Defence policy won't deter voters

PUBLISHED: 07:04 23 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:04 22 October 2010

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Gordon Brown has told Middle England that defence policy, and our independent nuclear deterrent, will be secure in his hands. And he will not mind the protests from the Labour left one little bit, says political editor Chris Fisher.

Gordon Brown has told Middle England that defence policy, and our independent nuclear deterrent, will be secure in his hands. And he will not mind the protests from the Labour left one little bit, says political editor Chris Fisher.

Gordon Brown has pressed a big nuclear button. And his decision to announce, not merely as chancellor but also as prime minister-in-waiting, that he favours the renewal of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, was one of great calculation and potentially much significance.

He wanted to send a very clear signal that his party - and, more important, the country - will not lurch to the left under his leadership. And his disclosure of his stance on the post-Trident issue fitted the bill perfectly.

For many in his party the subject of our nuclear deterrent retains huge totemic importance. They think (or at least appear to) that you cannot really be left-wing if you support Britain's possession of it.

Aneurin Bevan proved quite the opposite of course. He famously fired a missile at the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1957 when he appealed to delegates at the Labour conference not to send a British foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber”.

By then Britain had obtained its own nuclear weapons capability, and the Polaris system became operational in 1968 under a Labour government. But after the loss of power to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Labour heavily embraced unilateral nuclear disarmament. Michael Foot became its leader, and its 1983 election manifesto promised that “the next Labour government will cancel the Trident programme” and that “we will, after consultation, carry through in the lifetime of the next parliament our non-nuclear defence policy”. In other words, complete nuclear disarmament within five years; no deployment of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, and the decommissioning of Polaris.

Mr Brown and Tony Blair were first elected to the Commons on this platform. Their party suffered a landslide defeat, however, and it was widely concluded that its defence policy had much to do with it. Undeterred, as it were, it pledged in its 1987 manifesto to “decommission the obsolescent Polaris system”, to “cancel Trident” and to have a wholly conventional (that is, non-nuclear) defence strategy. The election delivered another Thatcher landslide.

Two years later the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War ended as the power structures of the Soviet Union disintegrated. One might have supposed that this would have been reflected in a hardening of Labour's unilateralist stance, but not so. Its 1992 manifesto talked of partnering the US in negotiating to reduce the world's nuclear weapons stocks, and continued: “Until elimination of those stocks is achieved, Labour will retain Britain's nuclear capability, with the number of warheads no greater than the present total.”

The penny had finally dropped at the top of the party. It had had to get rid of the unilateralist millstone. And in 1997 Mr Blair won power on a manifesto which stated that “a new Labour government will retain Trident”.

The Trident system had become operational in 1994. It is not due for retirement until 2024. But decisions on whether to replace it, and if so with what, have to be taken in this parliament.

There remains substantial latent unilateralism in Labour's ranks, and there was always a danger that much of it would be brought up to the surface as the government and the party discussed the 'after Trident' issue. But Mr Brown has not fought shy of the topic. On the contrary, he has decided to treat it as an opportunity rather than a problem.

One aspect he has had to deal with, and overcome, in supporting the principle of giving the deterrent a new lease of life is that of cost. The figure will obviously depend on the system chosen. Updating the Vanguard Class submarines and the Trident D5 missiles would be less expensive than opting for brand new systems, but there is talk of the replacement costing up to £25bn.

That is a lot of money, and there will be no shortage of people in Labour circles thinking, if not saying, that the money could be put to far better use in hospitals and schools.

Mr Brown can expect to be told many times that the Soviet Union has passed into history, and that Trident and a replacement for it can be no deterrent against suicide bombers on London Underground trains and buses. In response, he and people backing his judgment on this can point to Russia's continuing possession of many nuclear weapons and to the various signs that it would be unwise to assume President Putin is not taking his country back towards anti-Western dictatorship. There are great concerns, moreover, that Iran's rulers are intent on acquiring nuclear warheads. If they are, wouldn't they also be interested in attaching them to long-range missiles?

If there is a case for continuing nuclear deterrence, moreover, why should we scrap our own system and rely on an American shield? How could the assorted haters of the US inside Labour's tent possibly justify that?

Clare Short - as in very late resignation from the cabinet over the Iraq war - lost no time yesterday in announcing that she has now withdrawn her support from Mr Brown as Mr Blair's successor. Other regular Labour critics of the government, including Norwich MP Ian Gibson, were also expressing disgruntlement with his Trident announcement.

The chancellor will lose no sleep over this. They were reacting in exactly the way he wanted. His message on the nuclear deterrent had been directed over their heads to floating voters in Middle England. It was a succinct and powerful way of saying that under him, there would be no return to Old Labour policies and values when Mr Blair finally steps down.

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