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The Trident White Paper - 2. decision making and costs

Kate Hudson addresses Scottish CND’s annual conference in November 2006

What kind of debate is this

When John Reid was Defence Minister he was asked how the decision on a replacement for Trident would be made. He assured MPs that there would be a debate and that, unlike previous decisions on nuclear weapons, the issue would not just be dealt with in secret. He added that the Government would not be able to get away with making the decision behind closed doors. Tony Blair is engaging in a public debate on Trident not because he wants to. He is allowing the minimum level of consultation that he thinks he can get away with. If he were seeking a genuine debate then he would have published a Green paper. This would have allowed MPs to amend the proposal. By issuing a White paper he has presented Parliament with a total package they can either accept or reject – and the chance of them rejecting it is remote.

Since 1960 the key element in any decision on British nuclear weapons has been an exchange of letters with the United States. In the current case the letters were exchanged on 7 December, only 3 days after Blair had told Parliament of his decision to renew Trident. These letters are not drafted overnight but are agreed weeks or months in advance. It is likely that the timescale for the exchange of letters was determined when Blair told Parliament, and not vice-versa. This key part of the process has preceded the debate in the House of Commons.
Tony Blair is already committed to replacing Trident. On 4th December, in the foreword to the White Paper, he said: “We have therefore decided to maintain our deterrent system beyond the life of the Vanguards with a new generation of ballistic missile carrying submarines.”

The House of Commons is expected to rubber-stamp a decision that has already been made. In March loyal Labour and Conservative MPs will put their mark of approval on Blair’s legacy. But there will be opposition from Scottish and Welsh nationalists, from the Liberal Democrats and from Labour MPs with a conscience. Even some Conservatives, such as the former Defence minister Michael Ancram, are speaking out against the plan. The size of this rebellion will have an impact on future decisions. It is now very clear that the minority of MPs who took a stand against the invasion of Iraq were right.

This debate over the future of British nuclear weapons may in some ways be artificial, but it will have long-term repercussions. If we are silent then in years to come the pro-nuclear lobby will look back and say the British public had a chance to debate nuclear weapons and approved of them. It is important that we speak out as loudly and encourage MPs to oppose the replacement of Trident. It must be clear that that even if the House of Commons approve this plan, the British public, and particularly the Scottish public are against it.

The issue will not be closed after the vote in March. The main commitment is still at least five years away. The order to build new submarines won’t be placed before 2012. There will be several years during which we can build the campaign to stop this obscene plan. But the next few months are crucial. While the detailed decisions are some way off, what is on the agenda now is the underlying argument - should Britain have nuclear weapons, and what are they for ?

Fewer warheads?


In order to sell the plan to renew Trident to the public and to Labour MPs, Labour spin-doctors have presented it as a move to slash the size of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. In his ten years in office Tony Blair has made one cautious move towards nuclear disarmament – but he is trying to claim the credit for it twice. When the third Trident submarine entered service in 1998 there were 180 nuclear weapons on British submarines, more than at any point in the past. That year the Strategic Defence Review was presented as a major disarmament initiative. In fact what happened was that 36 nuclear warheads were removed from submarines and put into storage. The new White Paper does not reduce the number of warheads on submarines. All it means is that the 36 warheads that were put into storage 8 years ago will now be scrapped. The number of warheads on submarines will be the same as in the 1970s and higher than in the 1980s.

Fiddling the costs

The second way Blair is trying to sell the plan is by fiddling with the figures. The White Paper publishes some costs, but misses out others. MPs from several parties have put down questions in the House of Commons. They have asked for the cost of particular items, for annual costs and for the total cost of the whole proposal. The Government has these figures but they are refusing to answer any of the questions. They are prepared to publicise the headline figure of £15 – £20 billion, but they will not reveal the true cost of the massive rebuilding programme at Aldermaston, which could be as much as £12 billion. Nor do they want to add in the costs of running the new system until 2055.

In 2006/07 the Government are spending £2 billion on the nuclear weapons’ programme. Over the next 20 years they plan to construct four new submarines and to rebuild Aldermaston. So the annual cost will be higher than £2 billion a year. By 2027 we will have spent over £40 billion on our own Weapons of Mass Destruction. By 2055 the total will have risen to between £70 and £100 billion.

Scotland’s Parliament

At Westminster the most that we are likely to see is a substantial back-bench rebellion. But the political arithmetic in Scotland is different. In December there was a debate in Holyrood on the future of Trident. The Liberal Democrats put down an amendment that called on the UK Government not to go ahead with the proposals in their plan at this time. The SNP, Greens, SSP, Solidarity and independents supported the amendment. It was defeated when all the Labour and Conservative MSPs voted against it, but only by 5 votes. If the political balance changes slightly after the May election, then it should be possible for the Scottish electorate to persuade Holyrood to take a stand against Blair’s nuclear legacy.
John Ainslie


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