Trident – Deterrence or dependence?

27th February 2021

Healey – unshakable committment?

The transition of the Labour Party back towards being a fully fledged party of the UK political establishment took another step this week when Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey MP, committed Labour to re-commissioning the Trident nuclear weapons system.

It may be argued, with some justification, that Labour has never strayed from the political mainstream and Healey’s speech, on one level, was merely reaffirming existing party policy.  Politics however rarely functions on just one level and the subtext underlying Healey’s words were clear.  This is Labour departing from the political direction in which the party was pointing under Jeremy Corbyn.  This is Labour making clear its patriotic credentials.  This is Labour wrapping itself in the union flag.

Corbyn’s opposition to Trident was well known.  As a lifelong member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a profound sceptic in relation to Britain’s membership of NATO and a consistent opponent of military wars of intervention, Corbyn did not cut the kind of patriotic figure in whose hands the establishment could feel entirely comfortable. 

History will no doubt judge that, in the grand scheme of things, the four years of Corbyn leadership was a relatively modest challenge to the political orthodoxy.  The fact that they had to go to such lengths to snuff it out says as much about their sense of insecurity as it does about the scale of the threat.

Nevertheless, Healey’s words at the Royal United Service Institute, were aimed to reassure the military industrial complex that their profits remained safe.  Labour’s commitment to retaining nuclear weapons was described as “non-negotiable”, a degree of emphasis only matched by Healey’s assertion that “Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakable.”  In case the message was not absolutely clear Healey went on to position Labour as “the party of sovereign defence capability.”

The pill was sugar coated in the usual way.  Labour would be committed to international law and upholding human rights.  Why would it not? Labour would be committed to direct investment into British industry as a priority.  Again, why would it not?  The real question is whether either of these commitments are sufficient justification to spend billions on weapons of mass destruction.

Added irony comes from Healey’s speech being set against the debate about what Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, should include in his budget this week and how far tax rises will be necessary to help pay for the consequence of the pandemic.  Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has already said that this is not a time to tax business and families. 

However, Starmer has made no commitment to supporting the recent Wealth Tax Commission report, which demonstrated clearly that a windfall tax upon the wealthiest, levied over a five year period, would go a long way towards covering the costs associated with the pandemic.  Add to that the saving from not buying into Trident and Starmer’s fears for business and families could be easily allayed.  Such thoughts are, unfortunately, too far from the political mainstream for the Labour leader.

A further dimension to the timing of Healey’s speech was the fact that, after a mere 35 days in office, US President Joe Biden ordered his first illegal air strike against targets in Syria, a war in which the US has no legal right to intervene.  The role of the US and its NATO allies in Syria has been to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East, in an attempt to shore up US strategic interests in the region.  As the Stop the War Coalition has pointed out,

“The US still has 2,500 troops in a country which they have devastated since they invaded in 2003.  Biden is following in the footsteps of his predecessors despite all evidence that military interventions do nothing but create destruction and misery and the conditions for future wars.”

This is the alliance to which Healey and Starmer are saying Labour’s commitment is “unshakable”.  This is the alliance which has actual control over the Trident nuclear weapons system, not the UK as an independent nation. 

Buying in to Trident is not about deterrence, it is about dependence.  That dependence is military, political and technological.  It provides no protection in classic military terms and is a threat to jobs due to the constraint upon investment it represents, diverting billions into weapons of mass destruction rather than socially useful production.

Labour’s position on spending billions on Trident is shameful and should be opposed at every level of the Labour movement, linked to a plan for job creating investment in new technology and green solutions to the climate challenge.  That would be the start of a radical programme for change and one to which millions would sign up.

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