Why Labour shouldn’t run from a debate on Trident

trevor lakeyDr Trevor Lakey, a Labour Party member and public health worker in Glasgow, says he is as convinced today as he was in his youth that possession by the UK of nuclear weapons is plain wrong.


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.

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10 thoughts on “Why Labour shouldn’t run from a debate on Trident

  1. “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”, said Mao. Of course he had a one Party State and his desire was to flush out dissenters—to “entice the snakes from the cave”, so as to decapitate them.
    I don’t doubt Trevor has the best of intentions, and that he is not looking to flush out Progress or Momentum supporters for political re-education, but………………
    …………While Labour has their debate, and then engages the public in that debate, for weeks? months? years?, the Tory Government will steam full speed ahead with renewal. And what will they justify that stance on?
    They will correctly say that Labour, at their conference, endorsed that position of the (illegal?)renewal of Weapons of Mass Destruction, built in England and the USA, and based on the Clyde.

    1. Hi Gavin, thanks for the comments. You’re right, my piece is not aimed finding ways to flush out dissenters (I don’t know anything much about Progress, Momentum or Mao I’m afraid), it’s aimed at promoting thinking about participatory democracy. My preference of course, is that Labour adopts anti-Trident stances north and south of the border. But the main point of the piece is that this isn’t enough, that the party should also find ways to reach out and engage the rest of the country in critical debate (and do it quickly).

  2. That’s a well written and well thought out article.The Labour Party is hundreds of thousands strong,but it has to find a way of engaging these members in debate before it seeks a mass debate outwith.The local branch,as a forum for policy debate,is a thing of the past.Internet policy making means party activists and workers can be drowned out by ten bob armchair observers when it comes to a vote on policy.Tricky.Scottish Labour needs a unique selling point.That should be Devo max.Wishy washy talk of allowing a free vote on independence is silly when the obvious,popular and sensible policy of Devo max is what voters are crying out for.Get unity behind that central vision and other policy debates,such as Trident, will become uplifting and unifying,even when there’s disagreement,rather than divisive.

  3. Trevor thank you for the very interesting article here is a wee bit of feedback, the way I see it the SNP are against Trident and as the SNP tsunami wiped out all the Scottish Labour sections MPs in the general election from that we can take it that the people of Scotland are against Trident. The Labour Party UK policy is in supporting the renewal of Trident and they did not even put it on the agenda to discuss it at their recent party conference. The leader of the Labour Party UK Jeremy Corbyn has always voted against Trident but I expect him to pull a sickie or make up some other excuse so as not to attend the debate and to avoid voting on the SNP opposition motions on the debate day coming up shortly at Westminster. It is expected that on the day that the overwhelming majority of Labour Party UK MPs will either vote with the Tories or abstain on any SNP opposition motions on the debate day so showing that the Labour Party UK is a split party of 2 factions Corbynistas and Blairites. I expect the Scottish Labour section to have a discussion at their upcoming Scottish Labour section conference but not to put anything to to the vote as they cannot have a Scottish policy on Trident as it is only the Labour Party UK that has a on policy on Trident of which they Scottish Labour section are part of.

    Trevor you say below:-

    “Rather than just take an internal party view, Labour should establish a process of mass democratic engagement across the UK on Trident,”

    Lets cut to the chase Scotland does not want Trident and this is just an excuse to disguise the state of chaos that the Labour Party UK and the Scottish Labour section are in over Trident.

    Labour are history in Scotland and its desperation stakes maybe they could try one last roll of the dice and breakaway from the Labour Party UK and declare themselves as Scotland’s Independent Labour Party a new separate Party although I think its too late for that they might have to start from scratch with a new party with a new name.

    1. I can’t agree with that.If Labour gets back to its roots as a party of home rule it can move forward.40% of Labour voters voted Yes.A good chunk of them actually favoured home rule.60% voted No.A good chunk of them also favour home rule.Its the natural route for Labour to choose.Bland statements of intent won’t cut it.Home rule has to be clearly defined and Labour has to lead the way.

    2. Thanks Will for reading and commenting. As I say in the piece, I don’t see my suggestion of mass democratic engagement on Trident as being as being about some internal party calculation, or device for disguising divisions within Labour (it clearly wouldn’t work, if that was its intention). I see it as something the lead Opposition party at UK level should feel obliged to do, to open up a wide debate and scutiny on renewal. It comes out a sense of frustration that for many, particularly south of the border, the level of “debate” never gets past the “I belive in keeping Britain safe, therefore we need Trident” level, and that many people never get the chance to explore the wider issues, such as the questions I set out above. My quoting Portillo is an attempt to highlight that we are missing a trick in allowing Trident to be portrayed as a left-right issue. The majority of the mainstream media in the UK will be delighted to keep the story on “Labour divisions” rather than asking “Does the case for spending £100b of public money stand up to scrutiny?”

      But the piece is mainly about participatory democracy – trying to pose the question that on issues like Trident (where the public have been fed very black and white views), is it possible to get beyond rival camps slugging it out, without ever exploring the reasons why people might hold opposing views and genuine concerns, or providing opportunities for people to change their stances. If you haven’t already, have a look at some of the examples I quoted, like Mahallae, on the divided island of Cyprus. You can read more of the background to its creation here – http://www.eurasia.undp.org/content/rbec/en/home/library/crisis_prevention_and_recovery/Citizen_Peacemaking_Cyprus.html and here https://undpactcyprus.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/what-can-innovation-do-for-famagusta/, where Greek and Turkish Cypriot young people in the Famagusta region are working together in the context of 40% youth unemployment to find solutions to common problems.

      1. Trevor, I respect your point of view that you support Trident although I think that the reason for its existence as a deterrent is not valid for the following reason for example let’s say countries A and B have nuclear weapons the leader of country A is crazy and decides to launch nuclear weapons against country B does the fact that country B also has nuclear weapons mean that it won’t happen? let’s say that country A goes ahead and launches nuclear weapons against country B what can country B do to stop that happening?

        1. Hi again Will, not sure how you decided I support Trident, when I state the opposite in the piece. I said it’s “plain wrong” for the UK to have Trident.

          I think we’re in agreement that many of the assertions put forwards about the “deterrent” effect are barely thought through. Even Henry Kissinger et al argued in a 2007 article that relying on nuclear weapons for the purposes of deterrence was becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB116787515251566636 and endorsed the goal of working towards a nuclear-free world.

          What I am arguing for above all else is that we put all the arguments for and against Trident in the public domain and have a mature debate – rather than relying on scare-mongering slogans.

          I should also correct the figure of £100 billion I quoted earlier. New estimates out on Sunday now estimate the cost of Trident at £167 billion http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/10/25/uk-britain-defence-trident-exclusive-idUKKCN0SJ0ER20151025

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