Trident: Mr Corbyn and the General
Jeremy Corbyn was unwise and wrong to denounce the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, for pointing out that nuclear deterrence ceases to have any effect if the head of government concerned has declared that he would not order its use in any circumstances, and that as a supporter of the nuclear deterrent, he would “worry” if such a situation were to come to pass. His reference to the incompatibility between a policy of nuclear deterrence and a prime minister who was committed to never using it was a factual statement of the obvious, and completely uncontroversial. In saying that he would “worry” if the nuclear deterrent were to be made ineffective by a prime minister who had declared that he would never use it, he was expressing a view that was completely consistent with both official Conservative government and official Labour party defence policy, both committed to the nuclear deterrent. How can that have been “taking sides”, or interfering in party politics?
The fierce controversy stirred up by Mr Corbyn’s complaint against General Houghton (rather than by anything said by the General) has tended to confuse three separate issues
1. Whether UK defence policy should continue to be based on the doctrine of nuclear deterrence – i.e. whether Trident should be renewed or scrapped.
2. Whether Mr Corbyn should have declared publicly that if he became prime minister, he would never “press the nuclear button”.
3. Whether General Houghton, as a senior serving officer, was improperly interfering in politics by publicly pointing out that Mr Corbyn’s position was incompatible with a policy of nuclear deterrence, and by saying he would be worried if that incompatibility came to pass.
Issue no. 1 is irrelevant to issues 2 and 3. Like it or not, the nuclear deterrent is the official policy of the Labour party, which has announced that it is shortly to be reviewed through the established organs and procedures of the party. The arguments for and against it have no bearing on Mr Corbyn’s declaration that he would not observe its implications if he became prime minister, regardless of the party’s forthcoming review. Similarly, the propriety or otherwise of General Houghton’s remarks has to be judged against the background of the existing bipartisan defence policy of both the government and the Labour party opposition, regardless of its intrinsic merit or lack of it.
As to issue 2 – the questionable wisdom of Mr Corbyn’s public statement that he would never order the use of a nuclear weapon – it seems clear that by in effect pre-empting the outcome of the party’s forthcoming review of defence policy, without any prior consultation with his party colleagues, without warning them in advance that he was going to act in this way, and without the agreement of any party organ or official, Mr Corbyn has gravely embarrassed his own shadow defence secretary and the majority of her fellow members of the shadow cabinet, and indeed Labour party members and supporters everywhere, regardless of their individual views on Trident. Some of us had been hoping that the party’s eventual decision on Trident and the nuclear deterrent would be taken after careful discussion and analysis following extensive consultation with the wider party membership and advice from defence experts of all persuasions (such as General Houghton). If after due process within the party the decision is to support Trident renewal and the nuclear deterrent doctrine, both the party and its present leader will find themselves in an almost impossible position. Jeremy Corbyn could easily have declined to answer questions in advance of the party review about his willingness to press the nuclear button: political leaders routinely refuse to answer hypothetical questions of that kind. Why he chose not to do so is a mystery.
Of course if as a result of the party review Labour commits itself to abandoning Trident and nuclear deterrence, and if a party offering unilateral nuclear disarmament can somehow nevertheless get itself elected to government, we shall have a completely new situation and Mr Prime Minister Corbyn will have no nuclear button to decide not to press. However, that scenario looks at present so improbable as to be hardly worth discussing.
But it’s issue no. 3 which is currently bothering the media commentariat and the blogosphere: did General Houghton speak so seriously out of turn that he should be reprimanded, as Mr Corbyn seems to be demanding, or even dismissed?
I find it difficult to follow the reasoning behind the Guardian’s denunciation of General Houghton in its editorial of 9 November. The essence of the Guardian’s complaint is that “What the military are not entitled to do is to challenge the very legitimacy of the elected government itself.” But General Houghton did nothing of the sort. He said he would be worried if the present established bipartisan nuclear deterrent policy were to be made ineffective by a prime minister who had publicly assured any future potential nuclear blackmailer that he would never use it. That has nothing to do with a challenge to any government’s legitimacy.
The Guardian further reminded us, in case we had somehow forgotten, that “in the end the military must obey his government’s defence policy with the same unconditional professionalism as it obeys any other.” But General Houghton said nothing whatever about not obeying the government or its defence policy, present or future. He merely pointed out what we all know: that if Labour defence policy remains as it is following the forthcoming party review, and should Mr Corbyn become prime minister, that policy will be as dead as the Pythons’ parrot. It will be the late policy. A doornail will have more life in it than that policy. And the situation of a Labour government whose defence policy had been killed by its own prime minister would seriously “worry” a great many more people than just the present chief of the defence staff. Those who seek to deny General Houghton the right to say so, offering a military professional’s opinion on a major defence policy question in full accordance with the declared policies of both government and opposition, need to think again. And banging on about the wickedness of nuclear weapons simply muddies the waters.
PS: Full disclosure. Since the end of the cold war I have come to the conclusion that Britain’s nuclear deterrent no longer serves any practical or definable purpose, that it distorts our defence priorities, and although representing only some 5 to 6 per cent of the defence budget, it tends to starve other more pressing defence needs of resources. So on balance I now believe it should be scrapped. If (improbably) Britain were to be faced in the future with a threat of nuclear blackmail or even of an impending nuclear attack, I believe that the American (and French) nuclear deterrents would be as effective for us as they are for Germany or Italy or any other western European non-nuclear-weapon power that relies on the NATO shield – as indeed we and France do too, when the chips are down. But I recognise that there are tenable arguments the other way – and that for better or worse, the Labour party is at present committed to retaining and renewing the nuclear deterrent. Until the party decides through due processes of consultation and debate to change that policy, it’s the duty of its leaders–and its leader–to respect it, even if they disagree with it (as I do).