Just back from The Beehive in Tottenham where my local Labour Party hosted a debate on Trident tonight, between John McTernan the former political secretary to Tony Blair, and the former Director of the National Peace Council, Timmon Wallis. Given the media's dire predictions of party bloodletting over the issue, the old journalist in me couldn't resist going along.
For the most part, it was a very comradely discussion, although McTernan did come in for some heckling as the meeting wore on, which he dealt with politely but robustly. With the exception of one question about the impact on defence jobs, the balance of comments from the floor seemed fairly strongly anti-Trident.
I got in early with a question about whether Trident was really an independent nuclear deterrent, something that was also raised by several other questioners. In response, Wallis argued that there were multiple lines of dependency on the US, including the leasing of the missiles, parts of the warheads, and the targeting software, and that Trident is specifically assigned to NATO where a US general is in charge. McTernan argued that Trident was an independent deterrent, controlled by the British armed forces and the British Government, although he also argued for the value of Britain's unique relationship with the US in terms of nuclear development and mutual defence treaties. One interesting argument McTernan made was that Trident was an insurance policy against the election of an isolationist President in the Donald Trump mould, who might abandon US commitments in Europe.
I got the feeling that the speakers were operating with different definitions of 'independence'. There were some opaque references to treaty commitments, which could perhaps be seen both as freely-given or as constraints on independence, depending on one's preferred emphasis. Wallis argued that the US would not cooperate with the UK if it did not have some means of being sure that the UK could never bomb the US. McTernan ridiculed the idea of the UK wanting to bomb the US, but beyond reaffirming the independence of Trident, didn't specifically address the question of whether it could be used without US approval.
In any case, the weight of McTernan's argument perhaps rested more on the proposition that 'if you're against Trident, you're against NATO,' and that a Britain that had abandoned nuclear weapons would not be able to remain in a nuclear alliance.
Some in the audience suggested that the alternative of multilateral disarmament was little more than a fig leaf. McTernan argued that the Non-Proliferation Treaty showed the success of multilateralism, and suggested that if Bill Clinton had been succeeded by a Democratic President, an Iran-style deal would have prevented a North Korean bomb.
It is this aspect of the debate that I think forms the context for the controversy sparked by this tweet from McTernan:
Apparently suspicious that I haven't mentioned Israel at
@TottenhamLabour. When I said I was a supporter of Israel it was a 'gotcha' moment
I have to admit, it had struck me, even before it was raised, that McTernan had mentioned pretty much every nuclear power except Israel. I think part of the reaction to his comments was based on his assertion (as my hastily scribbled note has it): 'we do not know whether Israel has a nuclear bomb.' Surely, Israel's policy of maintaining deniability for its nuclear arsenal presents its own challenges for multilateralism.
It would be wrong therefore to use such comments to portray Tottenham Labour members as out of touch. Certainly some were cynical about opinion polls, but some critics of Trident were keenly aware that their concerns do not necessarily reflect a wider debate in the country.
McTernan argued that Labour needed to focus more on domestic issues rather than defining itself on defence policy. Few in Labour would necessarily disagree with that, but issues such as Syria and Trident renewal will come down the track regardless and the Corbyn leadership can only really avoid controversy by conceding the argument, to the detriment of its own base.
At a minimum, it ought to be possible to agree that Trident is a fit subject for democratic deliberation and that a decision on its renewal deserves proper scrutiny by the opposition, a task which will now fall to Emily Thornberry. I hope she will at least be able to establish what the real case for Trident is. Is it an independent nuclear deterrent or is it rather Britain's contribution to maintaining an American nuclear deterrent in Europe? What are the real implications of Trident renewal for multilateralism and the NPT? These questions are important enough to merit debate within the Labour Party, and too important to be reduced to a debate about the Labour Party.