Jack McConnell can’t win. If he speaks about important moral issues like nuclear defence, he is attacked for getting above himself. If he avoids the issue, on the grounds that defence is not a responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, he is accused of moral cowardice.
Well, increasingly, on issues like asylum, immigration, Trident, Jack McConnell is prepared to speak out, and I think he should be congratulated for that - even by people who disagree with what he has to say. Last week he started a serious debate about the role of nuclear weapons in the age of global terrorism, addressing the concerns of the church leaders whose “Long March For Peace” arrived in Glasgow yesterday.
The FM, who was a unilateral nuclear disarmer in the 1980s, said that now believed that Trident should be used constructively in multilateral negotiations with countries like Iran who are trying to get into the nuclear club.
Jack McConnell was accused of “stupidity” by his Westminster colleagues for daring to discuss the uses of Trident at First Minister’s Question Time. How naive! How presumptuous! How dare this ridiculous little man intrude on these matters which are none of his concern!
An anonymous official in the foreign office was quoted as saying the idea of using Britain’s nuclear deterrent as a bargaining chip in arms talks was “completely ridiculous”. That the policy of the British government was to put pressure on Iran, not do some kind of deal.
But the idea certainly isn’t stupid or ridiculous - it is still the policy of the British Labour Party to use nuclear weapons in multilateral negotiations on arms reduction. Or at any rate this formula, which replaced the old unilateralism of the 1980s, has never been formally revoked by Labour. Now, these multilateral deals were intended to be with countries which already possessed nuclear weapons, rather than ones, like Iran, which are trying to acquire them. However, the principle is essentially the same.
It is certainly worth looking at, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown has already looked at it. We know this because Brown had a number of in depth conversations on the matter with the late Robin Cook before the former Labour Foreign Secretary’s tragic death on a Scottish hillside in 2005. Brown spoke movingly at Cook’s funeral, and it was widely believed that, had Cook lived, he would have had a place in Brown’s cabinet.
In his final years, Cook had become a dedicated advocate of phasing out Trident. Moreover, he believed that Britain could become a moral force in the world by virtue of the manner in which we disarmed. Trident is an expensive anachronism, a deterrent which no longer deters, totally unsuited to the challenges faced by international terrorism. You can’t launch-multiple warhead nuclear missiles, designed to destroy cities, at al Qaeda or the Taleban. It would mean blowing up Pakistan as collateral damage.
As it is, the Vanguard submarines, which are of course based at Faslane in the Clyde, go out on ocean jollies where they cruise around a bit and then come home when they get bored. They can’t take part in exercises or war games, because there is no known military contingency for which they could exercise. The missiles are no longer targeted anywhere, because Vladimir Putin wouldn’t like the idea that finger trouble could obliterate Moscow, St Petersburg and Tashkent in about forty minutes. The idea of renewing this system at a cost of 30 billion is an offence against reason.
The only justification for keeping such a weapon, in Cook’s eyes, was to use it in arms decommissioning talks, rather like the ones that ended the war in Northern Ireland. That might seem fanciful, but nuclear arms reduction is not impossible. South Africa gave up her nuclear weapons after the fall of apartheid, and Ukraine did the same after the fall of Communism. Argentina and Brazil dropped their nuclear programmes after negotiating a non-nuclear pact.
It’s not inconceivable that there could be a similar pact between Russia and China, and between India and Pakistan. But it take someone to get the ball rolling, to show the world that the west really is serious about eliminating nuclear weapons from the world.
Brown is an internationalist and, unlike Tony Blair, an intensely moral individual. In the age of climate change and global warming the last thing the world needs is further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet in the present stand off between the Muslim world and the West, when even the Pope can provoke the wrath of Islam, there is a terrible danger of this clash of civilisations going nuclear.
Following the disastrous invasions of Iraq and the Lebanon, a nightmare vision emerges of an Islamic bomb facing a Christian bomb. Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and argues, not unreasonably, that it is surrounded by nations that already possess them - India, Pakistan, Israel. If the logic of deterrence applies to us, then it applies equally to them.
It is hypocrisy for the West to lecture Iran on non-proliferation, and threaten invasion, when America and Britain are developing their own new generation of nuclear weapons, and making no effort whatever to dispose of their existing ones. We are in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls on nations to dismantle their own nuclear arsenals. This hypocrisy is clear to the entire Arab world, and it will make their determination to acquire nuclear weapons all the greater.
Brown is, of course now committed to the renewal of Trident. But he could use this an opportunity to downsize our nuclear deterrent, to make it compatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If he did this as part of negotiations with the Muslim world, he could make a huge impression on history.
Only if we address this moral question of nuclear equity does disarmament in the Middle East become a possibility. In a few years, it may be too late. It may be wishful thinking, but I suspect Brown - like McConnell - may be thinking right now about whether it would be possible to use the nuclear deterrent, constructively, as a form of bargaining with so-called rogue nations, to persuade them to put their own arsenals ‘beyond use’. It worked in Northern Ireland.
There’s some evidence that the chiefs of staff would not be unhappy at the prospect of saving the 4% of the military budget that goes on Trident and using it to buy something more useful - like decent boots and rifles and armoured cars in Afghanistan.
Brown is an internationalist and has already shown his concern for world peace and the alleviation of poverty. He is one of the few politicians on the planet who can speak on equal terms with the IMF and the wretched of the earth. Perhaps he should listen to the McConnell doctrine. It’s surely worth a shot.