Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Of Trident Submarines, Robots and Cybernats ...

From the pages of Hansard reporting a debate which took place in the House of Commons yesterday on a motion about Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent proposed by the Scottish National Party.

The SNP, like the Leader of the Labour party although many of his MPs disagree, do not want Britain to have a nuclear deterrent. They want to scrap Trident, leaving Britain less effectively defended and with serious consequences for the jobs of many people in both Cumbria and Scotland.

The SNP had with incompetence which is wholly characteristic, proposed the motion that

"That this House believes that Trident should not be removed."

This turned out to be a typo, and they actually meant to propose

"That this House believes that Trident should not be renewed."

and argued that the nuclear deterrent should be scrapped. The Defence secretary replied and what he had to say included the following:

Michael Fallon:

"Successive Labour and Conservative Governments have judged that a minimum credible nuclear deterrent is critical to our national security—that a nuclear deterrent is the only assured way of deterring nuclear threats and blackmail by nuclear states. For more than 60 years, it has done that job.

Whatever side of the argument we are on, let us pay tribute to the crews of HMS Vanguard, Vengeance, Victorious and Vigilant, their families and all those who ensure, and have ensured, that one of those boats is on patrol 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

"The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to replace the Vanguard submarines, and it takes over a decade to build and trial a nuclear submarine, so we have to take that decision in 2016. Design work is already far advanced, and in yesterday’s review we announced further investment of £600 million, which takes the assessment phase cost from £3.3 billion to £3.9 billion."

"I want to make three basic points about why renewal is vital. First, this is about realism. We are of course committed to creating the conditions where nuclear weapons will no longer be necessary. We have reduced our nuclear forces by well over half since the height of the cold war; this very year, I cut the number of deployed warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40, and by the mid-2020s, we will have reduced our overall stockpile of nuclear weapons to no more than 180 warheads."

"Unfortunately, those actions have not been matched by any other nuclear nation or stopped unstable nations seeking to acquire or develop nuclear weapons."

"My second point is about the practical effect of the deterrent. Our nuclear deterrent works. It deters aggression every single day. There have been many conflicts in the last six decades, and not one of them has involved a direct conflict between nuclear states. Not one country under the protection of an extended nuclear umbrella has been invaded. Our nuclear deterrent is operationally independent" ...  "and its command and control system as well as its decision-making apparatus are ours, and ours alone. It offers, of course, a second centre of decision making within NATO that will complicate an adversary’s plans. It is worth reminding ourselves that NATO is a nuclear alliance. One of the absurdities, if I may say so, of the Scottish National party’s position is that while opposing Trident it would—if voters had not rejected its separatism last year—have sought NATO membership and would then have benefited from its nuclear umbrella."

"The third reason we must renew our nuclear submarines is that there is no alternative at the moment. How do we know that? We commissioned the Trident alternatives review in 2013. Having looked at all the alternatives; non-submarine alternatives, other submarine alternatives, non-continuous deterrent; it demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable or cost-effective as the Trident-based deterrent. If we accept that there is a threat - perhaps the SNP does not - that needs to be deterred, and if we accept that our enemies work nights and weekends, we must also accept that there can be no half-measures. A four-boat continuous at-sea posture is the minimum way to offer the security we need."

"It is scarcely believable that other nations, hearing the news from 4 o’clock today in the House of Commons, will suddenly decide to disarm or stop seeking nuclear weapons. There are 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. We wish there were not, but there are. Anybody voting in the Division tonight has to answer who, after we had got rid of our nuclear weapons, would continue to provide the deterrent."

"There have been some wild reports, accentuated today, suggesting that the Trident replacement will cost £167 billion."

"Let us look at the facts. We estimate that four new submarines would cost £31 billion—a cost spread over 35 years, which amounts to an insurance policy of less than 0.2% per year of total Government spending for a capability that will remain in service until 2060."

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab) asked him:

"Does the Secretary of State agree that, if we want to keep Britain safe, it is not a question of choosing between renewing our nuclear deterrent and taking the necessary action against ISIL—given that both are vital—and that it would be foolhardy, not to say arrogant, to believe that anyone in the House can predict the risks and threats that Britain will face in the next 30 or 40 years?"

Michael Fallon: "I could not have put it better. In our latest assessment, which is contained in the document that was published yesterday, we tried to estimate the threats to our country. We should be honest and humble about the fact that the 2010 review did not predict the resurgence of Russia and the action that it took in Crimea and Ukraine; nor did it predict the rise of ISIL. We try to predict, but we cannot be sure further ahead."

"This is not a time to gamble with our security; on the contrary, it is a time to safeguard this generation and generations to come. Let me put it as simply as the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) just put it to me. If Members on either side of the House can be absolutely sure that no nuclear threat to this country will emerge throughout the 2030s, the 2040s and the 2050s, they should vote for the motion. I cannot be sure of that, and Conservative Members are not prepared to gamble with our nation’s security."

Later it was noted that the SNP had not set out how they would deal with the costs in jobs or disposal of axing Trident but appeared to have tried to spend the money to be saved by axing Trident in several different ways:

Liz Kendall: "Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that even though the SNP called this debate, it has failed to set out its position either on how it would replace jobs or how it would dispose of the weapons? Should not the debate have been about its policy, as it called this debate today?"

Toby Perkins: "For the second time today, my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. There is, of course, a whole series of inconsistencies in the SNP position. Today we were hearing that a decision to go forward with Trident would be choosing to buy nuclear capability on the backs of the poor, yet only half an hour before that we had heard SNP Members saying all the money being spent on Trident would instead be spent on conventional weapons. Either the money they are saving from Trident is going to be spent on hospitals, schools and transport, or it is going to be spent on conventional forces."

"No one can blame the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute" (the proposer of the SNP motion) "for being so confused, however, because if we look back through the history of the SNP, we see that this confusion is very long standing.

In 2012, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) was saying all the savings would be spent on conventional defence, then he and Nicola Sturgeon were saying in 2014 that they would be spending the money saved on Trident on childcare, then on “Good Morning Scotland” it was instead going to be spent on tackling youth unemployment and on colleges, and the Scottish Parliament motion in 2012 said it should be spent on welfare. So there is a long history of the SNP being utterly baffled about what this money is going to be spent on.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): "Would the hon. Gentleman be interested to hear that only a couple of weeks back I was being heckled that this magic money-tree could be spent on tax credits as well? That is another example to add to his long list."

Toby Perkins: "If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will put that on the end of my list."

Those were perhaps some  of the most important of the many serious contributions to the debate from all sides.

But a little later, while one of Cumbria's Labour MPs was speaking, lots of Scottish National Party MPs tried to intervene, which prompting this exchange which I repeat without comment:

John Woodcock: "You see, Madam Deputy Speaker, SNP Members do not like people holding them to account for their terrible failure. I was just explaining the disgraceful mess that they are making of schools in Scotland, where the poorest children are being left behind"

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP) rose
John Woodcock: "If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am not giving way. I would have been happy to take an intervention from every single one of you robots—you are getting your instruction—but the proposer of the motion refused point blank to take my intervention, so I am not taking any from a single one of you."

John Nicolson: "On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May we have some clarification on whether the charming expression “robot” is parliamentary language or not?"
Madam Deputy Speaker: "Yes, Mr Nicolson, I was just turning over in my mind whether the description “robot” for a Member of this House would be considered derogatory. I have come to the conclusion that in some circumstances it might, and in some it might not. For the moment, I am concluding, for my own peace of mind, that the hon. Gentleman was thinking of a high-functioning, intelligent robot. Therefore, for the moment, I will not call him to order for the use of the word, but I am sure the House will be warned that we should be very careful in our use of language."
Ian Paisley (Junior): "Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek clarification: I thought the hon. Gentleman called the hon. Members “Roberts”, and anyone from Scotland should not mind that reference, bearing in mind Robbie the Bruce."
Madam Deputy Speaker: "No, on the contrary. As to Mr Paisley’s point of order, every eldest male member of my family for the past 100 years has been called Robert; it must be a good thing."
Mr Jamie Reed: "Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that colleagues from the SNP will misreport this debate on Twitter, would the use of the term “cybernat” be acceptable?"
Madam Deputy Speaker: "We will have no more points of order on this issue. Any term that is considered to be in any way derogatory towards an honourable Member of this House will not be allowed, and I will be listening very carefully for the rest of the debate."
John Woodcock: "Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very happy to refer to SNP Members as honourable robots if that is any help, but robots they are, following their instructions in an extraordinary unity almost never seen before in this place.

I was making a point about the failure on hospitals over which the SNP is presiding—there is failure on waiting times, intolerable pressure on nurses and so on. Instead of addressing those points, the SNP seeks this parliamentary distraction of a debate on Trident, and we will not fall for it."

Later, winding up the debate, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, Philip Dunne, said

"I say to those Labour Members who share my concern to maintain continuous at-sea deterrence, Let your conscience guide you into the right Division Lobby this afternoon. I urge Members of both sides of the House to do the right thing for the whole of the UK, not just for today but for tomorrow, and restore the consensus that has kept us safe for decades."

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