British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to replace London's nuclear weapons system, ensuring that British submarines will carry nuclear weapons well beyond 2050. His push for new warheads has inspired an intense discussion inside the country about the necessity of the British nuclear arsenal. Leading up to the mid-March 2007 Parliamentary vote on the issue, Rebecca Johnson, a noted expert on British nuclear weapons policy, will file weekly reports from Britain detailing this debate.
On February 23, Greenpeace made waves when it joined Faslane 365 and blockaded the entrance to the Trident submarine base at Faslane, Scotland, with seven boats, including its climate-change research ship, Arctic Sunrise. As one activist clambered onto the pontoon close to the Trident shiplift and waved a banner reading "No New Nukes," the Greenpeace flotilla prevented Vigilant from leaving the base to take its load of fully armed Trident missiles out on patrol.
Explaining Greenpeace's objective, onboard campaigner Louise Edge said, "We need to make the world safer, not more dangerous. That means taking a lead by marginalizing nuclear weapons. The tens of billions of pounds [British Prime Minister Tony Blair] wants to spend on these terrifying weapons of mass destruction could be used instead to make our country the world leader in fighting climate change."
After a standoff lasting the whole day, 20 Ministry of Defence police stormed the Arctic Sunrise, cut the anchor chain, and forcibly took the ship and its crew further into the nuclear base. All onboard were subsequently arrested for being in a restricted area and held in custody for a couple of days. The Arctic Sunrise was impounded for nearly a week before being escorted out of the area by police launches. It is now on its way to London to meet Mayor Ken Livingstone and join an array of anti-Trident actions planned for the run-up to the March 14 Parliamentary vote.
On February 24, about 100,000 people marched through London and Glasgow in joint Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)/Stop the War demonstrations that linked opposition to the Iraq War with the drive for nuclear weapons. Connections were also drawn between Blair's determination to keep Britain in the nuclear game and the growing rhetoric and threats to use military action against Iran if Tehran's leaders take further steps toward enriching uranium.
Speakers from all the main political parties and many walks of life condemned the bloodshed in Iraq and pledged to prevent Trident renewal by using nonviolence at Aldermaston and Faslane. The crowd heard funky, updated versions of "Masters of War", "Blowing in the Wind", and "War". And in a poignant echo from the 1980s, a clear voice from the foot of Nelson's Column began singing: "Five minutes to midnight, four minutes to Armageddon, three minutes before we die, two minutes to say . . ." Trafalgar Square fell silent as the song was abruptly cut short; then, after a moment, the speaker reminded the crowd, "Not even time to say goodbye to the people you love."
Twenty-five years ago, CND was marching, and protesters were singing "Four Minutes to Midnight." It was the height of the Cold War, and the marchers were opposing Trident--the first lot--and a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. Strange then to see Trafalgar Square filled again with protesters opposing the next generation of Trident and the catastrophic war in Iraq. For some, the parallels were depressing. So it is important to remember that in the 1980s, marchers won much of what they worked for. In less than 10 years of persistent, nonviolent civil resistance on both sides of the artificial Cold War divide, cruise and Pershing missiles--along with the Soviet SS20s--were eliminated by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the United States completely closed its important Greenham Common airbase, and the Berlin Wall came down. The marchers were reminded that as the Cold War ended, the Doomsday Clock was pushed back to 17 minutes to midnight.
A major theme of the demonstrations was that the rational and security arguments all pointed to scrapping nuclear weapons worldwide. Unfortunately, those driving the decision are basing it on irrational, party-political grounds, evoking spurious fears that a non-nuclear Britain would fall prey to unforeseeable threats and see its international status plummet.
Coming now to party politics, the Liberal Democrats had a fierce debate over Trident at their spring conference in Harrogate over the weekend. In the end, a personal appeal from Sir Menzies Campbell achieved a slight, 40-vote victory on the leadership's proposal to cut the number of British nuclear weapons in half and delay a final decision on renewing Trident until 2014, giving time to undertake disarmament negotiations with other nuclear weapon states and strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The opposition, which was only narrowly defeated, wanted the Liberal Democrats to declare immediately that they would not replace Trident. No one, it appears, advocated that the Liberal Democrats should declare support for keeping or renewing Trident!
Rifts in the Labour Party are growing wider and deeper every day, as Conservative spokespeople line up to assure Blair that they will help him win the March 14 vote. With just over a week to go before the vote, 142 MPs, including 80 from the Labour backbenches, have signed a motion in the House of Commons calling for the vote to be delayed to allow for a longer consultation period.
Even that bastion of conservatism--Oxford University--appears to have rejected Trident. On March 1, an oddly worded motion on the nuclear threat to Britain was the subject of one of the Oxford University Union's famous debates. The university seemed to have trouble finding speakers to back the motion, which was interpreted by everyone in terms of Trident renewal. However, various university debaters and former Navy Commander Michael Codner of the Royal United Services Institute made more of an effort to present their case than the government did in its white paper. They were opposed by Labour leadership contender Michael Meacher MP, Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesperson Nick Harvey MP, and me. The motion was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1.
Meanwhile, a new poll commissioned by Greenpeace showed that 78 percent of Chancellor Gordon Brown's constituents in Fife, Scotland, oppose having nuclear weapons and that 45 percent said that they would not vote for Labour if the government insists on going ahead with its plan to renew Trident.
Conservative votes may well carry Blair through on March 14. But the accelerating political opposition to Trident renewal clearly indicates that if the decision is bounced through on that basis, it will not be accepted. Far from silencing the opposition to Trident, the vote looks likely to fuel further public anger and opposition. Blair won't be able to preen the next day beneath a banner reading, "Mission Accomplished." On the contrary, he needs to remember that March 15 is the Ides of March, and his time is running out.