We are all aware of the retired politicians and former chiefs of defence staff who speak out against nuclear weapons from the safety of retirement. It is considerably more unusual to find a serving politician willing to openly admit to having changed his mind, and Crispin Blunt (Conservative MP for Reigate) deserves every credit for his brave speech in the recent Westminster debate on the renewal of Trident.
“Over the course of a decade, I have been increasingly uncomfortable about the prospect of renewing this weapons system.... I want to make it clear that I spent a long time in defence, professionally and then subsequently as a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence and then in the Foreign Office. I remember trying to plan a scenario, in a political sense, for the circumstances in which the United Kingdom would decide to use nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive power, but, frankly, I found it impossible to find such a scenario....
“This weapons system is of much less practical utility than it used to be in deterrence terms and, given the cost-benefit analysis, the time has come to say that this is a business that the United Kingdom should probably get out of.... given the other potential demands on our defence budget, we can no longer justify the expense.
“If we are committed to this system, we should understand that it is a political weapons system, and that it is of very doubtful military quality. I do not entirely buy the deterrence argument.... if we do buy the argument, however, that should not come at the expense of a coherent defence programme.
“Frankly, I am not sure that the Americans place very much value on a separate source of nuclear deterrence decision making in London.... The United States Government will not of course take a public view that embarrasses the UK Government, but if we scratched them, we would find that they would rather we had more effective conventional forces.
“I therefore ask: what are we buying with the system? There should be a debate about whether we are buying security or, given the laws of unintended consequences, insecurity.
“I would be prepared to put our permanent seat on the Security Council up for negotiation and debate.... because it is so difficult to justify, the veto is hardly ever used by the United Kingdom.... I do not think that we have properly had the debate about what exactly we can bring to the councils of the world, and what Britain’s position in the world should be. We will be much better equipped to defend our interests if we are a wealthy successful, entrepreneurial and trading nation that looks out to the entire world, and I am not sure that landing us with a weapons system that we are never going to use is a sensible use of resources.”
Noticing a Reigate and Redhill banner at the CND demonstration a few days after the debate, I spoke to some of the constituents who had been lobbying him over the years. Had their lobbying made any difference? We shall never know, but undoubtedly their MP had become better informed on nuclear matters and had been forced to defend his position more often than he might have found comfortable. He used to send out the standard Conservative Central Office response to any challenge but over a period of years he has found a new freedom to do his own thinking and express personal views in public. Did he formerly harbour ministerial ambitions? Has he now settled for a less glittering career? We shall never know.
Stephen Hammond (MP for Wimbledon) recently wrote to me as follows: “The UK continues to attach the greatest importance to avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, and supports and participates in a range of efforts to increase international resilience to the threat of nuclear terrorism..... The Government is working hard to ensure that the forthcoming review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — which is the cornerstone of global efforts to prevent the spread of those weapons — is successful, and next month the UK will host a conference in London for the five nuclear non-proliferation treaty states.” [No doubt to agree on a common position to take at the NPT Review conference in face of the increasing impatience of the non-nuclear nations at the continued failure of the nuclear weapons states to make progress towards nuclear disarmament.]
I do Mr Hammond the justice to assume that this bland and meaningless word-spinning is straight off the party computer. It would be so nice to receive some indication that he and all the other dutiful MPs (both Labour and Conservative) who trooped into the lobby to vote in favour of Trident renewal had actually thought about the profound implications of what they are doing.
January 24th was the day that Pink Knitting came to town. It was the first demonstration against Trident organised by CND for several years, although anti-Trident ‘blocs’ have marched with many of the recent trades union anti-austerity demos, carrying the message that £100 billion could be so much better spent. And it was a wonderfully successful and uplifting occasion.
The heavens smiled on us (what would we have done if the sun had not shone...?) and thousands of people turned out to surround the Ministry of Defence and its neighbouring offices with countless yards of pink scarf. This was only a small portion of the 7-mile scarf that had joined the two UK atomic weapons establishments on Nagasaki Day in August but in the confines of central London it was possible to get more of a sense of the scarf as a whole and to properly appreciate the scale of achievement by thousands of knitters from all over the world.
Westminster was seething with tourists, the scarf made huge visual impact, and TV and radio coverage did us proud. We processed with our banners to a rally on College Green where Rebecca Johnson returned to Greenham days with a solo rendition of “Four Minutes to Midnight”, and CND officers Kate Hudson and Jeremy Corbyn were joined by the deputy leader of the Green Party, a speaker from UNISON and the indomitable Bruce Kent (now over 80), who said he felt he had been campaigning against nuclear weapons for a hundred years. (I know the feeling...)
A large group of us gathered outside Wimbledon Station and many more people travelled up individually. Most of our scarf contribution went up to London in advance by car (thank you, Gill Hurle) but we retained a modest length to use for publicity purposes. There is now a splendid set of photos of the demonstration on our website at http://www.wimbledoncnd.org.uk/Photos/WrapUp/index.html, and a pile of pink knitting waiting to fulfil its ultimate rôle as blankets for refugees. The first of several stitching parties will take place this month [see Diary].
Public opinion is the only thing that will give our elected politicians the courage to break with many decades of accepted political wisdom and question the value and purpose of UK nuclear weapons. National opinion polls now consistently show a clear majority against Trident renewal and the nationalist and Green parties are gaining increased support despite (or because of) their anti-Trident commitment. Once the weather warms up we plan to run a street stall People’s Ballot on Trident (and inform our local candidates of the result) but in the meantime anyone can cast a vote online: http://www.cnduk.org/peoplesballot. Make your voice heard!
At the beginning of December 2014 the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of nuclear weapons took place in Vienna, attended by 158 governments and representatives of a wide range of non-governmental organisations. The non-nuclear nations are continuing to demonstrate that the pledges made at the 2010 NPT conference are to be taken seriously†.
† The Final Outcome document from the 2010 NPT conference contains this important paragraph: “The Conference expresses its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law”.
Speaking in the recent Trident debate at Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn describes the moment when the UK ambassador spoke in Vienna, on behalf of the UK government, arguing that nuclear weapons ensure “stability and security” in front of an extremely sceptical audience. “It was met with silence, sadness, disappointment and incredulity, particularly after we had heard from people who had witnessed nuclear explosions and seen their effects. That speech was followed by one from the representative of the South African Government, who explained how South Africa had nuclear technology but had specifically given it up in order to make the continent of Africa a nuclear weapons-free zone. How did the conference receive that speech? There was amazing sympathy, support and optimism. We offered pessimism, threats and insecurity; the South Africans offered hope and some kind of justice around the world.... To those who say that it is all for our security and that our security is enhanced by nuclear weapons, let me say this. If we follow that argument, any country in the world can say, ‘We need nuclear weapons’. Iceland could say it wants them; Paraguay could say it wants them; Japan could say it must have nuclear weapons— the list goes on, the countries get bigger and the possibilities become more dangerous.... A secure world is not created by an arms race, and it is not created by creating more and more threats. A secure world is created by looking at the issues that divide the world.... Can we not look in a different direction and deliver a different foreign policy, rather than hold to the arid idea that all we need to do is to spend phenomenal sums of money in order to threaten to destroy the whole planet?”
Rebecca Johnson (who was also in Vienna) writes that the final pledge by the Austrian government “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” was of immense significance and will go down in history. Driven by “the imperative of human security for all and to promote the protection of civilians against risks stemming from nuclear weapons”, Austria pledged to “cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, states, international organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, parliamentarians and civil society [that’s us!] to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”. This is carefully chosen diplomatic language but its meaning is unambiguous and it is being widely interpreted as a clarion call for negotiations to ban nuclear weapons: it will be a powerful tool for the non-nuclear states to use at the NPT Review Conference next May.
Unlike the UK government, which continues to claim that nuclear weapons convention negotiations would undermine the NPT, most other NPT signatories see humanitarian disarmament approaches and implementation of the NPT as mutually reinforcing. The nuclear weapons states are looking increasingly isolated at the UN.
Further information can be obtained from the websites of Rebecca Johnson’s Acronym Institute, http://www.acronym.org.uk, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, http://www.icanw.org. Rebecca’s opening-day article “Gathering Speed to Ban Nuclear Weapons” can be found on http://bit.ly/1yGSgoE.
Please note the date and put it in your diary (and keep the date free!) We are experimenting with a later date this year for several reasons. We shall avoid clashing with other important local plant sales and we shall avoid a conflict of interests for many of our members arising from the intense pre-general-election period coinciding with the run-up to the Fête. There will be less of a struggle with cold spring nights (for those of us raising half-hardy bedding plants) and gardening will become altogether more relaxed. The obvious downside is that our regular customers may already have stocked up on tomatoes and bedding plants, but it seems a calculated risk worth taking.