7 November 2010

Blair and Trident

I posted last month about Tony Blair’s A Journey. Some unkind reviewers have called it an “autohagiography” (ie an autobiography by a self-styled saint), a word apparently coined by the occultist Aleister Crowley in 1929 for his The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography. This work is still in print at 984 pages - 266 more than the UK edition of Blair’s book.

Towards the end of A Journey, Blair touches on various issues which came up at the end of his premiership, one being Trident (pages 635-6):

"We agreed to the renewal of the independent nuclear deterrent. You might think I would have been certain of that decision, but I hesitated over it. I could see clearly the force of the common sense and practical argument against Trident, yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defence. I did not think this was a 'tough on defence' versus 'weak or pacifist' issue at all. On simple, pragmatic grounds, there was a case either way. The expense is huge and the utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existent in terms of military use. Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion. In the situations in which British forces would likely be called upon to fight, it was pretty clear what mattered most. It is true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US - and let us hope a situation in which the US is even threatening use never arises - but it's a big step to put that beyond your capability as a country.

So, after some genuine consideration and reconsideration, I opted to renew it. But the contrary decision would not have been stupid. I had a perfectly good and sensible discussion about it with Gordon who was similarly torn. In the end, we both agreed, as I said to him imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I've decided to scrap it We're not going to say that, are we? In this instance, caution, costly as it was, won the day."
“You might think I would have been certain of that decision” – well certainly you might if you had read Blair’s Foreword to the Defence White Paper in December 2006, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm 6994. This is easily accessed so just a few extracts:

"... we need to factor in the requirement to deter countries which might in the future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil. We must assume that the global struggle in which we are engaged today between moderation and extremism will continue for a generation or more.

We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.

I believe it is crucial that, for the foreseeable future, British Prime Ministers have the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control. An independent deterrent ensures our vital interests will be safeguarded.

These are not decisions a government takes lightly. The financial costs are substantial. We would not want to have available the terrifying power of these weapons unless we believed that to be necessary to deter a future aggressor."
In A Journey giving up Trident is seen as “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”, a justification not addressed in the Foreword. Some light is shed on this discrepancy in the second, somewhat melancholic, volume of Chris Mullin's diaries (Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010). On Tuesday 23 January 2007 Mullin had a conversation about Trident renewal with Des Browne, the Defence Secretary.

"I said I thought it was all about keeping up with the French and retaining our permanent seat on the Security Council. Interestingly, Des said that the Foreign Office had included that argument in the first draft of the government’s position paper, but he had asked for it to be struck out."
On the other hand, the Foreword’s references to “the global struggle in which we are engaged today between moderation and extremism” and to the sponsorship of nuclear terrorism aren’t reflected in A Journey in the context of Trident renewal.  Elsewhere, however, particularly in the final chapter, Postscript, Blair takes a robust line on the need to confront extremism (page 674 et seq).

Finally, Blair says he “had a perfectly good and sensible discussion about it with Gordon” – well there certainly don’t seem to have been too many of those en route. Assuming Blair and the Chancellor only discussed Trident replacement once (which seems unlikely), the tenor of the discussion is open to doubt unless it took place before Brown’s Mansion House speech on 21 June 2006. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, remarks on that speech's aftermath in The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World (page 43):

"We were rather taken aback when, instead of a commitment to public service reform, the evening news announced he had committed himself and the government to continuing with Trident, our submarine-based nuclear deterrent. We had no particular problem with the commitment itself, but he had not consulted anyone before making the statement and it pre-empted the orderly discussions that were going on in government on the subject. The Cabinet Secretary, who was chairing the Committee of Permanent Secretaries preparing the advice to ministers, was particularly peeved."
Powell goes on to say that Brown was seeking the support of the Murdoch press. This view is only shared in part by Andrew Rawnsley in The End of the Party (page 437-8 in the revised edition):

"Brown announced that, as Prime Minister, he would modernise the Trident nuclear deterrent. This was widely interpreted as him sucking up to the right-wing press and getting in early with his disappointment of left-wing supporters. His main motivation was to pre-empt Blair so that his rival could not use the future of Trident as an excuse to delay his departure."

HMS Vanguard, one of the Royal Navy's four Trident submarines currently in service

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