With attention firmly focused on Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, his less-noticed appointment of Trident–supporting Maria Eagle as shadow defence secretary alongside the re-appointment of the similarly Trident-backingr Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary, begs the question: of what will Labour policy on Trident replacement be?
Corbyn has been a longstanding opponent of all nuclear weapons, joining CND in his teens. He currently chairs the Parliamentary CND group, and is a vice chair of national CND as well as chairman of the Stop the War Coalition. He is Parliament’s and Labour staunchest opponent of renewing Trident
This could be one of the trickiest policy conundrums for which Corbyn now has to find a political answer.
One option he has is to argue Labour should return to its roots as a party of constructive multilateral nuclear disarmament, that would allow both Ms Eagle and Benn to argue strongly for Trident to be put into international multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, but with the UK taking the lead as it did nearly fifty years ago.
Papers available in the National Archives in Kew show that on 23 January 1968, Fred (later Lord) Mulley, as the Labour Government's disarmament minister, addressed the plenary meeting of the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) in Geneva, explaining why nations should sign up to the newly negotiated Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), telling the ministerial delegations:
"As I have made clear in previous speeches, my government accepts the obligation to participate fully in the [nuclear disarmament ]negotiations required by [NPT] Article VI and it is our desire that these negotiations should begin as soon as possible and should produce speedy and successful results. There is no excuse now for allowing a long delay to follow the signing of this treaty."
Shortly after, on 26 January 1968, a confidential memo by Mulley for the cabinet defence and oversea (sic) policy committee laid out Britain's position on the key nuclear disarmament clause, which became NPT article 6, commented:
"A number of countries may withhold their ratification of the treaty until nuclear-weapon states show they are taking seriously the obligations which this article imposes on them. It will therefore be essential to follow the treaty up quickly with the further disarmament measures if it is to be brought into force and remain in force thereafter. We have therefore begun to work on a paper examining the most suitable measures on which we should concentrate our attention once a non-proliferation treaty has been achieved."
A few days afterwards, on 30 January, and the NPT was presented to the cabinet for its endorsement. A supportive foreign office memo stated:
"a lot of the thinking behind the treaty, and some of the language, originally came from us."
On 27 June that year, the NPT, including the key article VI obligation on nuclear weapon signatory states, to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith, was presented to Parliament as Cmnd 3683.
A talking paper (number 38) prepared for ministers in mid-April that year pointed out: "It should be remembered that the NPT is in the first instance, in the interests of non-nuclear countries themselves, adding to their security against the development of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear rival states, and sparing them the vast expense of developing such weapons themselves."
If we fast forward to June 2007, former Labour Party interim leader, Margaret Beckett was coming to the end of her time as Foreign Secretary under the last Labour Government, when she made a very important speech to a prestigious and influential annual conference held in Washington DC by the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace
Dame Margaret – as she is now- called for negotiators to take additional steps toward nuclear disarmament.
“The judgment we made 40 years ago [at the NPT’s signing] that the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons was in all our interests is just as true today as it was then. For more than 60 years, good management and good fortune have meant that nuclear arsenals have not been used, but we cannot rely just on history to repeat itself.”
[Keynote address at Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, Washington, D.C., June 25, 2007]
These were very wise words then, and remain just as wise today. Take note Maria Eagle and Hilary Benn