Lib Dem Peace and Security Group Hustings

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This doesn’t appear to have been put anywhere else online, so I thought I’d post it here. The LDPSG (or whatever they’re called) asked the three candidates three questions. These are their responses, which I am adding here without comment:

Ming Campbell

As you will know, the Government is at the early stage of reviewing the post-Trident options and I have been leading some preliminary work on our side in the Foreign Affairs and Defence teams.

I respect the fact that members approach the debate from different perspectives and that there are many opinions within the party about whether or not we should have a nuclear deterrent, never mind replace it. In line with our manifesto commitment last year, I have always argued for multilateral disarmament and the retention of a minimum deterrent in the meantime. Under my leadership of the foreign affairs team we have been strong critics of the GovernmentÂ’s failure to achieve meaningful progress on disarmament.

The debate on the future replacement of Trident offers us a new opportunity to consider all of the relevant issues. Clearly the strategic context has altered significantly since the end of the Cold War. The idea that Britain needs a deterrent against an attack from Russia at present stretches credibility beyond breaking point. I also reject any notion that a nuclear capability would deter international terrorists.

However, I do believe that we have a responsibility to consider the world 15 – 20 years hence, when we would be replacing Trident, and think through which other countries may be a threat to us and what would be the best way to deal with them And beyond this strategic context, we must also consider the types of replacement which are feasible, the costs associated with them and the alternative uses to which these scarce resources could be put.

An obvious question which must be answered by those advocating smaller mobile missile systems is whether this might have the unintended effect of lowering the threshold for missile use and even increase the rate of proliferation of smaller systems.

This decision cannot be taken overnight and will not be resolved in the course of the leadership contest, whatever others might suggest. We have pressed the Government to publish a White Paper on the subject and will continue to do so: we all have a right to know the options being considered by the cabinet and the information on which they are based.

Within the party, we must have a full debate and I am pleased that the conference committee has asked FPC to establish a process which will allow this to take place over the next year. The timescale will ensure that we consider all the issues thoroughly and reach a proper conclusion. In the meantime, I do not believe that we should be signing up to the positions being taken by Michael Meacher or anybody else. The party must form its own policy, not be led by others.

I appreciate that my long held views on the nuclear deterrent are already known to you, but I want to stress that I am committed to a full debate on all the issues. It is a once in a generation decision and it is important that we get it right.

Simon Hughes

What is your personal opinion on whether or not Trident should be replaced with a new nuclear weapons system?

Whilst a decision on Trident is not needed now, my strong instincts are to go for a substantial reduction in our nuclear arsenal, and to look very seriously at the potential for using a reduction in, or elimination of, the UK nuclear force as a lever to generate genuine worldwide disarmament.

Replacing Trident would certainly be seen as an act of provocation given the current international debate on the development of nuclear capability by countries such as Iran. The role of an independent nuclear deterent has been changed given that there is now only one world superpower and that any replacement for Trident would be purchased from that superpower – which would make it not very independent! Many of the greatest threats to our security come from shadowy terrorist groups who we can hardly threaten to annihilate in a nuclear exchange. The debate has moved on and it is time for the Liberal Democrats to demonstrate how we would use the £billions that would otherwise be spent on replacing
Trident, by investing in our communities and their services.

Do you think that Party Conference should have a defining role in deciding Lib Dem policy on this issue?

Absolutely. The Parliamentary Party must remember that they are merely 62 members of the party. The role of the MPs is important of course, but Conference is the sovereign body of the Party and should define policy in this and all areas.

Would you encourage Lib Dem MPs to sign EDM 1197 Replacement for Trident Weapons (Michael Meacher)? It calls for a full public debate on the subject leading to a Green Paper considering all options including non-replacement; and ‘further calls on the Government not to conclude any agreements, or to engage in preparations to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, until after this debate and a deciding vote held in Parliament.’

I have a lot of sympathy with Michael Meacher’s EDM but would prefer that the Liberal Democrats took the lead on this and submitted our own motion setting out our own priorities and principles.

Chris Huhne

What is your personal opinion of whether or not Trident should be replaced with a new nuclear weapons system?

I cannot see the justification for the replacement of a system designed before the end of the Cold war in a world where we faced a real threat from an aggressive Soviet Union. The world has changed, and our policy needs to reflect the new challenges of peace-making and peace-keeping in the context of our obligations to the United Nations and the European Union. There must be a full parliamentary and public debate on replacement: I am not against replacement of Trident by a minimum deterrent, but I cannot believe that a full-scale replacement is necessary or desirable.

Do you think that party conference should have a defining role in deciding Lib Dem policy on this issue?

Under our constitution, party conference has the defining role in our policy on this as every other issue following a report drawn up by a policy commission set up by the Federal Policy committee. That is right and proper in a democratic party, and any party leader who ignores that fact is asking for trouble. We must not go back to the bad old days where party leaders
ignored conference and treated activists with disdain. I have personally been involved in many policy-making areas over many years, and I have never been afraid to argue my case on the conference floor, and I am not about to change the habits of a political lifetime now!

Would you encourage LD MPs to sign EDM 1197 Replacement for Trident Weapons (Michael Meacher)?

Yes, and I have signed it myself. One of the most worrying features of the current situation concerning a Trident replacement is the mounting evidence that the Government may be pre-empting a public debate by private decisions taken behind closed doors. This was the pattern with the replacement of Polaris by Trident in 1994. Already, there has been an announcement of a substantial upgrading at Faslane where the Trident warheads are stored, and work has also begun that could potentially be the basis of a new nuclear weapons system at Aldermaston. This is entirely unacceptable, and we must make common cause with all those in the Commons who want an open and honest public debate on the new threat assessment and our responses to it. There is much less reason for official secrecy in this area than people think, as the Americans repeatedly show with a much more open debate on the renewal or replacement of weapons systems.

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