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Trident – My speech to the House of Commons

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC):
Many of the founding fathers of my party fought in the first world war. It was their experiences of pointless human destruction that led them to base their political beliefs on the importance of Welsh national political identity, to counteract the imperialism of the great powers of the day. Wales lost more soldiers per head than any other nation in that war, and ever since, our party’s foreign policy has been based on building a peaceful role for Wales in the world, very much like our cousins in Ireland, who, of course, gained their independence in the aftermath of that war.

While not strictly a pacifist party, our voting record in this House over nearly half a century clearly shows that we are not supportive of the aggressive foreign policy pursued by successive UK Governments and their allies. Our first MP, Gwynfor Evans, was a vocal critic in this place of the Vietnam war; my predecessor, Adam Price, endeavoured to impeach the former Prime Minister for his conduct in the build-up to the second Gulf war; and in this Parliament we have voted against military action on several occasions.

Fairness and social justice also lie at the heart of what our party stands for. Those principles could never be upheld if we believed that wasting billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction at a time when public services are being slashed was in any way acceptable. As we have heard several times today, Trident renewal is estimated to cost about £100 billion over the system’s lifetime, and the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), a former Defence Minister in this Parliament, said earlier that that figure was an underestimate. In my view it is obscene to suggest that this is a justifiable figure when our schools and hospitals are crying out for investment.
Last week, Labour and the Tories voted in favour of billions of pounds of more cuts in the next Parliament, all the while being committed to spending a similar amount on a new generation of nuclear weapons. Given the Westminster parties’ warped priorities, it is no wonder that more and more people in Wales are backing Plaid Cymru’s progressive alternative—and the Greens in England and the SNP in Scotland.

Due to the sums involved in the Trident renewal programme, it is vital that this House debates whether or not it is a justifiable use of public money—and I must say that this has been a very good debate. It will be the biggest spending decision made by the next Parliament, and with an election in just over three months the electorate deserve to know where those seeking election stand on this issue.

When reports emerged yesterday in the Glasgow Herald that Labour was boycotting this debate, I labelled it an insult to the electorate. However, I am glad that a few Labour MPs have broken the boycott, and they have made some very valuable contributions to the debate.

While ahead of the May election Labour will tell people how nasty the Tories are and how it would do things differently, the reality is that it would not do much differently at all, and that it would still press ahead with wasting £100 billion on Trident despite its proclaimed supposed opposition to cuts to public services and the ideological shrinking of the state. No wonder many esteemed commentators, not least Martin Shipton of the Western Mail, are beginning to ponder that the most likely coalition after the next election will be between the Conservative party and Labour.

“Living within our means” was the slogan of the Conservative party and the Prime Minister last week. Bizarrely, wasting £100 billion on unnecessary nuclear weapons did not figure in his speech, but it should have. While the UK Government, and the Labour party through its voting in support of the austerity charter, are committed to reducing spending on public services to levels last seen in the 1930s as a share of GDP, and while millions of citizens are struggling to make ends meet and watch the essential public services that they depend on crumble in front of them, it is obscene that any Government could go ahead and plough £100 billion into an outdated virility symbol, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) described it.

Politics is about priorities. Rather than spending £100 billion on a weapons system that nobody in their right mind would want to use, we say invest in schools, hospitals and affordable homes, in skills and education, and in industry to rebalance the economy, all of which would represent better value for money and would be spent on what people need to improve their lives.

Bob Stewart:
Of course no one in their right mind would want to use these weapons. That is the whole point. Deterrence is not use; it is deterring someone from using a weapons system. The best deterrence is when nothing happens, as has happened in Europe since the second world war.

Jonathan Edwards:
I am grateful to my fellow former Aberystwyth graduate for that intervention, but the reality is that if we are going to spend £100 billion on a weapons system, surely there is an intention to use it if necessary.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister talked of his commitment to full employment, although I strongly suspect that his concept of full employment differs greatly from the one envisaged by William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes and others. While Trident renewal would arguably create 7,000 jobs—as we have heard from some Members representing constituencies with a direct interest—that £100 billion could instead be used to employ 150,000 nurses across the UK for 30 years—or if just over half of it was used to invest in low-carbon technologies, renewables and energy-efficiency industries, it could create up to 1 million jobs according to RES Compass.

The projected cost breakdown, for which I am most grateful to CND, is as follows: submarine procurement £26 billion, cost of missile extension programme £250 million, replacement warheads from the 2030s onwards £3 billion, in-service costs £57 billion, conventional military forces directly assigned to support Trident £900 million, and, critically, decommissioning costs of £13 billion.

Angus Robertson:
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for outlining why the costs of Trident replacement are around the £100 billion figure. Does he have any idea why the Secretary of State for Defence was unable to give the Government’s own projections of its cost? Is it, perhaps, because it is such an eye-wateringly high figure, possibly significantly higher than the £100 billion outlined by the former Armed Forces Minister, the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), and that would be a scandal in the country?

Jonathan Edwards:
I am grateful for that intervention. That has been one of the highlights of the debate, and it is why it is so important that Plaid Cymru, the Green party and the SNP have brought this debate to the House. As I say, Trident renewal will be the biggest spending decision made by the next Parliament, yet the UK Government have no idea of the lifetime costs of the project, despite work done by CND and others.

Let me outline further how some of the £100 billion to be spent on Trident renewal could be spent instead. Although the cost of building homes varies throughout the UK, the average cost is around £150,000. That means that the Government, in partnership with local authorities, housing associations and others, could build up to 650,000 new affordable homes. Of course, home building, where it is needed, would stimulate the economy in ways that simply ploughing £100 billion into nuclear weapons would not. For the money spent investing in housing in that way, the Treasury would benefit from higher-value employment, reducing expenditure on in-work and out-of-work benefits, and the investment would help to ease the UK’s acute housing crisis, as the CND so ably demonstrated in its “People not Trident” document.

In terms of education, investing roughly a quarter of the amount earmarked for Trident would result in a fivefold return on investment. In its regular publication, “Education at a Glance”, the OECD demonstrated that for every £1 invested in higher education by the UK Government, the return is £5 over the working life of the graduate. This arises from higher tax revenues and lower outlays resulting from reduced unemployment. As the OECD said, investment in education boosts jobs and tax revenues.

The alternatives are there. Plaid Cymru has long supported investment in infrastructure and public services as a means of reducing the deficit over the long term.

Mr Marcus Jones:
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about all the things that he would like the money to be spent on instead of Trident, but is that not all based on the assumption that we are still going to be here and a potential aggressor has not unloaded its nuclear weapons arsenal on to us because we had no deterrent?

Jonathan Edwards:
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which brings me to the next part of my speech—the defence and security justifications for Trident renewal. Again, the arguments do not properly stack up. If the UK did not already possess nuclear weapons and I were to stand here today and argue for us to spend £100 billion on them, I do not believe anyone would support me. Trident is not an independent deterrent. The software, hardware and expertise are all provided by the US. Indeed, the UK could not fire Trident, heaven forbid, without the permission of the US. Supporters of Trident renewal will say that the world is a dangerous place, and that spending £100 billion on nuclear weapons offers peace of mind. “The first duty of Government is the security of its people, and the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place,” they will say. “Nuclear weapons are the ultimate insurance policy.”

Those are both arguments that we have heard during today’s debate. Yet this line of argument ignores the current strategic security challenges that the UK faces, and spending £100 billion on nuclear weapons is a dereliction of duty in the face of those challenges. In addition, to describe nuclear weapons as an insurance policy is an odd turn of phrase, given that insurance policies are designed to pay out after an undesirable event has taken place, not to prevent it from happening in the first place. If nuclear weapons were ever used, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Mr Kevan Jones:
I know the hon. Gentleman’s party is clear that it does not want to be part of NATO. Is he comfortable, then, with the fact that his partner on the motion, the SNP, is happy to join NATO and to join the nuclear umbrella which that membership gives?

Jonathan Edwards:
It is true Plaid Cymru and the SNP come from different political traditions. The SNP looks more towards the Nordic countries, which are members of NATO. Plaid Cymru looks more across the Irish sea towards Ireland, which is not a member of NATO. I do not see the contradiction in working together on a joint motion on Trident renewal. It is a different issue from NATO membership.

In the age of asymmetric warfare, surely it is better to have troops, not Trident, as a means of meeting security challenges. Indeed, the list of generals and top military figures who oppose Trident renewal, viewing it as a waste of money that would not meet security requirements, is for ever growing. The former head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the retired Army generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach, and Major General Patrick Cordingley signed a letter to The Times that stated:

“Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism…Our independent deterrent has become…irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics.”

Former NATO commander General Jack Sheehan also called on the UK to ditch Trident.
Improving global security by strengthening the non-proliferation regime would lead to a de-escalation of international tensions, ensuring budgetary flexibility for the Ministry of Defence to allow it to prepare a more effective response to the actual security challenges facing us today, instead of locking it in and chaining it to several decades of nuclear weapons. The UK Government should be adhering to their legal obligations, including their responsibilities as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. They should be showing diplomatic leadership and helping to guide multilateral disarmament initiatives, such as paving the way for a global nuclear abolition treaty.

The UK’s recent one-sided Trident commission concluded that there would be no lasting gains if the UK were to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Meanwhile, international experts disagree. Dr Hans Blix, the former United Nations weapons inspector and chair of the weapons of mass destruction commission, recently said that the UK should abandon Trident altogether, and that that would be a “big gain” towards disarmament, pointing out:

“Japan and Germany seem respected…even without nuclear weapons”.

All our European neighbours, except France, consider themselves to be safe and secure without nuclear arsenals.

The only nations that could remotely pose a nuclear threat to the UK in the foreseeable future are Russia and possibly China. However, despite current tensions relating to Ukraine, there has generally been a positive trend in the UK’s and the European Union’s relationships with both countries since the end of the cold war. Sir Michael Quinlan, a former permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence and an expert on nuclear deterrence, wrote that,

“even if grounds for unease about Russia’s internal evolution intensify, it is hard to imagine that country re-emerging as a military threat to the political freedom of the countries of the European Union”.

Not only is the defence and security case for Trident extremely weak, but politicians would do well to listen to the voice of the public on this matter. In a February 2014 ComRes poll, 65% of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable living near a nuclear weapons base and 64% thought there should be an international convention banning nuclear weapons. In June 2010, 63% of the public said that they would back scrapping Trident to reduce the deficit in a BPIX survey for The Mail on Sunday. Only 30% of the public would spend money on Trident when offered the alternatives of spending on nurses’ salaries or affordable homes, according to a YouGov poll for The People in July 2009. A poll by Populus in March 2007 found that 72% of the public did not support the Government’s plans to replace Trident.

The forthcoming election represents the opportunity for the electorate to vote on their priorities—weapons of mass destruction or public services. In Wales, there is a long tradition of opposing nuclear weapons, not only from a non-conformist-inspired pacifism with its roots in the Welsh radical tradition; there is also the practical issue of what a small country like Wales would need nuclear weapons for. Where would they be housed or stored? Could we reasonably ask our compatriots to live next to them? The answer is, of course, no. Much as the other smaller countries of Europe—and even the larger ones—seem to get along just fine, we do not need nuclear weapons.