Lib Dem Minister, Nick Harvey, to run the official review on this most vital of questions. The Lib Dems are unfortunately, for a party that includes the remnants of the SDP who quit Labour partly over its 1980s unilateral disarmament policy, flakes on this issue. They believe in a dangerous fantasy that the deterrent could somehow be provided on the cheap through Cruise missiles deployed on the relatively small Astute Class submarines, or even from land based silos or aircraft.

All these options actually make the world a more dangerous, not safer place. There is an incentive for a hostile power to launch a preemptive strike to destroy aircraft on the ground or missile silos, whereas a Trident-style system is virtually immune from preemptive sites as it sits at the bottom of an unknown ocean in a submarine - thus doing what it says on the tin "deterring" attacks because any attackers knows they are inviting their own destruction. The Astute and Cruise option is also dangerous because it does not have the range of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles like Trident which can hit anywhere in the world - you have to put the subs in a vulnerable place nearer the shore of the target country, not in deep mid ocean, and even then range of the missile is an issue against some major continental powers with "strategic depth" i.e. important targets a very long way from the sea. Nor is it clear that Astute could provide the CASD - Continuous At Sea Deterrent all year-round that Trident's Vanguard subs do. As soon as you have gaps and delays when your deterrent is not out in the ocean you again invite preemptive strikes.

All this may sound a bit sci fi and far-fetched but we have to forecast threats up to 50 years in the future because of how long Trident's replacement will take to develop and then to be in service. Think about how radically the world has changed in the 50 years since 1960. I don't want a British PM and the British people in 2060 vulnerable to threats and nuclear blackmail by another power because a hung Parliament in 2010 let the Lib Dems get their hands on this decision.

Cost should also not be a consideration. Whatever our straightened circumstances austerity isn't an excuse for making our grandchildren more vulnerable in a changing and potentially more dangerous world. The headline costs quoted always sound huge but in any case they are spread over the whole life of the new deterrent - per annum the deterrent is a cheap way of achieving strategic defence.

As well as the danger here for our country there is a danger here for Labour. This is not a theoretical decision for us as it was in the 1980s when it contributed to our un-electability and we were so far from power additional Labour MPs losing their seats were the main victims of our love-in with CND. This time in a hung parliament with the government likely to be split on this there will be siren voices urging Ed Miliband to side with the Lib Dems on this.

If we do, we will have lost any claim to seriously aspire to power. The electorate will not trust any party or leader that makes the wrong call on such a serious issue of national security. Nor should they. This may not be a big or resonant issue right now but if we show weakness or play politics with it the Tories will dust off the "Labour's policy on arms" attack ads from the 1987 election (showing a soldier surrendering) and destroy Ed's credibility with patriotic voters in exactly the same way they did Neil Kinnock's (see image below). There are far more of these voters, particularly in marginal seats, than there are people who might find Lib Dem backsliding on the deterrent appealing.

This is as big a test for Ed Miliband as it is for David Cameron. I hope they both get it right.

My advice to Ed would be to look for inspiration to the great 1945 Labour Government and Clem Attlee's decision to create a UK independent deterrent, as well as Ernie Bevin's 1946 remark to Cabinet Committee "We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs .. We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it" rather than Michael Foot's stance on this issue.

As Hugh Gaitskell said on this issue: "There are some of us who will fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love. We will fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party – with its great past – may retain its glory and its greatness." To become PM, and for our Party to be saved and attain power again, Ed needs to put himself on the same side that Hugh was on on this issue.


Blogger John said...

2 Q's
1) could we ever use nuclear weapons without American permission?
2) if a foreign leader has just chosen to wipe out everyone in Britain do you want the civilians of his country wiped out in a retaliatory strike?

11:52 am, May 25, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do Nye Bevans words "Naked into the conferance chamber" come to mind?


12:11 pm, May 25, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly, this article contains so much nonsense that it really is difficult to know where to start!

It is very sad to see Luke doing the Conservatives' work for them by repeating their propaganda about 'unilateral disarmament policy'. The policy related, as Luke well knows, to nuclear weapons.

As if such deceit were not enough, Luke even goes to the trouble of reproducing the thoroughly dishonest Conservative election poster for the 1987 election. Perhaps he designed it.

Luke describes British nuclear weapons as a 'deterrent' without any evidence to support such a claim. Perhaps we should not expect anything else from somebody who still claims that the Iraq war was the right thing to do! Let us be clear about this: nuclear deterrence is only a theory. It is not a fact.

"Cost should also not be a consideration"---what absolute lunacy. It is a good job that President Eisenhower ignored such nonsense.

Luke then says that we should look for inspiration to the 1945 Labour government. That government decided to build nuclear weapons without any kind of discussion in Cabinet never mind a vote in Parliament. And yet Luke praises such disgusting and anti-democratic behaviour.

"We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs .. We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it"

This sounds very much like an argument about status rather than defence. They are not the same and should not be conflated.

Luke claims that being in favour of nuclear weapons is somehow a vote winner and being against them is a vote loser. The experience of the last election should lay that one to rest.

Luke also greatly exaggerates the LibDems position on Trident. Their real influence is non-existent.

I do wish that Luke would discuss this issue properly without doing the Conservatives' work for them.

2:26 pm, May 25, 2011

Blogger beckett said...

Accepting for the moment that the concept of nuclear weapons as a 'deterrent' is reasonable (which it isn't), why do you think a downgraded nuclear weapons system would be any less of a deterrent than the current Trident system? We are already vastly outgunned by various other nuclear states, if our own relatively puny offering is considered a deterrent then why not a considerably punier one?

If, as you say, we should be planning for an uncertain future then the current system will not do. We rely on the US to manufacture, service and store our missiles, prepare our targeting software and provide up to date weather information for the targets, should our relationship with the US change then our weapons would quickly become useless. If we believe it will not change then why not also rely on the US to deter nuclear attack with it's own system. We are essentially doing that already, but at the same time throwing £billions away on an elaborate and potentially deadly face saving excercise.

3:01 pm, May 25, 2011

Blogger Edward Carlsson Browne said...

I'll leave aside the questions about whether we should have Trident as a matter of policy, because that's a whole issue of its own.

Why do you think getting rid of our deterrent would be a vote loser? It's not 1985 any more. Russia might not be a very good democracy, but people do not live in fear of its tanks overrunning the North German Plain or of Sheffield being nuked.

Still less do they fear Iran or North Korea (and neither of those could reach us with their current missiles, and we wouldn't be their first targets even if we could).

People care that we stand up for our armed forces and make sure we're treated well. But no voter on the doorstep has ever told me they're worried about the threat to British security if we get rid of Trident.

Why do you think we should be acting like it's still 1985? Attitudes have changed.

7:11 pm, May 25, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some good comments. Here is my response:

So much for independence:

"It is true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US..."

Tony Blair, his memoirs, p635/6.
(So why bother to have it all!)

Nye Bevan:

This is an argument about status rather than defence. We must be careful not to confuse the two.

Public opinion:

About 1% of the electorate dies every year and so the electorate today is substantially different from the 1980's. And that is before anybody actually changes their views on the subject.

I hope that everybody (including Luke) finds this useful.

Incidentally, I read the FT article and the one option that they did not mention was non-replacement.

1:02 pm, May 26, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The FT article has certainly provoked concern amongst the warmongers at The Henry Jackson Society. Their views can be seen on their website.

I certainly hope that their concerns turn out to be well-founded.

12:58 pm, May 27, 2011

Anonymous Ben said...

I could not agree with you more, Luke. This is bigger than party politics and is a key test not just of electability but of the party's commitment to the safety, security, autonomy, democracy and way of life of future generations of our citizens. Our loved ones. I have been a party member since the age of 15 - half my life now. I am also a patriot, and proud of it.

If the Labour Party were to be instrumental in downgrading our deterrent because of the views of a bunch of blinkered pacifists, anti-Western Third Worldist politics and leftist wishful thinking, then I would leave it and never vote for it again.

This is because as a man of the left I cannot imagine a greater abnegation of social democratic principle than disarming in the face of potential threats from foreign despots and extremists. If that happens then the Labour Party will have lost its claim to represent the interests of the broad swathe of working men and women of this country.

Some of the comments on this thread are contemptible in their breathtaking naivete, wishful thinking and leftist totemising. Politics is not a game to make Guardian readers feel better. This is a red line, and we must support the Conservative Party on this: "No ifs, no buts, no Trident replacement cuts!" (!)

12:50 pm, May 28, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are you the person of that name who posts on Harry's Place??

You have a bit of a tendency to get overwrought there too, if so.

Calm down, mate ;)

12:24 am, May 31, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I notice that Ben has no arguments at all---only abuse. He is clearly incapable of answering the comments made by earlier contributors.

"If that happens then the Labour Party will have lost its claim to represent the interests of the broad swathe of working men and women of this country."

But most people in this country oppose Trident replacement. And only 29% of people voted Labour at the last election any way so not much of a 'broad swathe' there. Furthermore, how much longer will it be possible to keep Trident in Scotland? Nobody really knows.

12:26 pm, May 31, 2011

Anonymous Ben said...

Nony, if you want to pretend that calling out self-indulgence and irresponsibility is "abuse", then you have a good time with that. People like you are not challenged in the party enough, and if you find being challenged "abusive", then perhaps you will stop saying stupid things.

The arguments are well-rehearsed in Luke's piece. I see no need to repeat them. I am certainly not going to get involved in a technical debate with a bunch of people whose only claim to credibility in commenting on the technical aspects is that they are lefty activists who *desperately want* to find a tehcnical argument against a British deterrent so they can pretend that it is not a political issue for them.

Well, it certainly is a political issue. We live in a world where countries like North Korea and Pakistan have nukes, where Iran and Syria have been moving in that direction (thank goodness Israel struck the Syrian facilities, as they struck Iraqi facilities back in '81). This is a world where nuclear technology is increasingly widely spread, the practical bars to achieving a bomb are coming within the reach of more and more states, and where the possibility of non-state actors associated with rogue states (eg Hamas, Hezbollah etc) coming into possession of a weapon cannot be ruled out.

In that sort of world, I want my way of life, and the democratic state in which we live, protected as best it can be. That's patriotism for you. (You might want to look that up in a dictionary?) I'm afraid chi-chi anti-Americanism and liberal hand-wringing doesn't cut it in that context.

No arguments? I suggest you look yourself in the mirror on that front, mate.

10:02 pm, May 31, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To become PM, and for our Party to be saved and attain power again, Ed needs to put himself on the same side that Hugh was on on this issue."

Really? Hugh Gaitskell led Labour to very substantial defeat in 1959.
The Labour Party was united in its support for nuclear weapons but it didn't do it any good at all.

It is also worth noting that Gaitskell's statement does not contain any defence or security arguments at all. Not a single one!

11:54 am, June 01, 2011


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