Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Fight, fight and fight again

One of the reasons why Labour’s recovery from its 2010 defeat looks to be on a better trajectory than the Party’s implosion after the 1979 defeat is that thus far there hasn’t been a serious move to saddle us with a unilateralist defence policy.

Of course the usual suspects associated with CND always bang on about Trident.

But the intervention by Polly Toynbee yesterday morning in the Guardian is intended to take this debate about our strategic nuclear deterrent into the Labour mainstream.

The irony is that Polly defected in 1982 to the SDP, a party created partly in response to Labour’s previous move towards unilateralism. It’s as though having enjoyed a divisive fight that helped make us unelectable once from one side, she’s trying to start a replay where she will now be on the opposite side. She did the same with her switches of opinion on Gordon Brown, ramping him up at Blair’s expense then undermining him with equal vigour.

Bizarrely, Polly’s intervention has been triggered by the coalition starting a bout of infighting between pro-Trident replacement Tories and less enthusiastic Lib Dems.

A sensible Labour strategy would be to sit tight and let the coalition partners rip each other apart on this. But Polly wants us to have our own internal fight about it instead.

Labour came to a settled view in favour of multilateral disarmament and in the mean time maintaining a strategic nuclear deterrent as long ago as Neil Kinnock’s 1988 Policy Review.

This was not some Blairite push to the extremes, it was an absolutely fundamental building block of restoring Labour to any kind of electability after its 1983 and 1987 defeats.

We do not need to reopen deep wounds on defence.

We should not go anywhere that implies we are prepared to jettison a reputation for taking the UK’s defence seriously that we surrendered at great electoral cost and only won back with great effort and care.

Trust on defence, like trust on the economy, is an entry-level hurdle for being considered a viable party of government by many of the centre-ground voters who decide general elections.

If they don’t think you are serious about defending national security, you can have the best policies in the world on other issues, but you fail a basic qualification required for electability.

Polly herself says ‘the Tories itch for the chance to mount a Kinnock-like attack on Red Ed, weak on defence’ but doesn’t seem to take this seriously. Why on earth in a tight election would you voluntarily give a ferocious opponent ammunition that enables them to claim you can’t be trusted with national security?

But Polly’s article is deeply offensive in that she claims politicians’ motives regarding Trident renewal are short term electoral ones and not careful consideration of the future strategic needs of the country.

She casually dismisses Labour’s John Woodcock MP as a ‘nuclear-head … because … [he is MP for] …  Barrow, a one-industry town dependent on defence’. I know John well enough to know that he was picked by Barrow because he was already a staunch supporter of deterrence, not that he suddenly developed this interest for constituency reasons.

She doesn’t explain what Barrow, or for that matter Derby or Aldermaston, are supposed to do to replace the highly skilled engineering jobs dependent on Trident renewal, or how much of the savings opponents of the project constantly hypothetically spend would need to be deployed to rescue the economies of these areas.

She claims that ‘no one in Labour actually believes we need a Trident replacement for national defence.’ Well I do. And I know many other Labour activists who do too.

I support Trident renewal because I want my children and hopefully their children to have a country in 50 years time which is still protected by a deterrent so powerful that no other power that arises
in the intervening five decades, however hostile or malign, would risk bullying us with nuclear or other WMD threats.

I don’t want a British prime minister in the 2050s to be confronted by a threat and not be able to point to strategic deterrent and warn the state threatening us to back off, because we short-sightedly chose to cut corners on our investment in this decade.

Renewing our strategic deterrent is the most important and profound decision any government can ever take in the UK.

Polly asks ‘What use is a cold-war deterrent against present terrorism?’. This is a straw man. No one claims Trident is a counter-terrorism tool. What it is is an ultimate insurance policy against hostile states, and in a rapidly changing world with several powerful nuclear-armed nations that don’t share our values and may have competing interests within the 50 year lifespan of the missiles and submarines we are procuring now, plus other states that could develop nuclear arsenals during that time frame, I am not prepared to risk us not having it.

‘Do we want to keep punching above our weight, why and at what cost?’ she asks. I say yes, because we need nations with liberal, humanitarian and democratic values to be able to act on the world stage, not to be cowed backwaters while less benign states project power. With our globalised economy and interests overseas, we cannot afford to quit being a country that shapes the world rather than
keeping a low profile.

Polly derides the need for a continuous at-sea capability as ‘the mad old rationale for Trident’. This displays complete ignorance of what makes a deterrent deter. It has to be available all the time – ‘continuous’ – otherwise it does not deter threats when it is not available, and hostile powers have an incentive to attack, either with conventional weapons or something worse, during the time when Polly casually suggests our nukes might be ‘in a cupboard for a rainy day’. And it has to be hidden – ‘at sea’ – or rather at the bottom of it in a small submarine in an unknowable location in a massive ocean, otherwise a first strike to destroy it is incentivised. For these reasons the ‘third way’ Polly floats of airborne or land-launched weapons which we dropped as too risky and obsolete decades ago, is one
that might put the UK in a very dangerous place in decades to come.

The poor man’s submarine system also floated – cruise missiles in an Astute class sub designed for a different job – is also not a real deterrent as it is not fail safe. The shorter range of cruise – not an intercontinental weapon like Trident – means you have to have a lot of early warning that a crisis is developing to get into range, and you cannot reach many targets without risking pre-strike detection and destruction in coastal waters by an enemy navy. Again it might put the UK in a more dangerous place in many decades time.

A move to a low-cost system would not satisfy anti-nuclear voices as it would leave us nuclear-armed, but it would make the UK less safe. It would also be irreversible as once you stop the order for the current new subs at Barrow the yard’s order-book dries up and it shuts. The design and engineering expertise is lost forever and we wouldn’t even be able to design and build future generations of Astute-style attack submarines for the Royal Navy, let alone new Vanguard-type ones if we changed our mind if the world got more dangerous.

It is unilateralism because it is a proposal to downgrade our nuclear capability on a something-for-nothing basis without negotiating away any of the other nuclear-armed states’ arsenals multilaterally. The fact it has been so casually and publicly floated as an option means we have no negotiating position anyway as the other nuclear powers now get the message that we might partially disarm whether they follow suit or not. They must think we are the most naive fools ever.

On cost, Polly’s shabby effort to put a price tag on the existential national security interests of future generations of Brits neatly misfires. She quotes as authoritative a total lifetime cost for renewing Trident of £83.5 billion, which sounds a lot but is in fact less than two years worth of current UK total defence spending to achieve a belt-and-braces strategic deterrent that many other countries are extremely eager to acquire.  She then explains that this is just ‘£1.86bn a year until 2062.’  This might sound like a big number that you could do a lot with in terms of other government spending, but to put it in context it is 0. 3 per cent of central government annual spending, and only about one and a half times the annual budget of a small-ish London borough council like the one I serve on. In terms of deficit reduction it would be a drop in the ocean.

This saving of course does not factor in the costs of the lower cost system Polly wants us to consider, nor the costs of economically rescuing Barrow, Derby and their supply chain when thousands of highly skilled jobs are cut in the middle of a recession.

Polly wants us to repeat a debate we already had in 2007, about a procurement project that doesn’t actually cost very much over its lifetime given the immense significance of the security it provides. She wants us to move from a ringside seat at a coalition punch-up to volunteering to have the Tories kick our heads in electorally. She wants us to give up a reputation for being sensible about defence that Labour had to really struggle to gain.  We need this debate like a fish needs a bicycle, but if she is intent on pursuing it she will discover there are many of us, who like Gaitskell on the same issue 50 years ago are prepared to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ in both Labour’s interest and that of our future national  security.

Luke Akehurst is a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here and blogs here

Photo: Defence Images

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • The argument over Trident would be more constructive if it were not conducted in the usual left/right silos.

    In general I tend to disagree with Labour types who think that if only we went back to our economic polices of the 80s the path to No 10 would be assured. The world has moved on somewhat since then and old solutions to current problems are not always fit for purpose. The same could be said of defence.

    Most of Europe is unconcerned about punching above their weight (whatever that means) or feeling the need to shape the world. They do not see the need to brandish nuclear arsenals to show that they are serious about defence. In fact I’m sure relinquishing the self appointed role of global prefect and being a country that keeps a low profile would prove a popular alternative to those of us tired of being permanently at war.

  • The World has Changed. Hello! China and Russia are Now our number One and two markets. Of we are to Deliver Jobs and homes we Need China and Russia, we do not Need a collective Suicide Pill Sea Monster. Labour is so Out of Touch with Business i simply Cannot believe it.
    Trident is a massive RISK to Great British prosperity.

  • I am on the left of the Party and I support Trident. We need to be more confident in our nationality and stop talking it down,

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