Nuclear policy - and the hugely expensive decision to replace Trident - ought to be an election issue, but it is barely even discussed. Despite more than 65 per cent public support for nuclear disarmament, the two largest parties still act as though Britain needs nuclear weapons, refusing to acknowledge that the world has changed and that replacing Trident is incompatible with British and international non-proliferation and security objectives.
Both the Conservatives and Labour voted for Trident replacement in March 2007. The decision, opposed by nearly a hundred Labour MPs, was pushed through by Tony Blair on the basis of a threadbare White Paper, a dishonestly low price tag and a resolution that let MPs off the hook by also pledging 'to take further steps towards meeting the UK's disarmament responsibilities under Article VI' of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as though Trident replacement was consistent with our treaty obligations to disarm.
Trident wastes money that could create far more sustainable jobs than those involved in manufacturing the Trident submarines in Barrow. Deploying the current weapons costs more than £1 billion a year, and the Liberal Democrats estimated in 2006 that obtaining and operating a similar system would cost more than £76 billion in total. (Subsequent estimates of the full cost have put it as high as £110 billion.) The Lib Dems oppose replacing Trident with another massive submarine-based ballistic missile force. But they are still undecided on whether to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons altogether and work for a new international compact on verified nuclear disarmament, as many advocate, or build a different, smaller nuclear force.
The Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are all committed to getting rid of British nuclear weapons as an early step towards the global abolition of nuclear weapons. The issue is particularly relevant in Scotland, where the UK's nuclear weapons are deployed and stored at Faslane and Coulport.
How, then, can we ensure that Britain does not repeat past mistakes and commit huge resources to an outdated weapon that cannot be used without violating international law? The year-long 'Faslane 365' peaceful blockade made Trident replacement a hot election issue in Scotland in 2006-2007, showing the importance of grassroots mobilising and a higher media profile. By treating nuclear disarmament as a marginal issue, UK politicians are lagging far behind the rest of the world, where creating a nuclear weapons-free world is now a mainstream, global goal.
We have to point out that Trident doesn't protect us and that the major parties are depending on scare tactics and a voodoo/placebo effect when they assert that Britain needs nuclear weapons as an insurance policy but can't demonstrate how deterrence works in the face of overwhelming evidence (not least from recent wars) that it doesn't. The fact that the NPT's important review conference takes place in New York in May provides opportunities for Britain to contribute to reducing the role of nuclear weapons with practical steps such as cancelling Trident replacement, taking the current system off continuous alert and ceasing to build facilities to develop new warheads at Aldermaston.
Instead, Aldermaston should work on dismantling nuclear weapons safely. As much of the world is now laying the groundwork to negotiate a nuclear weapons abolition treaty, the UK would have much to gain by being in at the beginning. A first step would be to implement Labour's commitment to become a 'disarmament laboratory' and develop verification techniques to support the international obligation (and the UK's stated goal) of nuclear disarmament.
Dr Rebecca Johnson is director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and a member of Women in Black
The Big Blockade, Aldermaston, 15 February 2010
When parliament decided, in March 2007, to replace the current Trident nuclear submarines, the government stated, and has continued to repeat, that a decision on whether to replace the UK's current nuclear warheads would not be made until the next parliament. From outside the wire at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston, however, it looks as if this decision has already been made.
A multi-billion pound government-funded programme that will equip AWE with the facilities to research, test, design and build replacement warheads has been under way since 2004. While environmental and anti-nuclear groups have repeatedly urged the local planning committee to return each planning application to the government, so that a full public inquiry may take place, there has been no parliamentary discussion or any other public scrutiny of developments at AWE.
With the deliberative democratic process sidelined, the only option, it seems, is civil disobedience. So, on 15 February 2010, Trident Ploughshares, CND and the Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign) brought peace activists from all over Britain, and several dozen from other Nato countries, to close the gates of the AWE bomb factory at Aldermaston, Berkshire. By daybreak, well-organised groups, many in effective lock-ons involving heavy-duty metal pipes and concrete blocks, were were sitting, standing and lying at all seven gates of the Aldermaston base. The protesters successfully denied employees access to their workplace for several hours.
Media coverage of this symbolic and nonviolent direct action carried its message to voters and candidates of all parties. Financial crisis? Spending cuts? Cancel Trident renewal and spend the billions saved on improving schools, health and social services.
Women from Women in Black, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, AWPC and a Europe-wide anti-Nato mobilisation were responsible for blockading one of the principal access gates to AWE.
And we were supported by two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Mairead Maguire, honoured for her work for peace in Northern Ireland, and Jodi Williams, who won the prize for her contribution to an international ban on landmines.
The Aldermaston Big Blockade is only the latest action in an energetic campaign against the illegal, immoral, pointless and profligate renewal of the UK's nuclear weapons system. n
Cynthia Cockburn, London Women in Black, and Sian Jones, Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign)
and sign the CND petition at: www.ipetitions.com/petition/nuclearweaponsconvention