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UK Vote on Trident Renewal

Britain divided as the Conservative Party wins the Trident vote for Tony Blair

But the decision is not irreversible

Back to the main page on UK Nuclear Policy

Initial reaction from Westminster, by Rebecca Johnson, with input from Nicola Butler and Martin Butcher, March 14, 2007.

Tony Blair has had to rely on Conservative leader David Cameron to force through the white paper on renewing the UK's Trident nuclear weapon system. But, in response to pressure from Labour backbenchers the Prime Minister has specified that decisions concerning the "actual contracts for the design and construction are to be left for a later time."

Responding to a question from former Labour Minister John Denham during Prime Minister's questions, Blair stated that "... it is always open to us to come back and look at these issues. He [Denham] is right to suggest that when we get to the gateway stage-between 2012 and 2014-when we let the main contracts for design and construction, it will always be open to Parliament to take a decision." In an attempt to head off Labour rebels, Blair continued, "Of course, it is a statement of fact that the gateway takes place at a later stage and in a later Parliament but if we want to spend at least the more limited sum of money now on the concept and design stage, we have to take a decision now."

Opening the Government's debate on Trident renewal for Labour, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett insisted that the decision was not irreversible: "Today's decision does not mean that we are committing ourselves irreversibly to maintaining a nuclear deterrent for the next 50 years, no matter what others do and no matter what happens in the rest of the world. That would be absurd, unnecessary and, indeed, incompatible with the nuclear proliferation treaty."

Beckett also confirmed that the issue would return to Parliament in future: "We are not making any decision about the warheads in this Parliament, so the matter will inevitably come before a subsequent Parliament..."

Whilst Defence Secretary Des Browne attempted to characterize the decision as one "to build a new generation of submarines to maintain our nuclear deterrent", Beckett specified that, "Further decisions will in any case be needed on the precise design of the submarines, on whether we need four or three, on whether to renew or replace the warhead, and on whether to participate in any American programme to develop a successor to the D5 missile. It will fall to future Governments and Parliaments to discuss the most appropriate form of scrutiny for those decisions. As I have said, this Government will ensure that there are regular reports to Parliament as the programme proceeds, and we will give the Select Committee our full co-operation as it maintains its regular scrutiny of these issues."

Blair argued that it would still be possible for Britain to "continue to play our full part-under the non-proliferation treaty-in the multilateral negotiations that I hope will take place over the years to come, so that the world becomes a safer place with fewer nuclear weapons." "We shall be best able to achieve that if we maintain our nuclear deterrent," he added.

Beckett, in contrast, attempted to set the government's decision to renew Trident in the context of a commitment to "take further steps towards meeting our disarmament responsibilities under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty", stating that the UK remained committed to the thirteen steps agreed in the 2000 NPT Programme of Action. She also announced that the 20% reduction in Britain's nuclear stockpile announced in the December White Paper would be made by the end of this year, not held off until the new Trident submarines were in place.

Blair's view of the NPT is not shared by many members of his own party. With the Commons chamber unusually full, many MPs were able to put questions to ministers and to make speeches in the debate - which the government had limited to one day only, despite calls for a two day debate. 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 favour, 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, almost half of Labour's backbenchers - 88 - rebelled and joined the Liberal Democrats and others in voting against the White Paper. The opponents included 15 former Labour ministers. The scale of the rebellion may in fact have been larger as 10 Labour MPs were absent or abstained on the day. A number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries are believed to have been given permission to stay away, so that they did not have to be sacked, whilst some rebels were reported to have been sent on fact-finding missions away from Westminster in order to keep the number of dissidents down.

Arguing that "the reason why we have to take the decision today is that if we do not start the process now, we will not be in the position in 2012 or 2014 to continue with the nuclear deterrent should we wish to do so," Blair has pushed this vote through - in the tail end of his tenure as Prime Minister. Many suspect that this timetable has been fast-tracked to fit both his timetable for handing over power to a (possibly less nuclear-minded) successor and for the convenience of prime contractor BAE Systems, which stands to make billions for development and construction the submarines. Indeed a number of the Defence Industry's supporters within the Commons were quick to highlight the need to "send a clear signal" of the government's intent to the industry.

Following the debate in the House of Commons MPs from several parties joined protesters outside 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.

In an unprecedented show of conscientious objection, several junior ministers and government aides also resigned their positions in order to vote against their own government. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, crowed that he would win the vote for the Prime Minister. 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 defence and deterrence, however, Cameron decided to make sure of their votes by imposing 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 a certain insecurity that if left to their own judgment, more Tory MPs might have opposed Trident.

One reason for Cameron's decision to impose the three-line-whip was the interest shown by a number of senior Tories in John Trickett's amendment calling for a delay on the grounds that the government had failed to make an adequate case for Trident. Though several amendments were tabled, Trickett's delay amendment was the only one the Speaker put to the vote. 167 voted in favour, including 95 Labour MPs. The whipped ranks of Labour and Conservative MPs provided 413 votes against, so the amendment fell.

All through 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 Tony Blair's love affair with WMD, while 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 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did not want. They tried to sneak the decision in quietly with a line tucked barely noticeably in the 2005 election manifesto about "retaining the independent nuclear deterrent". They avoided parliamentary debate when they rushed through a ten year extension of the Agreement for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes (MDA) to December 31, 2014. This is the US-UK 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 bn) 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. They then tried to put the lid on the issue by claiming that this was only a question of building a few new submarines.

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© 2006 The Acronym Institute.