It appears that on the day when we were supposed to be reflecting on the sacrifice of men and women whose lives have brought us peace, that a few men who should know better were getting themselves into a bit of a muddle over the replacement of our nuclear deterrent. In one sense this is not a new debate, but on the face of it, the opening salvo took place on Sunday morning on the Marr show when he interviewed Nick Houghton who is Chief of the Defence Staff. He was invited to comment on the suitability of any Prime Minister sitting in Downing Street without a willingness to use the deterrent. This is the current stated position of Jeremy Corbyn who is over 4 years away from a campaign to become Prime Minister, and if elected would be the oldest PM in history by over a year. There are so many questions over the likelihood of his election as Prime Minister that in many ways the question should have been seen for what it was, an unlikely hypothesis, but nevertheless Jeremy’s views on Trident are relevant, in large part because they reflect those of many Millions of us who would prefer to see nuclear disarmament.
Nick however took the issue head on and suggested that a future PM would need to be willing to press the button. Jeremy then spoke up and suggested that it is not the role of the most senior paid military state official to determine policy on such matters. This view was supported by Crispin Blunt MP who served in the Army in the 1980’s and defended the position being taken by Mr Corbyn. However he then created a problem of his own as this article makes clear:
“But I rather fear he has a point. I think the Chief of the Defence Staff perhaps strayed into political territory, particularly on Trident. We’re about to spend a very great deal of money renewing the Trident based deterrent. That’s going to crowd out other conventional defence expenditure and my view is we’re going to be asked to spend too much money. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable political point to be able to make, and that debate should be for the realm of the politicians. It’s for us to make our arguments for our particular points of view and then it’ll be for the House of Commons to come to a decision. That’s the right way things ought to be decided.”
Its perfectly correct to argue that our Military should not make strategic decisions on the availability or not of a nuclear deterrent. However such decisions are a matter for society as a whole not just for politicians any more than they are for soldiers to make. We have a Government that believes we need a referendum on a matter like our membership of the EU, because that is a matter of sovereignty. As Nick Houghton pointed out on Marr, in his view the nuclear deterrent is at work every second of every day. Its replacement is not a matter of academic interest, it is not a passive decision, it is not a matter of defence alone. It has the potential to place us as a nuclear aggressor in the eyes of other nations. There is a nuclear proliferation treaty at work internationally that some argue we will break if we replace Trident. The replacement of Trident in the hands of one or two people who unlike Jeremy Corbyn, claim to be prepared to use, is as much a matter of sovereignty as is the membership of a body that we elect representatives to every 4 years which have substantial levels of scrutiny against very moderate powers.
As a postscript to the spat between Nick Houghton and Jeremy / Crispin there was a further comment from a serving politician and retired soldier. It came from the MP for Gravesham, Adam Holloway who suggested that it was Nick Houghton who was right and that Jeremy Corbyn was the one who was overstepped the line. He suggested that Jeremy Corbyn lacked the experience to handle the issue of the deterrent. It is time that our MPs and our Military Chiefs stopped treating the nuclear deterrent as a matter that only they can possibly understand or make a decision on. Our money pays for this deterrent, our defence or otherwise is brought into question over it. It is a matter that we all need to be heard on. Until Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party, all of the major political parties were signed up to the replacement of trident. That gave electors no opportunity to have their views heard, even assuming one believes that we take such granular issues into account when we elect a Government every 5 years.