In a time of austerity should nuclear weapons be seen as a necessary public expenditure? TOMMY KANE says Scottish Labour needs to re-evaluate its position.


A few weeks back the Sunday Herald reported on the current stand-off between Israel and Iran. The spectre of nuclear conflict in the Middle East is a scenario too horrific to contemplate and highlights once again the lunacy of nuclear weapons. For us in the UK, and for those with a material interest in the Scottish Labour Party leadership, the hostility between Israel and Iran, cloaked behind a nuclear threat, brings into sharp focus again debates over the future of Britain’s nuclear capability.

Shortly before his tragic death in 2005, Robin Cook said, “nuclear weapons now have no relevance to Britain’s defences in the modern world.” When we consider producing the new submarines will cost an eye-watering £25billion alone, and that the whole project could exceed £100 billion over its lifetime, Cook’s words seem more salient than ever.

Supporting Trident’s replacement just as the British People are facing an onslaught on their public services, welfare state, jobs and living standards will understandably be a hard sell. Rightly, people will ask how we can afford these weapons of mass destruction when it’s proposed that 710,000 public sector jobs will be cut by 2017.
There are other questions that are not just financial. Obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty need to be met. How countries need to protect themselves has changed; for instance how will nuclear weapons protect Britain from terrorists and threats like dirty bombs? And of course we have the age old question of how does the threat of mutually assured destruction actually make the world safer.

Another question over who controls the UK’s nuclear capability is also, to say the least, unclear. Robin Cook, of course, former Foreign Secretary was well placed to adjudicate. He wrote in 2005 how “all levels of the Trident system depend on US co-operation. The missiles are not even owned by us, but are leased from the Pentagon in an arrangement that Denis Healey once dubbed ‘rent a rocket’”. We really must ask, as a society and as a movement whether this is something we are comfortable with.

Currently, the Tory-led government has confirmed that despite the crisis in the country’s finances, it will be ploughing ahead with Trident replacement. But if the Tories are making a mistake, it is clear that Labour, and Scottish Labour in particular, needs to evaluate its position and debate Trident. An increasing number of polls show the public sees no future in nuclear weapons, and an even greater majority of Scots oppose Trident being based at Faslane.

And we know the same goes for many Scottish Labour members. Many Labour MPs voted against Trident in March 2007 and many would vote against it today.

Labour pursuing Trident in Westminster has given the SNP an easy ride. Labour has watched as many natural allies have sat down with the SNP to discuss working together on an issue that should be Labour’s own.

In reality Labour risks standing still whilst public opinion increasingly moves against Trident. In Scotland this is happening faster than anywhere else. The trade unions, the church, and civil society stand against nuclear weapons. This is the agenda Scottish Labour must also champion, and provide direction for the party across the UK. With just a few days to go before the close of the leadership election it’s important that whoever becomes the leader and deputy leader give a clear indication of where they stand on this vital practical and ethical policy area.

Tommy Kane is a parliamentary officer to a  Scottish Labour MSP and a party activist.