Rising above petty politics

The nature and quality of the media storm since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, when criticising his open-ended position over the EU, his wearing a peace poppy when remembering past conflicts, or his position on Trident, betrays a group-think pack mentality that is out of touch with the disillusionment of many people with anodyne mainstream positional politics.

Corbyn’s policies do not represent anything like a majority of the British people, but many of those sympathetic see his challenge to the unity of the establishment as refreshing, and an opportunity to escape shallow or non-existent debate. An approach that rises above positional politics that only closes down debate, and engages with the underlying issues in manner that respects differences, may be greeted by many within the media with incredulity, but has a far greater chance of winning back a public disillusioned by politics.

The Trident is debate is just such an example. Those that would seek to use Trident as a political football have a compelling responsibility to engage in the deeper debate over national security. Complaints that there is no media coverage of nuclear disarmament are not accurate; the problem is rather that most of it is shallow reporting of simplistic yes-no positions on Trident as a political indicator of commitment to national security. During the Labour leadership campaign, for example, Andy Burnham’s simple response when asked about Trident renewal was, “as prime minister of this country the safety of this country must come first”. But this is no answer, it is simply a statement of priority.

This is not helped by the fact that many of those opposed to Trident are equally simplistic in their judgements of others seeking a more informed debate. The Liberal Democrats will be debating Trident again at their conference next Monday afternoon, with a motion supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament and a principal amendment committing the Party to oppose Trident Main Gate over the next 12 months (a Parliamentary vote is expected early next year) but establishing a process of informed party debate on alternatives in the meantime. You can bet that those supporting the motion will accuse the amendment’s proposers of bad faith and being pro-Trident. 

The detailed case for Trident needs to be defended

BASIC published the Trident Commission report last year (co-chaired by Malcolm Rifkind, Des Browne and Menzies Campbell). It recommended further and more informed debate, and that whilst many of the reasons often given to renew Trident do not hold water, on balance in their opinion Britain should go ahead, with important caveats (such as renewed leadership promoting multilateral disarmament). The media failed to report the issue beyond its support for renewal.

Given Parliamentary arithmetic and a poor track record for parliamentarians in debating the broader issues it would be easy to be fatalistic. Certainly, the Main Gate decision will be taken to Parliament (it is inconceivable that the government would pass up this opportunity to highlight deep splits in the opposition) and will pass with a comfortable majority. But this presents important opportunities to take up the challenge of the Trident Commission to pass amendments strengthening Britain’s leadership commitments to chart more credible paths towards global disarmament and to drive practical multilateral measures within the international community, particularly amongst the nuclear weapon states. The debate presents a chance for MPs to interrogate the case by assessing the likelihood of relevant threats emerging, the utility of nuclear weapons in responding to them, how we can meet our obligations to the international community as a state brandishing nuclear weapons, and a level-headed assessment of what the most effective contribution is that we can make to the capabilities and cohesion of NATO. And those in favour of retaining Trident will need to credibly explain why deployment needs to include continuous patrolling, and how Britain can best reassure non-nuclear weapon states of its intentions and its ability to handle nuclear weapons responsibly.

Engaging on the security case

The case against Trident is not simply one of morality or cost (irrelevance), though these are relevant factors. There is also a strong debate over effective means to secure national and international security and minimising the insecurities that result from enforcing tight control over international outcomes by threat and war that lead to alienation and exclusion of the majority world. The resentment at these strategies was clearly demonstrated earlier this year at the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in New York, which ended in acrimony and damage to international cohesion. It is also demonstrated in the overwhelming public support in Russia for reckless and autocratic leaders in standing up to what they perceive to be the stifling dominance of the West. We need not only to consider how we contribute to these circumstances, but also how we effectively work over the longer run to turn Russia into a partner for stability.

The potential sequencing of the UK security debate over the next six to nine months could be auspicious, if we were mature enough to make the most of it. The government is due to publish its National Security Strategy and associated Strategic Defence and Security Review before the end of the year, outlining major threats and the government’s security priorities associated with them. This is a golden opportunity to place the decision of Trident where it belongs - within a holistic strategy to strengthen Britain’s security in partnership with others in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

Assessment of the broader security context needed first

As part of its current review, the Ministry of Defence is struggling to find a clear coherent expression of the broader deterrence requirements at the heart of Britain’s defence, and what capabilities that are needed to deter a diverse universe of potential adversaries. How can we counter the impact that deterrence (using threats to prevent others from undesirable actions) can simply deepen resentment, push-back and conflict? 

Working closely with our allies in NATO, how do we effectively deter President Putin from irresponsible and dangerous brinkmanship without goading hardliners who already point to NATO’s far superior capabilities and their encirclement of Russia? How can we find ways to deter terrorist attacks on Britain? How can we best defeat ISIL in the Middle East without further alienating Sunni Muslims who perceive the West’s involvement as simply propping up weak and corrupt governments and exploiting oil reserves? How can we avoid sending the message that our possession of nuclear weapons on the basis of vague uncertainty over future threat justifies other states with the same inalienable rights to self defence seeking similar capabilities? Or indeed that such possession despite our strategic stability shows a lack of faith in NATO? Or avoid the conclusion by others that they too can use emerging technologies such as attack drones, or intelligence operatives on the streets of London, to take out those that might stage attacks at home on the basis of UN Charter Article 51 (intended to justify defence against invasion by other states)? 

These challenging questions, directly relevant to national security, demand a greater level of empathy, respect for international law and a concern for justice than is often demonstrated. We need strategies that minimise the unintended consequences from seeking security through strength (and domination over competing ideologies). And we need these prior to coming to conclusions over the final decision on Trident renewal. The debate over Trident renewal, yes or no, is ill-conceived. We should welcome promises from Corbyn that debates on these questions will be held in an open-ended manner on the issues, rather than demand the debate be closed down. 


This article was originally featured in the Huffington Post on 15 September 2015