The Trident Dispatches No. 5: Voting day

By Rebecca Johnson | March 13, 2007

On March 9, later than expected, the British government published the motion that it wants the House of Commons to vote on March 14: “This House supports the government’s decision as set out in the white paper, ‘The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent’ (CM6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the U.K. minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the U.K.’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

On March 9, later than expected, the British government published the motion that it wants the House of Commons to vote on March 14: "This House supports the government's decision as set out in the white paper, 'The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent' (CM6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the U.K. minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the U.K.'s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Whatever the vote's result, it is becoming clear that it will not bring the debate on Trident to a tidy close. On the contrary, since the Labour Party is so deeply divided and the government will only be able to win if supported by Conservative MPs, the battle over Britain's nuclear policy is only just beginning.

The government's delayed motion reflects disagreements between the Ministry of Defence, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and 10 Downing Street. Ultimately, the three parties reached an uneasy compromise–with a reference to meeting Britain's disarmament responsibilities tacked on in hopes of winning over MPs who worry that Britain's decision will undermine international nonproliferation efforts. Even so, the motion fails to address concerns raised by the House of Commons Defence Committee in a report it published on March 7.

Though the Defence Committee did not take a position on whether Britain needs nuclear weapons, it requested that the government respond to its various questions before the March 14 debate and vote. In particular, the committee argued that the government "should do more to explain what the concept of deterrence means in today's strategic environment" and that the government needed to define its terms more clearly, including its reliance of notions such as "self-defence," "extreme circumstances," and "vital interests." The report asked the government to make clear that its policy of ambiguity "does not lead to a lowering of the nuclear threshold."

With regard to the government's pledge to reduce the available stockpile of warheads to 160, the committee underlined that while it welcomed any move toward arms reductions, it was "unclear" whether "this reduction has any operational significance" or whether the promise has significance as a genuine nonproliferation measure.

So far, the government has ignored the committee's request for clarifications and further information. With news reports suggesting that up to half of the Labour MPs are considering voting against Trident renewal, the government's tactics are sending mixed messages. Convinced that the Conservative Party will help him win the vote regardless of Labour's defections, Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to treat the March 14 decision as definitive. Secretary for Defence Des Browne, who has deep roots in the Labour movement, is trying to stem the hemorrhage by assuring concerned Labour MPs that if they vote for the government motion, there will be chances to scrutinize and decide on further steps in the future. One Labour MP has already tabled an amendment intended to clarify this point.

Meanwhile, two amendments that call for the decision to be postponed have been submitted. One demands that the vote be delayed until "there has been a period of genuine public consultation during which relevant information should be provided to enable matters relating to national and international security, costs, industrial infrastructure, nonproliferation, and alternative methods of defence can be adequately explored, and to enable the government and honourable members to pay detailed attention to the substantial range of questions that the white paper and Defence Committee report raise."

At the time of this writing, the amendment led by Jon Trickett MP is the front-runner. It states, "The case is not yet proven and [MPs] remain unconvinced of the need for an early decision." With cosignatories from the leadership of the Liberal Democrat Party and support from more than 70 Labour MPs now confirmed, the speaker of the House of Commons will be under pressure to allow MPs to consider this amendment, despite government attempts to prevent such a delay.

At the same time, lawyers and campaigners have taken the next step in their case for a judicial review of the government's rushed decision, arguing, "The government's failure to consult upon the proposed replacement of Trident is unlawful." Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, who has taken the lead in preparing the case, noted, "The government has completely misunderstood international law on two vitally important issues. The first is that replacing Trident would be a clear breach of its obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including that it must move to disarm. The second is that it can never threaten to use such a weapons system as it cannot discriminate between military objectives and civilians."

In London, Damon Albarn and Brian Eno gave the first performance of their new anti-Trident musical composition "Five Minutes to Midnight" on board the Greenpeace boat Arctic Sunrise. This powerful performance, which involved a 50-person gospel choir, linked Trident with increasing nuclear dangers and decreasing security. Evoking the recent movement of  the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock, the performance attracted a glittering and influential audience as it sent its warning message in light and sound across the River Thames at Tower Bridge.

In the run-up to the vote, a BBC survey of Labour backbenchers found that 64 of the 101 who responded are against Trident renewal, with only 22 in support. There are rumors that a number of junior ministers or ministerial aides representing Scottish constituencies may resign from the government, which has ordered a "three-line whip" for the vote. Since a three-line whip is effectively an instruction to vote the party line, the fact that so many Labour MPs are prepared to defy it and oppose Trident renewal is all the more significant.

At Faslane, Right Reverend Stephen Cotterell, Bishop of Reading, led a peace blessing followed by a procession of Clergy Against Nuclear Arms in blocking the nuclear submarine base's gates, resulting in three arrests for "breach of the peace."

Activists are gearing up at Faslane, Aldermaston, and Westminster. Their message is that regardless of the vote, Trident is illegal, immoral, and against Britain's security objectives. There is still widespread anger that Blair dragged Britain into the disastrous Iraq War, ignoring public opinion and the concerns of most of the Labour Party. After voting for the war in March 2003, many MPs have since expressed regret, with some blaming the government for persuading them with false or misleading information.

This time, there will be little sympathy for any MPs that vote with the government on the basis of misplaced loyalty or ignorance. The Trident decision will profoundly affect national and international security, and MPs are realizing that on March 14 they will be held accountable. The government's three-line whip will not help them evade responsibility for how they vote.

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Topics: Nuclear Weapons

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