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Trident and Yemen: two key questions facing Britain

Ministers should be subjected to hard, specific questions on the future of Trident and Britain’s role in the destruction of Yemen, says Richard Norton-Taylor.


A decision to press ahead with a new fleet of four new Trident nuclear missile submarines, and British intervention in the Middle East, appear to reflect a role the Cameron government would like Britain to play in the world.

Ministers are keen to order the four Trident subs as soon as possible in a Commons vote at a time Labour is in disarray and before that party’s defence review has properly got off the ground.

The government, backed by the bulk of the military establishment, seems to hope that a fait accompli on Trident will smother any debate about whether Britian really needs to spend more than £100bn on a deterrent whose credibility must be in doubt.

The think tank, BASIC, has launched an illuminating report and survey on attitudes towards nuclear weapons. It found that they are not regarded as relevant to the next UK/US generation except in terms of uncertainty caused by the leakage of such weapons to non-nuclear states and terrorist groups.

Nuclear weapons are not seen as particularly influential even in military and political terms. Any debate on nuclear weapons is seen as “the preserve of experts able to navigate esoteric deterrence theory”. The survey refers to “threat fatigue”, with the emphasis on terrorism, cyber threats, and climate change for which nuclear weapons are seen as irrelevant.

It adds: “The magnitude of the nuclear threat is intangible: no units exist with which we can measure it. So the issue becomes an emotive, subjective one making it all but impossible to scale a rational response”. Results of a poll in the report records 72% of respondents saying they cannot effect the outcome of the nuclear weapons debate so they do not engage on the issue.

However, the BASIC report also points to a new politics emerging in North America and Europe with the popularity among the next generation of such figures as Justin Trudeau in Canada, Bernie Saunders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

A short and sharp critique of the government’s position on nukes comes from Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). “The UK’s nuclear arsenal is irrelevant in deterrence terms in relation to these very large [US and Russian] arsenals, but its role in disarmament could be very significant,”, the author of a new SGR paper concludes.

One question the UK government has not begun to answer is whether it will follow the US and develop a new generation of hugely expensive small nuclear bombs . According to some, their use will be less likely because of the threat they could pose. According to other experts, smaller yields and more accurate targeting would make them more tempting to use.

In the Midde East, the UK government has dispatched every available RAF fighter/bomber - and special forces - to strike Isis targets in Iraq and Syria. And it is taking an active role in the Yemen conflict, helping Saudi forces striking Houthi rebels.

Precisely how is unclear.

British bombs are being loaded on to UK-made Saudi Typhoon and Tornado warplanes deployed in support of the internationally recognised government in Yemen in a conflict which has killed nearly 3,000 civilians and displaced a million, according to UN figures.

On a trip to London last week, The Saudi foreign minister said British and American military officials are in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes on Yemen, and have access to lists of targets. However, he said they do not play any role in choosing them.

David Cameron repeated this careful form of words in the Commons on Wednesday. Angus Robertson, SNP leader in the Commons, said Britain was “effectively taking part in a war” in Yemen. Cameron had “not sought Parliamentary approval to do this”, he added.

Cameron replied: “[British] personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and we’re not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

He added: “But yes, do we provide training and advice and help in order to make sure that countries actually do obey the norms of humanitarian law, yes we do.”

Cameron repeated his claim that the UK had some of the most stringent arms control measures of any country anywhere in the world. Yet as the Guardian’s political correspondent has reported, arms sales from the UK have not been subject to independent scrutiny for more than nine months after the mysterious disappearance of the parliamentary watchdog on the export of weapons and military equipment.

Shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn has called for the urgent re-instating of the watchdog to investigate whether British weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has taken the first steps towards court action in what it says is such a breach. CAAT’s Andrew Smith said: “There is substantial and growing evidence that arming Saudi Arabia is not just immoral, it’s also illegal. UK arms have been central to the destruction of Yemen, but the government has refused to even investigate it.”

“The Saudis deny that there have been any breaches of international humanitarian law. Obviously that denial alone is not enough. We need to see proper investigations. We need to work with the Saudis to establish that international humanitarian law has been complied with”, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond said in November.

A month later, a government spokesman said: “The UK government itself is not carrying out separate investigations into these incidents”.

Both Britain’s military role in Yemen, and the future of Trident, merit a real debate, with ministers subjected to hard, specific, questions.

Source: The Guardian