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Trident: should we renew?

Trident - an explosive debate

The government announced last year its decision to renew Britain's nuclear deterrent. And this week MPs will vote on whether to replace Trident.

On the Politics Show this weekend we looked at the technical issues involved, and asked Defence Secretary Des Browne to explain why the Government are so committed to renewing Trident.

Here a former Conservative Foreign Secretary explains why he thinks the government have it right, and the Vice-President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament explains why they have it dead wrong.

Malcolm Rifkind
Yes to Trident renewal
Sir Malcolm Rifkind
Former Conservative Foreign Secretary

The Government has made clear its intent to continue with Britain's nuclear deterrent. This announcement has generated a great deal of debate, and rightly so. The Government must prove its case. On this occasion I believe that they have done so.

The case for Trident is overwhelming, even in today's new strategic context. During the Cold War, the mutual threat of nuclear attack had a restraining effect on all parties.

Now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we face new challenges. A new generation of nuclear powers has emerged: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. Some are potential threats. Iran recently test fired a rocket 94 miles into the atmosphere and the regime has made clear its intention to pursue a space programme.

British nuclear deterrent timeline
1940: UK shared its nuclear secrets with the US in an effort to get the US to join the war effort
1946: British nuclear programme started, after the US suspended nuclear co-operation
1952: Britain tested its first nuclear bomb - once deployed, they were on bomber planes
1958: US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement restarted nuclear cooperation
1962: US President Kennedy agreed to sell Polaris nuclear missiles to the UK. They were submarine-based, moving away from bomber planes. They entered service in 1968, and were later updated into 'Chevaline' missiles. They left service in 1996
1979: US President Jimmy Carter agreed to sell Trident missiles to the UK, replacing the older Polaris/Chevaline technology. They entered service in 1994
2006: Tony Blair announced that the UK would replace the Trident submarines, and extend the life of the Trident missiles.

Even if the risks of an attack are minimal now, the fact is that nobody can predict how the world will look in thirty to forty years time. Just because your house has not burned down, it does not mean that you stop insuring it.

Critics argue that it is terrorist organisations that pose the real threat. How, they ask, will Trident protect us from them?

The first thing to acknowledge is that terrorist organisations would perceive unilateral disarmament as a serious sign of weakness. It is also the case that many of these organisations rely upon support from countries that can be deterred.

Of course, general disarmament would be a welcome step for the world to take. But Britain has already gone further than most. We have dramatically reduced the number of warheads and no longer possess tactical, freefall or ground-launched nuclear weapons.

Ending our independent nuclear deterrent will not encourage our enemies to disarm. They will do whatever it takes to improve their regional or global standing. In such a dangerous and unpredictable new world, when the number of nations with nuclear weapons is increasing, it would be a grave mistake for Britain to travel in the opposite direction.

Bruce Kent
No to Trident renewal
Bruce Kent
CND Vice President

No Trident message
The "No Trident" message is loud and clear

Only one argument has ever been put forward for renewing Trident and thus making sure that Britain has nuclear weapons for about another sixty years.

It is the insurance argument. You never know, they say, what is going to happen in the long future so it is sensible to have some nuclear weapons available just in case.

This is a dishonest insurance policy since it actually increases the risks we are meant to be insuring against. In telling the rest of the world by renewing Trident that nuclear weapons are essential for Britain's security, we encourage those without nuclear weapons that they had better get them as well. Terrorists will find it easier to get their hands on bomb material. Renewing Trident is a green light to all other states whatever the Non-Proliferation Treaty may or may not say.

There is a way out of this nuclear maze
Bruce Kent

To continue with security based on nuclear deterrence is to make us all hang on the high wire of terrible hazard. There are about 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world today - most much more powerful than the one which destroyed Hiroshima in a flash and killed over 100,000 people. We have had a shocking number of accidents and human errors involving nuclear weapons. Some have taken us right to the brink of utter disaster.

But not renewing Trident and instead spending the billions involved on the threats that we actually face - climate change, terrorism, disease and poverty - is sensible but not enough.

There is a way out of this nuclear maze. It has never been attempted despite years of rhetoric about negotiations. It is time we did what the International Court of Justice said in 1996 was a legal obligation. With all the nuclear weapon states and would-be states, we should begin negotiations aimed at the abolition of all nuclear weapons. A perfectly sensible comprehensive draft treaty already exists at the UN. What is lacking is the political will. Instead we go on telling Iran for instance that it cannot have nuclear weapons but we can. This is straight-forward hypocrisy which won't work.

Is all this too utopian for words? Not at all. Every radical change in human practice and thinking is first of all denounced as being too utopian. From getting rid of slavery to votes for women, 'utopian' is always the first response of the reactionaries. Canada took an independent lead on the landmines issue and took the world a long way towards their abolition. Why cannot Britain take the initiative in the same way on the nuclear weapon problem and get honest abolition negotiations started?


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