By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 10/03/07):
The historic vote for radical House of Lords reform triggers a cluster of good thoughts. First, that it was an object lesson in realistic progressive audacity; what looked risky before suddenly looks inevitable and sensible, constitutional reform’s equivalent of the congestion charge. Second, that it ought to put an end – though it won’t – to the ignorant claim that today’s House of Commons is a supine shadow of its supposedly glorious former self. And, third, that MPs ought to show their muscle again on Wednesday by refusing to renew the Trident nuclear missile system prematurely.
Next week’s Commons debate about Trident ought to be a great existential political moment – and in some respects it cannot avoid being one. In the past, the government kept an exclusive grip on nuclear weapons policy decisions. Next week, rather remarkably, the Blair government has ceded that power to parliament. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the change – and foolish for MPs not to make something of it.
Yet what exactly to do? Paradoxically the nuclear debate has rarely been so muted. The passions of Aldermaston or Greenham Common belong to other ages. There has been no surging revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Ministers betray no great anxiety about renewal, though Professor Philip Cowley thinks the Labour revolt next week may be the largest on a domestic issue since 1997 and will force the government to rely on opposition votes. Yet Tony Blair has said little since December, Gordon Brown less, and David Cameron nothing at all. The Liberal Democrat spring conference at least managed to generate some old-time religious heat on the issue, but the other parties have barely even gone through the motions.
Reading Kenneth O Morgan’s fine new biography of Michael Foot underlines the disjunction. For Foot’s generation, nuclear disarmament was a sacred cause and a lifetime commitment. Today, by contrast, the Trident decisions seem almost technocratic. Extend the Vanguard subs for five or even 20 years or replace them? Three boats or four?
In some respects, times really have moved on. Few people today argue, as many in CND used to, that Britain should set a moral example to the world by disarming – an impulse which, as AJP Taylor noted, owed a lot to enduring imperialist mindsets. Today’s generation, sharing a more modest multilateralist view of Britain’s place in the world, mostly recognises that arms control demands the long diplomatic slog rather than the grand bossy gesture. Yet there is still a latent impatience for something more than the fatalism of official thinking.
Fresh ideas have been wilfully absent from the debate that reaches its climax on Wednesday. Both Blair and Brown remain haunted by domestic demons. They are forever scarred by the near-death experience suffered by Foot’s unilateralist Labour party in 1983. With Labour support already falling, there is no appetite for reopening ancient wounds. They simply want to get the issue out of the way. As CND’s exasperated – but no less unreconstructed – Bruce Kent complains, the government’s position is: this is the world we’re in, it’s not ideal, so we are going to renew.
To an extent, there are international as well as domestic reasons for that. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not just threaten a nuclear nightmare; he is also the living prototype of other unknown future madmen. George Bush’s God-driven adventurism generates another uncertainty; perhaps paradoxically we may need the bomb to protect ourselves from the follies of such allies. Since public opinion narrowly but decisively thinks Trident should be replaced, what is the realistic alternative?
Even so, scepticism towards immediate renewal riddled this week’s defence committee report. The concession of next week’s debate hints at a governmental guilty conscience, as last week’s debate did on Lords reform. Fifty years ago, British progressives wanted to set an example to the world. So today they should be more practical. They should concentrate on two goals: first, to make Britain’s defence and security posture a better expression of the place Britain should occupy in the modern world; and second, to do something effective to help turn back the alarming rising tide of global nuclear proliferation.
The two goals are intimately linked – and the link is to strengthen the role of the European Union. The government’s renewal plan does not encourage proliferation. But it does nothing proactive to encourage non-proliferation either. Yes, Britain has done a bit of welcome logistical tidying of our own stockpile. Yes, we have been active diplomatically with other EU powers in trying to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions. But the government shrugs its shoulders about wider non-proliferation issues because ultimately it is a consenting prisoner of US determination to be unconstrained by international agreement on defence.
But then, as Iraq so painfully shows, our foreign policy is serving the same sentence. The real question that faces this country is how to move away from the place we have got ourselves on both security and foreign policy while continuing to play an engaged role in the world. The defence committee said this week that we need a much stronger narrative. But in truth we need a narrative – period – because at present there isn’t one at all.
The so-called anti-war movement has nothing to offer here, because it conflates all aspects of security and foreign policy into a hatred of intervention or military engagement of any kind – putting itself alongside Douglas Hurd or Henry Kissinger, to say nothing of Ahmadinejad. But the Labour government and Tory opposition have been no better. Both are terrified of speaking out for any kind of European defence or international strategy. In their heads, Rupert Murdoch always bars the way.
The choice next week is not between Trident or no Trident, between keeping nuclear weapons or forsaking them. It’s not even a costs question. The choice is between drifting along as we are and trying to carve a different, more modern and more effective security policy within Europe. There is absolutely no need to renew Trident now. There is every need to reconfigure British foreign and defence policy in a more European way. It all comes back in the end to the politics of realistic progressive audacity.