Monday, December 04, 2006

Podcast - Why Blair should ditch Trident

Script for Paul Linford's Week in Politics, Episode 46, December 4 2006.

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OVER the course of his nine years in power, there have been many issues on which Prime Minister Tony Blair has found himself at odds with his party.

Cuts in benefits for lone parents and the disabled. Foundation hospitals. University tuition fees. And of course, the War in Iraq to name but a few.

But there is no issue that is as potentially more explosive within the Labour Party – if you will excuse the pun – as that of nuclear weapons.

The party may have abandoned unilateral nuclear disarmament long ago. But an instinctive hatred of “the bomb” still lingers in many a Labour breast.

Prime Minister-designate Gordon Brown has already lobbed a metaphorical hand grenade into the debate by pledging to renew the British nuclear deterrent if he makes it to No 10.

In a Commons statement next week, Mr Blair himself will endorse that position, although he will make clear there will be a whipped vote of MPs on the issue in the New Year.

The outcome is not in doubt. The Conservatives have already pledged their support, so it would take more than half of Labour MPs to rebel to threaten Mr Blair’s majority.

But a rebellion there will be, nonetheless, and, with heavyweights such as Charles Clarke in the camp, it could well become a very sizeable one.

Former Home Secretary Mr Clarke’s intervention in the debate this week is intriguing on more than one level, especially given the forthcoming leadership vacancy.

He said on Thursday he is "extremely sceptical" about the value of any replacement for Trident, which is due to become obsolete by around 2024.

“Trident was an expensive weapons system developed in the Cold War to meet the conditions of the Cold War, which ended 17 years ago, and it is still capable of functioning for about another 15 years,” he said.

“I think we have to take our security decisions on the basis of what are likely to be the main security threats in the future, rather than building weapons to fight the last war."

In the light of recent events in London, some might view Mr Clarke’s comments as rather na├»ve.

The Cold War may indeed have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko might lead some to suppose it is on its way back.

But whether or not the Kremlin was involved, there is a fairly crucial distinction to be drawn between the men in charge of Russia then and the ones running the show now.

It is that their aims are primarily defensive, to protect their regime from potential external threats, rather than engaging in an ideological struggle for world supremacy.

So Mr Clarke is right, in my view, to argue that the danger in the next few decades will come not from those countries that possess nuclear weapons, but from those that do not.

It is hard to dispute his claim that nuclear weapons will be no deterrent against the modern-day threats of terrorism, people-trafficking and organised crime.

It also, to my mind, changes the terms of the debate about what “multilateralism” and “unilateralism” actually mean in today’s world.

If “multilateral nuclear disarmament” now primarily means preventing rogue states from acquiring such weapons, why should we “unilaterally” exempt ourselves from that?

Earlier this year, North Korea shocked world opinion by testing a nuclear weapon underground, and Iran is known to want to follow suit.

What moral authority do we have in seeking to dissuade them from that potentially catastrophic course if we are planning to spend £20bn on ensuring we remain a member of the nuclear club?

Mr Blair will get his way, of course, just as he did over all those other issues that I listed at the start of this column.

But it will not stop the debate raging until well after he, and possibly even Mr Brown, have left Downing Street.

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