Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Trident and tested

The transformation in Labour’s attitude to defence is positive and profound

Ladbrokes is offering 20/1 on Dan Jarvis becoming the next leader of the Labour party. Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central since the by-election there in 2011, is already doing well as a shadow minister for culture. He is an energetic campaigner, is mastering speaking in the Commons, and has a rock-solid majority of 11,000. He also has a 10-year service record in the Parachute Regiment, with service in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the by-election, the Tories came third behind the United Kingdom Independence party and the Liberal Democrats came sixth, beaten by the British National party and an independent. Barnsley has taken its newest MP to its heart.

If the bookies have to pay out on a Jarvis leadership election, he will be the first ex-services leader of the Labour party since James Callaghan. Callaghan saw wartime service with the Royal Navy, fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. His successors have been, respectively, a journalist, a Workers’ Educational Association tutor, a lawyer, another lawyer, a TV producer and a special adviser, none of whom ever wore a military uniform.

That Jarvis has got so far in the Labour party, and is being considered as a future leader, even at 20/1, is about more than his own qualities of leadership. It represents a remarkable shift in the attitude of the Labour party towards the armed services, and to the defence of the realm. Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, launched a review of defence policy earlier this year. He spoke of ‘strong, hi-tech armed forces’, and a ‘vibrant defence industry’ anchored in the doctrine that ‘we all have responsibilities beyond our borders and our security and liberty at home cannot be separated from events overseas.’ Crucially, there is no question whatsoever of the Labour party adopting a position of unilaterally renouncing Britain’s nuclear weapons, which were introduced by the Labour government of Clement Attlee.

It was not always like this. The orthodox view in the constituency Labour parties, unions and shadow cabinet in the 1980s was that Labour should spend less on defence, close United States bases in Britain and decommission the nuclear arsenal. Strange as it may seem today, this was mainstream stuff back then. Gavin Strang, writing in Tribune in October 1983, shared the revelation that ‘the Russians are not planning to invade Europe’ and called for a dismantling of the west’s defences. He ended up as a transport minister under Tony Blair.

Jack Straw’s new autobiography, Last Man Standing, describes the future foreign secretary’s activism in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, including the Aldermaston marches and a Committee of 100 sit-down protest in Parliament Square. Straw says, ‘CND was not a simple front of the British Communist party, as were many apparently broad-based groups of the time, but the Communist party was disproportionately influential in the unilateralist movement.’

CND’s triumph came in 1983, not with the removal of nuclear weapons but with its capture of Labour’s policymaking apparatus. The 1983 Labour manifesto contained the now-famous pledges to remove all nuclear weapons and bases from British soil and waters within the lifetime of the parliament.

It was the centrepiece of the election campaign. When asked if he would press the nuclear button, Michael Foot replied, ‘It would be an act of utter, criminal insanity.’ Margaret Thatcher, when asked the same question, said, ‘The Russians must know that under certain circumstances it would be fired. Otherwise, it would cease to be a deterrent.’ And that was the election campaign in a nutshell: Thatcher tough and resolute; Foot not. Few doubted the principled nature of the Labour leader’s position, but the fact that neither his deputy nor predecessor agreed with him hardly helped sell it to the public. The Tories’ advertising campaign suggested that voting Labour was the same as signing a piece of paper stating: ‘I agree that Britain should now abandon the nuclear deterrent which has preserved peace in Europe for 40 years. I fully understand the Russians are unlikely to follow suit.’

Today, Labour enjoys a healthy respect on defence issues. No one doubts that the party takes Britain’s defences seriously. CND and the Stop the War Coalition have as much influence on Labour policy as the Man in the Moon does. This position was hard-won. It took some soul-searching and tough decisions by former unilateralists such as Neil Kinnock and Robin Cook. Labour now has military veterans joining its ranks, and being openly welcomed. Jarvis will not be the last veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan in the parliamentary party. Forces families look to a future Labour government for the fair treatment they are denied under the coalition.

All of which makes it more important than ever for Ed Miliband to ignore the siren voices of those who think Trident is outmoded, outdated, too expensive, and want him to copy Foot at the next election. The only beneficiary of making the next election about anything other than the economy and public services is David Cameron.


Photo: UK Ministry of Defence

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  • At the risk of encouraging this sort of anonymous baiting of Labour comrades that Progress regularly indulges in, I’ll point out the core of this analysis is wrong. The author is trying to conjur up a connection between a party’s relationship with the armed services, its leadership, and Trident policy.

    This totally ignores the fact that the Conservatives, who support Trident, haven’t had a veteran leader since Heath, and specifically rejected David Davis for David Cameron. They are now cutting defence spending.

    The Liberal Democrats, who want to scrap Trident, and ran their 2005 campaign on their opposition to the Iraq War, were run for 11 years by former SBS man Paddy Ashdown.

    It is not so much the erroneous argument however, but the tone of this piece which is truly objectionable. This editorial, that boils down to “support my policy decision or admit you hate our troops”, is simply vile. The author should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Is it really so pro-forces to argue for an expensive cuckoo-in-the-nest that will have a tremendous strain on the defence budget in the 2020s and has little support from the military who see this more as a political weapon than a military one?

  • surely rigorous analysis of costs, benefits and risks of current and future nuclear policy would be a better place to start than the electoral consequences of policies set in a very different security environment. I’m surprised you’re not recommending some courageous leadership.

  • Just who are we defending ourselves against with our nuclear submarines? We would look at such spending in a different light if we labelled such spending ‘attack/invasion’ budget. Would it save troops being killed in our recent invasion adventures?

  • Plainly they are ashamed of themselves, as they dare not speak their name… it is interesting that recent Party statements and comments on defence have drifted further and further away from addressing or even mentioning defence policy or even foreign policy issues. The honourable exception is Luke Akehurst, who much the credit of his heart – or guts, which he certainly doesn’t lack (his head is a different matter) proudly boasts that Trident is necessary not for defence but to frighten all other nations except the United States (who of course have no fear of weapons of mass destruction) and to establish a worldwide US-UK dictatorship a la FDR – and of course celebrates every Israeli theft of Palestinian land. Such honest sabre-rattling is far less cowardly than ‘Progress’ sucking up to the squaddies.

  • The Tories have cut back the army to 80,000 whilst planning a Trident replacement. I ask myself which have been used most in the last 60 years and I do not answer Trident. We want an army capable of defending us, which I would suggest would mean 120,000+, and weapons that are capable of being used for many tasks. So no pure interceptor fighters but more fighter/bombers (able to operate from a carrier) and hunter/killer submarines that can fire cruise missiles (which may carry nuclear warheads).

  • What is wrong with pure interceptor fighters? As purely defensive weapons they are fine , like SAMs, RPGs, Stingers, Redeyes, and appropriately placed landmines. Bombers are inherently aggressive and since Trenchard/Billy Mitchell, not to mention the recently celebrated Bomber Harris, have been the correct symbol of the AngloAmerican lust to attack all civilians who do not grovel to to the AngloAmerican empire.

  • If we have the weapons we don’t need to worry about who we may need them to deter – they are there for any contingency.

  • If we have the weapons we don’t need to worry about who we may need them to deter – they are there for any contingency.

  • On the Falklands as is farily well known the problem was that the Thatcher Government in withdrawing the patrol vessel gave the Argentine the impresssion that they were simply not interested. I recall seeing David Own lambast his successor at the FO Lord Carrington for this and Carrington resigned.
    On the IRA and 7/7 if as it seems you are unfamiliar with the concept of asymetric warfare I may be able to recommedn some reading for you.

  • Trident is outmoded and makes no contribution to the defence of this country or any of conflicts that we have been involved with.

    Lets have a proper debate about what we need and what this country can afford in the 21st century.

  • Due to the rising costs of developing military aircraft, modern tactical combat aircraft aren’t just interceptors or bombers: Typhoon (another Cold War survivor!) was intended as a ‘pure interceptor’ but is used to bomb tactical targets and does OK.
    Bombers were seen as a ‘deterrent’, a la Cold War nukes, in the ’30s – it was thought they’d be too destructive to use (as they’d justify your opponent’s proportionate retribution). That’s why RAF bombers mainly dropped leaflets in the early months of the war. Unfortunately for many civilians, as the war went on, with pressure to a) fight and b) justify expenditure, the air power apostles used it as an increasingly lethal experiment to prove their theories.
    ‘Appropriately placed’ landmines is an interesting phrase..

  • Derek, we wouldn’t use Trident in an ‘attack/invasion’.
    Mightymark, Trident doesn’t serve ‘any contingency’ – just retaliation for strategic nuclear strike. This ain’t gonna happen, so our defence budget is better spent on other, more useful, systems – e.g. infantry, helicopters, special forces, Tomahawk, AEW, carriers, and amphibious assault ships.
    Blair’s 1st term retired UK tactical nukes, but maybe we should have kept a few and retired Trident instead: if Al Qaeda had set off a dirty nuke in London on 9/11, it would make more sense taking Bin Laden out with a tac nuke on Tora Bora* than with a big Trident. (Also, Trident subs can’t do anything else, but subs with Tomahawk (which can be nuclearised) are used to launch conventional missiles, e.g. vs. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya).
    *And even saying this, US wargamers have replied to terrorist dirty nukes with conventional strikes – the politicians have been readier to go nuclear than the military, who are more aware of how to take out specified targets with non-nuclear assets e.g. Special Forces or conventional Tomahawks/airstrikes).

  • Jeremy Thanks – however the obvious “contingency” is that in which deterrence is needed and I’d prefer to take a chance that it might be
    I am not clear why people keep dragging the terrorist red herring across this path. Sure it is a threat – one of many we face (actually i think we’re successfully facing it down thanks to the various actions, domestic and international, we have taken though undoubrtedly the jury is stil out) but I know of no one with any credibility who suggests nuclear retaliation is a realistic prospect – as the wargamers you mention seems to assume.

  • Military Veterans I know are all for World Peace.
    We the British are all equal under God and the Queen. The Americans
    and their NATO Protection racket are just Rebellious. Great Britain
    Needs to stand up to Imperialist America and the NATO racket.
    Rule Britannia. We do not accept American Imperialism.

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