The two faces of the UK over nuclear WMDs


Guest blog article by David Lowry


On 10 February the Foreign and Commonwealth Office opened a new Diplomatic Academy, the first in the FCO’s history. The FCO media material describes the new venture thus: The “Diplomatic Academy will be a centre of excellence to help all staff from across government working on international issues to share expertise and learn from one another. It will help the organisation extend its networks and to engage with academic and diplomatic institutions and others. Learning will be accessible and inspiring, and it will provide a space for challenging conventional thinking.”

By chance, on Wednesday and Thursday last week, Foreign Office diplomacy was in top gear as our mandarins hosted a two day high-level meeting at its London conference venue, Lancaster House, of senior diplomatic representatives of the other four members of the self-appointed nuclear weapons club on the United Nations Security Council, the so-called Permanent Five (P5).

This brought to London Wang Qun, Director General, Department of Arms Control and Disarmament for China; Hélène Duchêne, Director for Strategic Affairs for France; Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security for the United States; and Grigory Berdennikov, Ambassador-at-Large for Russia, to meet with the FCO’s top disarmament diplomat, Peter Jones, Director for Defence and International Security, according to a Parliamentary written answer to Labour MP Paul Flynn on 9 February.

The answer by Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood also said: “The London P5 Conference covered a wide range of issues relevant to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encompassing disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The Conference included outreach with a number of non-nuclear weapon states – Australia, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates – as well as civil society. P5 delegates also visited the Atomic Weapons Establishment; this was part of our efforts to enhance transparency, but appropriate measures were put in place to ensure that our national security interests were protected".

After their meeting on 6 February the P5 diplomats issued a joint statement through the Foreign Office.  Aside from warm words proclaiming they all supported the 189-nation Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and were working to strengthen it at the forthcoming NPT review conference in New York in April/May ( contemporaneous with the UK General Election) they asserted “The P5 also considered a wide array of issues related to and steps towards making progress on all three pillars of the NPT: disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In addition, the P5 had constructive and productive discussions with a number of non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society representatives."

Then in a very interesting passage, considering it is co-signed by Russia, it asserted:  “At their 2015 Conference the P5 restated their belief that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains the essential cornerstone for the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament, and is an essential contribution to international security and stability.”

It then added: “The P5 reaffirmed that a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament that promotes international stability, peace and undiminished and increased security for all remains the only realistic and practical route to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. To this end, the P5 discussed issues related to international security and strategic stability and their nuclear doctrines in order to enhance mutual understanding in these areas…The P5 stressed that addressing further prospects for nuclear disarmament would require taking into account all factors that could affect global strategic stability. In doing so they stressed the importance of engaging in frank and constructive dialogue to that end.”

For those wishing to rid the planet of nuclear WMDs, all of this sounds hopeful, until the facts intervene, revealing all rank and stinking hypocrisy!

Within two days headlines in the press were stating: '£4.2bn: the bill for replacing Trident before parliament gives go-ahead' (Sunday Herald, 8 February).

Scottish–based investigative journalist Rob Edwards unveiled that the official public spending watchdog, the UK National Audit Office, in a new report has revealed that this £4,200,000,000 (£4.2 billion) is being spent on designing new submarines, reactors and missile compartments ahead of a long-promised decision on Trident replacement by MPs in 2016, after this year’s UK general election. Edwards reported the MoD as saying it has always been transparent about the costs “whilst protecting our commercial position”.

The NAO report 'Major Projects Report 2014 and the Equipment Plan 2014 to 2024' reveals that the MoD has underestimated the cost of upgrading the nuclear reactors that power Trident submarines by £151 million.

The SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, retorted “Costs are spiraling out of control before MPs have even had a chance to vote on renewal. It is utterly unacceptable that over £4 billion will be blown on replacing Trident nuclear weapons before parliament actually decides on whether or not to even give it the go ahead. In no other democracy, at a time of deep austerity and cuts, would money be spent on committing to such a massive project without consulting parliamentarians.”

The NAO report details spending on replacing Trident before 2016 as follows:

Future submarines concept:  £198m
Next generation reactor concept:  £305m
Reactor technology concept:  £80m
Missile compartment concept:  £271m
Future submarines assessment:  £2,000m
Next generation reactor assessment:  £1,171m
Reactor technology assessment:  £148m

Total:  £4,173m
Already spent:  £2,068m

Less than a month ago in a Parliamentary debate on 20 January on the Trident nuclear WMD system, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told MPs “we are planning to replace the current Vanguard submarines—not the Trident missile or the warheads. We are planning to replace the submarines in the late 2020s, by which time our Vanguard submarines will be 35 years old.”

He also asserted: “We are clear that the nuclear deterrent is the only assured way to deter nuclear threats….”  and  added “we cannot gamble with our country’s national security. We have to plan for a major direct nuclear threat to this country, or to our NATO allies, that might emerge over the 50 years during which the next generation of submarines will be in service. We already know that there are substantial nuclear arsenals and that the number of nuclear states has increased…. This country faces the threat of nuclear blackmail from rogue states. .. there is simply no alternative to a continuous at-sea deterrent that can provide the same level of protection and the ability to deter an aggressor. We know that because successive Governments have looked at the different options for delivering a deterrent capability. Most recently, the Trident alternatives review in 2013 demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable or cost-effective as a Trident-based deterrent.”

Then, amongst this missile waving nuclear belligerence, he confusing interpolated the following observation: “Let me be clear: we hope never to use nuclear weapons, but to go on delivering a deterrent effect. However, we also share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament.”  But it is clear from the burden of his own argument, he does not believe a word about a nuclear weapon-free world.

Liberal Democrat Treasury minister Danny Alexander subsequently told Flynn in a written answer on 30 January “This Government is committed to maintain a credible and effective continuous at-sea [nuclear] deterrent.” (answer 221744). Two days later, on The Sunday Politics on BBC One television, Labour shadow Foreign Secretary Dougals Alexander insisted to programme host Andrew Neil that his party would “not negotiate over Britain's nuclear deterrent.”

British nuclear WMD policy is Janus-like, facing towards nuclear disarmament if  discussed by the Foreign office, but towards nuclear re-armament if discussed by the Ministry of Defence, the Liberal Democrat front bench ministers and the Labour shadow front bench ministers.

These politicians will all be relieved that they will be engaged in a belligerent election campaign  when the NPT review conference is underway: otherwise they would have to explain to184 non-nuclear weapons states in New York why they all plan to violate the UK’s legal requirement under NPT article 6 “ to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament…” by renewing the Trident nuclear WMD system.

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