Why Labour shouldn’t run from a debate on Trident
Just over thirty years ago, a small group of us clambered out of a clapped out transit van in rural Cambridgeshire and started running. Our route was the outer perimeter of RAF Molesworth, raising funds for Oxfam’s “Signs of Hope in Ethiopia”. At that time, United States Air Force were busy fitting it out for ground-launched cruise missiles. Our attentive audience of police and troops tracked our progress from behind the razor-wire topped fence. They looked on in bemusement as we completed the run, took our selfies and clambered back into the van, mission accomplished.
Most of the runners were part of Sheffield’s mighty Crookes and Walkley Anti-Nuclear Group (OK, there were about six of us) and we’d been campaigning around the obscenity of spending on nuclear weapons, instead of investing in tackling problems like the Ethiopian famine of that era. We raised around £1500 through sponsorship from local residents and had one of those giant cheques made up to hand over to Oxfam.
Looking back on my youthful activism as Britain’s nuclear arsenal again hits the headlines, do I feel any sense of naivety about what we and many thousands of others campaigned about? Not at all. I’m as convinced now as my 22 year old PhD student self was then that possession by the UK of a so-called “independent nuclear deterrent” is plain wrong. Of the comments I’ve seen in recent years, one interview exchange best sums up my feelings about Trident and plans for its renewal in the UK:
Interviewer: “Should Trident be renewed?”
Interviewee: “No, I think it’s all nonsense”
Interviewer: “Should we have any kind of nuclear deterrent?”
Interviewee: “No, it’s completely past its sell by date. It is neither independent because we couldn’t possibly use it without the Americans, neither is it any sort of deterrent because we are now largely facing the sorts of enemies – Al Qaeda and the Taleban – who can’t be deterred by nuclear weapons. It is a tremendous waste of money; it’s done entirely for reasons of national prestige. It’s wasteful and at the margins, it’s proliferatory.”
My quiz question is: which political figure was this interviewee in 2012? The answer is below.
So, enter Stage Left Jeremy Corbyn with his astonishing journey to become leader the UK Labour Party, with opposition to the renewal of Trident being a prominent part of his campaign. Not surprisingly, given historical absence of public debate on matters nuclear (Scotland excepted) this has triggered a blizzard of media coverage, dark mutterings of military coups and challenges for the stances of the members of the Labour frontbench and for the party at large. Cue further frenzy when Corbyn states that he would never press the button.
The diverse views within Labour are seen, of course, as manna from heaven for the party’s opponents. Commentators pour scorn either on those Labour figures who dare to voice opposition to Trident (“dangerous traitors” etc) or on Jeremy Corbyn for not yet having imposed his views on Trident on the party as a whole (“he’s selling out”). However, rather than seeing the wide diversity of opinion on Trident within Labour as inherently negative, my view is that this presents the party with both a responsibility and an opportunity. The responsibility, as The Opposition, is to hold the government to account, to ensure the scrutiny of decision-making processes, whatever the majority view of the party. The opportunity is to open up debate, by championing a participatory democracy approach to the question of Trident renewal.
Rather than just take an internal party view, Labour should establish a process of mass democratic engagement across the UK on Trident, working with any other parties and civic groups that are prepared to take part. Whatever their current views, Labour politicians should pledge that they would give serious consideration to the outputs coming from this public engagement, and be prepared to change their stance accordingly (though I do appreciate that we generally prefer our parliamentarians not to deliberate too much, nor to change their minds in public).
This is not meant as some compromise tactic for Labour, but as a means of addressing the democratic deficit in the United Kingdom when it comes to nuclear policy. Surely the citizens of the United Kingdom deserve to have the chance to thoroughly cross-examine the full range of issues that play into such a momentous decision. And our young people should be a crucial part of that debate – after all, they are the ones who will be paying for Trident for decades to come if Parliament votes ‘yes’.
How would this mass engagement work? I’m sure there are thousands better qualified than me to design it, but in terms of ingredients, it should include the engagement of wider civic bodies and a large helping of the people-powered democratic processes that are common in some Scandinavian countries, including use of online tools and platforms plus face-to-face deliberative sessions. Call it a People’s Commission on Trident, perhaps. Ensure that people have access to a wide range of information and commentary from all sides of the debate, to guide exchanges, rather than simply descending into two slogan-chanting camps. Make use of independent ‘fact-checking’ agencies to test out claims. But above all, get it established and underway without delay.
Participatory democracy is already being used around the world, to transform the way in which people connect within civic society. Latin American and South American countries have been doing it for years – like the approaches to participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Iceland has experimented more than most in this regard, including adopting a crowdsourcing approach to its constitution. Read more here and here. There is a growing range of tools and techniques that can support democratic engagement, including online tools – see here for examples. On Cyprus, the Mahallae project provides another example of using digital platforms and novel approaches to enhance citizen engagement, dialogue and peace building – the word being a blend of the Greek and Turkish words for ‘neighbourhood’. And in Morocco, Tarik Nesh-Nash created the Legislation Lab, a cloud-based platform designed to give citizens a voice in democratic processes. If we want a different kind of democracy, we have to do democracy differently.
What kinds of questions would form the focus of the participatory process? Here are a number of suggestions: What do we want Britain’s status and influence in the world to be and how do we best achieve this? What do we perceive to be the future threats to Britain’s security? What defence capabilities will we need to respond to these threats? What are the root causes of the main threats and how to we impact on these?
What are the elements of the submarine-based system and the associated missiles and warheads and what are their destructive capabilities? What is the direct cost of Trident (and who profits from its development)? What are the allied costs, e.g. of safety procedures, decommissioning? What is the deterrence ‘calculus’ within the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century (as opposed to the previous century’s cold war) and what is its relationship to our status as NATO member? What are the potential scenarios where one or more British cities and their inhabitants would have been obliterated by ballistic nuclear missile strike, yet NATO as a whole would not feel able to retaliate on behalf of the UK?
How do the overwhelming majority of nations in the world who don’t have a so-called independent nuclear deterrent frame their approach to defence and security? What is and should be our contribution to global, multilateral nuclear disarmament? What are our obligations within the Non-Proliferation Treaty and how should we take these forwards? What are the opportunity costs in terms of lives lost from not investing in other policy areas, like health and care services, tackling poverty and homelessness?
What are the associated employment implications – how many jobs are potentially dependent on the Trident programme, what is the unit cost per job of such an “investment”, what alternatives could be pursued in terms of investment and skills utilisation if Trident renewal was rejected? What are the potential environmental and risk dimensions – e.g. the uranium mining, decommissioning, terrorism including the threat of cyber-attacks, leaks, accidents? And finally, the people of the rest of the UK might want to consider, if Scotland achieved independence at some point in the years ahead and sought to remove Trident from the country, where would the submarine base be positioned? How much would this cost?
So, what of my quiz question? No prize if you guessed Jeremy Corbyn or Nicola Sturgeon – the answer is of course Michael Portillo, former Defence Secretary, being interviewed by Andrew Neil. (Which opens up the prospect, if nothing else, of an anti-Trident campaign tagged: #iagreewithportillo). And there is no shortage of retired generals and military analysts who think that renewing Trident is an act of complete stupidity, and essentially agree with Portillo’s “The Emperor Has No Clothes” analysis. Speaking of unexpected responses, some belated thanks – to the officer of South Yorkshire constabulary who found his way to my student bedsit to interview me about my letter to the Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police, seeking permission to run around RAF Molesworth. Your tenner of sponsorship money for Oxfam was much appreciated.