Monday, April 25, 2016

Trident Revisited - by Bob Clay

There is a broad consensus amongst the Westminster-bubble chattering classes, which argues that the Labour Party continues to obsess over the debates of the last century rather than looking to the future. In a strange and unintended way, it might be said that this is a major part of the difficulty when debating Trident replacement.

For many of us, there are fundamental arguments that have been broadly correct from the 1960s (or earlier) onwards. It is probably true that there was little that could ever have persuaded people like me to embrace the retention in any shape or form of the deployment of nuclear weapons by Britain.

And there were many others who took the contrary view. Hilary Benn and a range of Blairites placed themselves firmly in that tradition.

Immortal, pointless and obsolete

But it is the supporters of nuclear weapons who now face an overwhelming argument, which tells us that the material realities of the world in 2016 (let alone in 2026 and 2036) render both the politics and the technology increasingly and dangerously obsolete.

This is well illustrated by the extraordinary debates now taking place in the International Policy Commission of Labour's National Policy Forum. At the heart of this is Hilary Benn’s insistence that any consultation with the Labour Party or wider public has to be framed around the question ‘should Britain retain an independent nuclear deterrent?’

Other comrades have argued that this phrasing fundamentally prejudices the debate. It has been argued for decades that Trident (like Polaris before it) is neither British, nor independent nor a deterrent.

A compromise, which simply referred to Britain ‘retaining nuclear weapons’, was robustly rejected by Hilary. Even a hint of scepticism like placing the words ‘independent’ and ‘deterrent’ in quotes was unacceptable.

For those of us of the ‘old faith’, the wording makes little difference. But for a huge section of the British public and for the integrity of the debate, this represents the most massive moving of the goal posts.

It conveniently buries all the developing arguments that could almost certainly create a large public majority, and probably a House of Commons majority, for stopping the particular project that the floundering Cameron government wish to pursue.

Wrong questions produce stupid and dangerous answers

The vote on Trident replacement should be a vote on the specific proposals that the Government brings to the House of Commons.

Therefore, it is a vote in favour of the expenditure currently forecast (which has just gone up by another £20 billion in Osborne’s recent budget. It is a vote to procure four submarines from the British Aerospace yard at Barrow in Furness, the only UK facility technically capable of constructing these boats.

Since BAE are a huge corporate monopoly the Cameron proposal will effectively commit us to the open cheque book that the British arms industry has so blatantly and corruptly dined out on for decades. This is a company with the most sordid relationships with vile regimes such as Saudi Arabia and a range of financial tentacles that facilitate significant dirty money finding its way into the coffers of the Tory Party. Yes, Hilary wants us to vote for all of that.

Now for the slightly more difficult bit

Those of us who find the whole concept of weapons of mass destruction completely beyond civilised discourse, have to grit our teeth and address the matters that are troubling huge swathes of opinion that are not traditionally ‘unilateralist’.

Other than for the convenience of BAE and its production patterns at Barrow, is it really necessary to maintain a “continuous at sea presence” using four submarines? When was the argument that you could achieve the same outcome with three submarines decisively rebuffed?

Why not abandon the whole Trident project and negotiate a joint system with France, which would involve massive savings?

Or why not take one logical step further and buy the wretched things from Electric Boat / General Dynamics in Connecticutt, who turn out the American boats far more efficiently than British Aerospace? (Most of the BAE top management had to be recruited or seconded from Connecticutt years ago because the local lot were so clueless.) Those who have followed these matters will be well aware of the perpetual difficulty that, when the Americans decide to change the boats and consequently the missile specs, it causes havoc for the MOD trying to accommodate the changes. The missiles come from America anyway, so if the Americans change the missiles how does Britain change the boats?

Trident as a job retention project

Of course, none of the above matters at all if the sole purpose of this project is job retention at Barrow and at the Rolls Royce factories that make the reactors. It used to be argued, only half-jokingly, would be cheaper to give every worker dependent on Trident £1M each but this proposition could now be updated to £10M each and there would still be billions of money left over for other more useful expenditure. It only has to be a matter of time before members of UNITE and the GMB facing massive job losses and little compensation elsewhere query far more assertively what on earth some of their leadership think they have been up to. We could have nationalised and saved the entire British steel industry for a fraction of the cost of Trident.

Writing off Scotland

The whole ‘Scottish context’ has also moved to the centre of the debate. This is entirely political and not technical. Those who still argue for Trident replacement still show no sign of explaining how the Labour Party recovers ground from the SNP in Scotland by continuing to support the wrong side of the argument that contributed massively to the SNP wiping us out last year. The only coherent deduction from the Hilary Benn / Blairite position has to be that our commitment to this particular proposition is so overwhelming that we would settle for a Tory majority government for ever more rather than give up on ‘our’ nukes.

A major advance for planned obsolescence

Now we come back to the technical realities and the two rapidly emerging issues that increasingly dominate the debate in Washington and which have faced the most extensive levels of denial in London.

The future of submarines is that they will be drones. It will only be a matter of time before someone will be able to site a string of drones in international water off  Faslane to detect, follow and monitor the Trident boats as they come and go and with the ability to make a pre-emptive attack on them before there is any likelihood of them firing their missiles.

Even more unanswerable is the increasing realisation that hackers will be able to effectively take over the satellite communications on which these weapons of mass destruction are totally dependent.

On the optimistic side, one might foresee some network of ‘alternative geniuses’ who simply make it their business to render all firing of nuclear weapons impossible. (Bring it on!) But more likely, it will end up with the first successful nuclear attacks on Britain being launched from Faslane by some whacko with a laptop based in a cave in the Tora Bora mountains, or maybe, the ghetto of some European city. Well done Hilary! And no doubt if anyone is left alive in Barrow they will want to get out and vote for John Woodcock MP as soon as possible.

Labour Party policy

My view is that, from a Labour Party point of view, it is only the job retention argument that we really need to win.

It is the votes of UNITE and the GMB that could prevent a substantial Party conference majority for non- replacement. It is that issue that will give ‘cover’ to anti-Corbyn Labour MPs and that can place various other unnecessary obstacles in the path of what has to be the eventual outcome. We can only deal with this by proactively pursuing the jobs, skills and community arguments.

The first and fundamental question is profoundly strategic and political. The Labour Party has always been committed to multilateral nuclear disarmament (and it is only in recent months that we learn from impeccable American sources, that that nearly became a serious proposition, until Margaret Thatcher persuaded Ronald Reagan to renege on provisional agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev on the basis that it just wouldn’t do to have to admit that Michael Foot had been right all along). But the question cannot go away. Why are we claiming to pursue a goal that would rid the world of nuclear weapons, whilst at the same time claiming that that very achievement would be a disaster for the BAE workforce and community at Barrow in Furness?

Moving on, what would happen if a Tory chancellor who was prepared to gamble the whole future of energy in Britain on a nuclear power station financed by the French and Chinese states, decides to save billions by buying submarines from France, the United States (or maybe, China)?!? Will Len McCluskey be running a campaign to say that there is no point in having nuclear weapons unless it provides jobs for his members? You only have to ask the questions ....!

If there really was a case for continuing to procure these submarines from Barrow, then there would surely be an overwhelming logic to taking the yard into public ownership in order to maintain security, cost control and employment. But that would be contrary to the kind of Tory government motion that Hilary Benn and his admirers want to vote for.

We must start work on defence diversification

The ‘pro-Trident’ officers of Unite and the GMB have persistently argued that they cannot support non- replacement of Trident without real, serious, committed mitigation for the workforce and communities. This is the real challenge and it beggars belief that the serious work has yet to commence, even though there are willing, energetic and serious people just waiting for the go-ahead from Jeremy or Emily Thornberry or whoever it needs. We have to set up the prototype defence diversification agency with every possible level of detail, so that it hits the ground running on day one of a Labour government.

This means a serious industrial understanding of what skills and advantages the yard in Barrow has and how those skills can be retained on more useful and sustainable activity. Vague talk of new green industries just won’t cut it. On the other hand, making Barrow the centre for research, development and manufacturing of drone-based underwater engineering might tick a lot of boxes, not just the manufacture of the submarines but their relationship to all sorts of fixed or mobile ocean bed industries of the future. This could be seen as a major plank in the economic / industrial policies that John McDonnell and his team are developing.

Putting far more flesh on the bones of a DDA is widely understood to be the key to progress and yet, there appears to be no appetite whatsoever for getting on with it even amongst those who want to see an end to Trident and this, sadly, seems to include Jeremy Corbyn himself. Indeed, Hilary Benn appears to believe that we should refuse to do anything on this front, because it implies that we might end up opposing Trident replacement. Perhaps we should look forward to Hilary’s ultimate moment of glory as he pleads with the UN General Assembly to reject a global, multilateral ban on nuclear weapons because a British Labour Government has no idea how to re-deploy a few thousand workers!

An overwhelming responsibility, not just a token gesture

And yet, how can we continue to work for the non-replacement of Trident whilst showing such little concern for the workforce and community that will be potentially devastated by this policy?

How can we continually denounce the present government for its failure to support the steel industry and its lack of any planning and intervention to mitigate the local consequences of its neo-liberal economic policies whilst we plan to deliver the same misery to Barrow?

It is a demonstration of ignorance and naivety to simply make vague commitments to doing something once we are in power. Barrow will be in serious crisis from the day that a Labour government announces the cancellation of the replacement programme.

So here are just a few illustrations of the work that we should have been doing for quite some time.

Bones that need flesh

What manufacturing activities can take advantage of the huge investment in the submarine building facilities at Barrow? For a start, there is the continued manufacture of submarines and probably a significant range of other underwater structures. Who is pioneering the drone technology right now? And will the UK have a capacity for these vehicles or will we be importing them? Would the large scale manufacture of civilian submarines be compatible with the continued manufacture of something like the Trident boats? Almost certainly not! For security reasons as well as a range of technical inefficiencies. So it may well be the case that if Britain is to be a significant player in this major industry of the future, Barrow will have to drop Trident in order to make way for it.

Meanwhile, we need to discuss what individual compensation would be available for those workers who did lose their existing jobs and were not able to retrain for the new expanding projects on offer. The combination of redundancies being the direct result of a government decision to terminate Trident production, and the appallingly isolated geographical location of Barrow, with little else available and existing chronic levels of unemployment, would justify very generous terms. For those aged over 50, we should be considering packages of up to £50,000 at current prices for every year before retirement. This may mean that some workers receive more than half a million pounds.

There should be equally generous packages for younger employees and these would need to be focussed more on serious training and redeployment with financial ‘lumps’ as a fall back.

And, pausing to do the most simple and crude calculation, it can be seen that, if 10,000 workers were to receive £500,000 each on average, this would cost £5 billion, leaving about £95 billion (of current Trident planned expenditure) for other purposes.

What and where would the DDA be?

We should also firm up what the DDA would actually look like. There would be a lot of sense if it were located in Barrow, not least to ensure that those who ran it had a daily familiarity with the need to regenerate the town. Building on existing expertise around existing academic institutions, the DDA might have a research and development arm at Barrow which was on the scale of a new university. Thus, new green technology could be trialled in quality premises and workshops in the Barrow area. And we ought to be developing, already, a long list of the projects that could benefit from this approach.

One last thought, just for now. Look at a map and start to understand just how isolated Barrow is. Consider the endless babble about a “northern powerhouse.” Consider the vast sums of money being invested to reduce the journey time to major cities by a few minutes due to rail electrification and other upgrading. Then think again about Barrow. If you want to make a train journey from London to Manchester, you can get a train from Euston every 20 minutes starting very early in the morning and within around 2 hours 10 minutes you are in Manchester. If you want to get a train to Barrow it will take around 4 hours. If you want to get the train to Barrow for a morning activity you can  leave Euston at 5.30am, getting into Barrow at 9.50am or you can leave at 7.30am getting in just after 11.30am, i.e. for morning meetings get up in time to leave Euston at 5.30am or forget it. From 7.30am onwards the trains from Euston are only hourly with a last one at 8.30pm getting you back to Barrow at half past midnight. Travelling back to Manchester you can leave Euston on a 9.40pm train and arrive in Manchester 13 minutes before midnight.

Comparisons by road travel or air flights illustrate the basic point even more starkly. Part of the DDA’s work should be to radically improve the transport infrastructure that would enable Barrow to start its long overdue journey to genuine prosperity. This in itself would be a very significant employment driver and build up a taskforce capacity for other industrial regeneration projects.

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