ell not exactly. However, the news that the Government has delayed the 'Initial Gate' decision to replace Trident nuclear weapons submarines has been greeted with both surprise and relief.
This is a very significant U-turn by the Government, which had previously insisted that there was to be no delay in the timetable to replace Trident. The decision for the go-ahead for the design phase for new nuclear submarines was to be announced in September, during the summer recess of Parliament. This would have denied any parliamentary scrutiny or public debate. Margaret Beckett, as Foreign Secretary, promised in March 2007, that each stage of the nuclear upgrade would be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. Some Labour MPs were won over by this promise. Even so, the vote to replace Trident was only won by Labour with support from the Tories.
So, why has the Government abandoned its timetable for replacing Trident? Several factors may have influenced the decision.
In Parliament, there was dismay that yet another major decision was to be made behind closed doors. 165 MPs across the political parties signed Jeremy Corbyn's EDM 660 challenging this lack of accountability. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report recommended that, ‘the Government should not take any decision at the Initial Gate stage until Parliament had a chance to scrutinise the matter in a debate.' (June 2009)
Opinion polls have consistently indicated public opposition to nuclear weapons. A Guardian/ICM poll in July showed that 54% want the Government to get rid of nuclear weapons and only 42% were in favour of a new generation of nuclear weapons. With the country facing its biggest economic crisis in decades, the decision to give the go-ahead for replacing Trident at the cost of £76 billion (and rising), might be seen as political suicide. The Initial Gate decision, at an estimated cost of £2.1 billion and a final figure of £15 to £20 billion, could not be easily justified at a time when cuts in basic services seem inevitable.
John Hutton's resignation as Secretary of State for Defence, in June, may have smoothed the path for the delay. As the MP for Barrow, where Trident submarines are built, he is on record as an ardent supporter of the replacement plans. There has always been opposition to Trident amongst the military top brass. The huge budget implication reduces the budget for conventional defence priorities. Before the financial meltdown, the cost of nuclear weapons could be hidden in footnotes to the Defence Estimates. But now, everyone knows that there is only one pot of money and even ‘sacred cows' can be discarded. A letter to the Times in January 2009 from three retired military commanders, including General Sir Hugh Beech, stated that Trident was ‘virtually irrelevant', a relic of cold war thinking and the replacement plans should be scrapped. Outside the bubble of Parliament, since the vote to replace Trident was taken, the world has changed. The real world problems are seen as climate change, world debt and world poverty, fuel and energy needs and the prospect of unending resource wars. Nuclear annihilation is avoidable, so we must all do our part to prevent it.
We are being stirred from our comfort zone of complacency. The arguments that £76 billion for Trident would create thousands of jobs in the NHS, or education or alternative technology are now gaining support.
The expenses scandal, cynically designed to sell papers, has resulted in a demand for transparency from MPs. In a new world order, the old certainties must go. President Obama has outlined his vision for a world without nuclear weapons.
He has stated that nuclear disarmament by the nuclear powers is the best way to prevent nuclear proliferation. Even Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn have called for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Next year, 2010, the world will hold the nuclear powers to account. In May, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference takes place.
The non-nuclear countries cannot be expected to agree to tougher international inspections if the nuclear nations show no intention to abide by their promise to start the process of nuclear disarmament. North Korea and Iran can hardly be denied their nuclear ambitions if the UK is seen to be replacing Trident. So, we have the welcome news of the delay in replacing Trident.
Whilst the Government insists that it is still committed to Trident, the initial phase will be delayed pending the outcome of the UN Conference.
Trident replacement has been kicked into the long grass, at least until after the next election.
This is a unique opportunity to press the Government to go further and begin the process of abandoning all nuclear weapons, which it has stated is its long–term aim. Go on Gordon, bin the Bomb!