03/15/2007 - 06:09

The Trident Dispatches No. 6: Reaction to the vote

After Prime Minister Tony Blair relied on Conservative leader David Cameron to force through the white paper on renewing Trident, MPs from several parties joined protesters outside the Houses of Parliament and vowed to continue the campaign to persuade the government to implement its treaty obligations and eliminate Britain's nuclear arsenal. In rallies in Edinburgh and London, they made clear that this was a long-term security issue, and it would have to be won by long-term, persistent campaigning. Civil resistance at Faslane and Aldermaston is only just getting started, and local and Scottish parliament votes scheduled for May 3 are likely to be viewed as a referendum on Blair's legacy, including his nuclear proliferation policies.

As predicted, the government's motion was carried. With both main parties imposing a three-line whip--the strongest level of party instruction--409 voted in favor, with 161 opposed. To the uninitiated, these figures might make Blair's victory look comfortable: It was not. In a dramatic blow to Blair's prestige, around a third of Labour's backbenchers--88 in total--rebelled and joined the Liberal Democrats and others in voting against the white paper, while a dozen more were diplomatically absent.

In an unprecedented show of conscientious objection, several ministerial aides and the deputy leader of the House of Commons also resigned their positions in order to vote against their own government. Meanwhile, Cameron crowed that he would win the vote for the prime minister. But with several past and present Tory MPs speaking against Trident renewal and calling for greater resources to be devoted to more effective non-nuclear means of defense and deterrence, Cameron decided to impose his own three-line whip to ensure his party would follow him into the "yes" lobby. The use of a three-line whip to mandate support for another party's motion is very rare and indicates that more Tory MPs might have opposed Trident if left to their own judgment.

One reason for Cameron's decision to impose the three-line whip was the interest a number of senior Tories showed in John Trickett's amendment calling to delay the vote on the grounds that the government had failed to make an adequate case for Trident. Though several amendments were tabled, the speaker put only Trickett's amendment to a vote. One hundred and sixty-seven voted in favor, including 95 Labour MPs. The whipped ranks of Labour and Conservative MPs provided 413 votes against, so the amendment fell.

Throughout the day, there were scenes of protest outside the Palace of Westminster and lines of people waiting to enter Parliament to talk to their MPs. Up to 20 nonviolent activists were arrested as some locked onto a large Trident effigy filled with concrete and blocked roads leading to Westminster, while others blocked the gates of the Faslane naval base in Scotland. Greenpeace climbers scaled a crane next to Big Ben and for 36 hours, displayed their large banner protesting Blair's love affair with WMD; Faslane peace campaigners climbed atop the Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh and demanded that Trident be disarmed and evicted from Scotland.

This was a debate that Blair and Gordon Brown did not want. They tried to sneak the decision in quietly with a discreet line tucked into the 2005 election manifesto about "retaining the independent nuclear deterrent." They avoided parliamentary debate when they rushed through a 10-year extension of the Agreement for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes to December 31, 2014. This is the U.S.-British nuclear cooperation pact dating back to 1958 for the purposes of "improving the UK's state of training and operational readiness . . . [and] atomic weapon design, development, or fabrication capability." At around the same time, they gave an additional £5 billion ($10 billion) to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston to start work on upgrading facilities and installing a new laser ignition facility for mimicking nuclear explosions without violating the letter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They then tried to put a lid on the issue by claiming that this was only a question of building a few new submarines.

That Trident renewal became such a massive issue, causing so many Labour MPs to risk their careers by voting against the government, was due to the dedicated strategies of a cross section of civil society groups--from think tanks to grassroots activists. Civil society refused to let the government get away with its presentation of the decision as "just" about submarines--we were the ones who redefined the decision as a betrayal of multilateral commitments and a unilateral move to acquire the next generation of nuclear weapons. Civil society forced the issue up the political agenda, especially in Scotland. (It is no coincidence that most of the Labour ministers and aides who resigned to vote with the rebels represent Scottish constituencies.) And after the vote, civil society and MPs together proclaimed that the campaign to rid Britain of its weapons of mass destruction would intensify and spread.

There were many different banners and placards in Parliament Square this evening. Amidst the various "No More Trident" and "No new nukes" messages, were several that said, "NPT not WMD," and even, simply, "Keep the Treaty." Having worked for more than a quarter of my life on the CTBT and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it was heartening to see that this message had gotten through to grassroots campaigners. Devaluing and eliminating nuclear weapons are not only moral and security imperatives, they are also legal obligations.

Tomorrow, I travel to Geneva for meetings with key government representatives in advance of the first Preparatory Committee meeting leading up to the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The nonproliferation regime cannot afford another debacle like the 2005 Review Conference, which closed in disarray after failing to adopt any further measures for preventing horizontal and vertical proliferation.

The states parties to the NPT must now create a context for revalidating the multilateral regime against nuclear proliferation, increasing its credibility, and enabling states to reinvest in the NPT's purposes and implementation. They also must establish, reinforce, and where necessary, construct appropriate diplomatic mechanisms for the twenty-first century that will enable states and their citizens to participate fully and accountably in implementing the NPT. Blair's insistence that nuclear weapons are indispensable for British security to deal with future potential unforeseeable threats will play very badly into efforts to stem proliferation and reinvigorate the waning enthusiasm of the non-nuclear weapon states.

The vote makes it more difficult to argue that the NPT's division between nuclear haves and have-nots is temporary. The British government has exposed its cavalier attitude toward international law. It has shown that it has no plan for implementing its NPT obligations any further and seeks to renew nuclear weapons despite the fact that it can identify no appropriate threats other than something nasty that might one day arise. Yet when I go to Geneva, I hope I will find a sufficient number of international diplomats that take the NPT as seriously as the citizens in Parliament Square.