A powerful coalition of 100 scientists, lawyers, church leaders, actors, writers and MPs is today demanding a halt to the rush by Tony Blair towards a replacement for Britain's Trident nuclear weapon system.
Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist, is among the prominent figures fronting the campaign, which will strengthen growing demands in Parliament for the vote on the replacement of the nuclear weapons system to be delayed until a full debate on the options has taken place.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Rev Rowan Williams, the author Zadie Smith, the actress Emma Thompson, the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and the architect Richard Rogers have also signed a statement objecting to a hasty decision.
They question the wisdom of rushing into the replacement of the Trident system with a Cold War-style generation of submarine-launched nuclear missiles at a cost of £65bn over its 30 years of service, while the most serious threat is now posed by terror groups that cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons.
The presence of Professor Hawking's name in the list will add weight to the voices raised against the Government's drive for a replacement for Trident. It is the first time he has publicly attacked the haste with which the cabinet decision was taken in favour of replacing the nuclear weapon in December. His previous political intervention came in 2004 when the author of A Brief History of Time attacked the loss of 100,000 lives in Iraq as a "war crime".
In a statement to The Independent yesterday, Professor Hawking said: " Nuclear war remains the greatest danger to the survival of the human race. To replace Trident would make it more difficult to get arms reduction and increase the risk. It would also be a complete waste of money because there are no circumstances in which we would use it independently."
The campaign's statement is intended as a rebuke to ministers who campaigners argue are misleading the public over the replacement of Trident as they did during the build-up to the war in Iraq. Four years ago today, more than a million people marched in London - many carrying banners bearing the slogan "Not In My Name" - in protest at the imminent conflict in Iraq.
"Parliament is being rushed into an early decision," the campaign statement says. They add there is "the suspicion that evidence which supports a position the Prime Minister is already committed to is being used selectively and uncritically". They compare it to "the notorious weapons of mass destruction" dossier, which said Iraq's weapons were "ready to use in 45 minutes". The Cabinet was accused of signing a blank cheque when it rubber-stamped the decision to replace Trident only hours before a government White Paper supporting the decision was published.
The coalition will invite comparisons with the Committee of 100 who opposed the Polaris system in the 1960s. But this is no simple "ban the bomb" campaign, although it is supported by many who do not want Britain to have any nuclear weapons. They make clear in their statement released today that they want a full debate before any decision is reached. They have the support of many MPs who are not in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a policy that made the Labour Party unelectable in the 1980s.
Gordon Brown has made it clear he supports a full-scale replacement for Trident, but significantly, the list of objectors includes a close ally of the Chancellor, Nicholas Brown, a former minister. His name could embolden more MPs to join the campaign for a delay in any decision, which is expected before Easter.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Britain should delay a decision until a review conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010. Jon Trickett, the Labour MP and chairman of the Compass group of MPs, compared the haste over a decision on the Trident replacement with the "dodgy dossier" before the rush to war on Iraq. "Some may be convinced that Trident needs to be replaced but this process is totally false," he said. "I hope this will electrify MPs. We have a significant part of the cultural, political, religious and military establishment signed up to this statement."
The campaigners insist that the existing system can be continued in service at least until the end of the decade before a final decision has to be taken. The White Paper rejected cheaper alternatives such as air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads and came down firmly in favour of a new generation of submarine launched nuclear ballistic missiles.
The White Paper said the replacement for Trident would cost £15bn to £20bn, but senior defence officials confirmed that it could cost £1.5bn a year to run, raising the cost to £65bn over its 30 years in service.
'Nuclear bombs are not a deterrent'
Professor Stephen Hawking:
"Nuclear war remains the greatest danger to the survival of the human race. To replace Trident would make it more difficult to get arms reduction. It would also be a waste of money because there are no circumstances in which we would use it independently."
Sir Richard Jolly:
"Britain's military spending is already the second highest in the world. More spending on nuclear submarines will only make the world more dangerous. We need to invest in diplomacy, the only solution."
"Nuclear bombs are not a deterrent. Are we seriously saying we would be prepared to inflict nuclear war on the already suffering people of the planet? Tony Blair doesn't want to go down in history - he wants to go down with history."
"The Cold War is long over. The great challenge of the 21st century will be to prevent catastrophic climate change. Rather than wasting billions on new weapons of mass destruction, Britain should demonstrate real world leadership by investing in a radical programme to cut carbon emissions."
Sir Menzies Campbell:
"If Britain is to take full advantage of the review conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010, it makes sense to take a final decision on whether to replace Trident after we are aware about the outcome of that conference. Going into the talks, Britain should signal that it will reduce its warhead stockpile and operational nuclear capability by 50 per cent."
Helena Kennedy QC:
"Nuclear missiles are the ultimate weapons of mass destruction and, for me, renewal is a moral question. As international law makes clear, a nuclear strike cannot make distinctions between combatants and non-combatants - so innocent civilians face death, irradiation, burns, cancers, destruction of their environment and fallout on neighbouring states - the whole vista is too terrible to contemplate."
Jon Trickett MP:
"The Trident debate has been unnecessarily truncated, facts have been inadequately explained and MPs are justifiably irritated at the Government's heavy-handed approach. The last thing we need is the Blair era bowing out with yet another decision forced through the Commons by whips, a large-scale rebellion and the need to rely on Tory support."
The names behind the anti-nuclear petition
We believe that:
* Britain should not be rushed into a premature decision to replace its Trident nuclear weapons system;
* More time should be taken for parliamentary and public scrutiny and debate;
* The urgent need is both to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries, and for all states which possess them to move more rapidly and substantially towards nuclear disarmament;
* The priority for the Government should be a renewed diplomatic initiative to seek a breakthrough in disarmament and non-proliferation negotiations, similar to the lead it has taken in relation to such global challenges as climate change and poverty.
Diane Abbott MP
Damon Albarn musician
Lord Archer of Sandwell QC
Professor Frank Barnaby nuclear consultant, ORG
Professor Keith Barnham
General Sir Hugh Beach
Professor Ken Booth
Nick Brown MP
Colin Burgon MP
Professor Roy Butterfield
The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Thomas Butler
Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell MP
Colin Challen MP chair of All Party Group on Climate Change
Katy Clark MP
Jarvis Cocker musician
Jonathan Coe novelist
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Jon Cruddas MP
Anne Cryer MP
Carol Ann Duffy poet and playwright
George Galloway MP
Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden
Neil Gerrard MP
Dr Ian Gibson MP
John Gittings academic
John Grogan MP
John Harris writer
Nick Harvey MP
Professor Stephen Hawking
Professor Tim Jackson Sustainable Development Commission
Bianca Jagger human rights campaigner
George Joffé Centre for International Studies, Cambridge University
Professor Sir Richard Jolly former assistant secretary general of the UN
Rebecca Johnson director of Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy
Tony Juniper environmental campaigner
John Kampfner editor of New Statesman
Helena Kennedy QC
Professor Tom Kibble
Peter Kilfoyle MP
Glenys Kinnock MEP
Hari Kunzru Novelist
Neal Lawson director of Compass
Elfyn Llywd MP leader of Plaid Cymru
Air Commodore Alistair Mackie
Kate Macintosh RIBA
Safraz Manzoor Broadcaster and Writer
Austin Mitchell MP
Michael Moore MP
Gordon Prentice MP
Adam Price MP
Rt Rev Timothy Radcliffe former master of the Dominican order
General the Lord Ramsbotham
Louise Richards anti-poverty campaigner
Linda Riordan MP
Tony Robinson actor and broadcaster
Lord Rogers of Riverside architect
Joan Ruddock MP
Alex Salmond MP
Will Self writer
Marsha Singh MP
Professor John Sloboda
Zadie Smith novelist
Sir Peter Soulsby MP
Gavin Strang MP
Graham Stringer MP
David Taylor MP
Emma Thompson actress
Jon Trickett MP
Professor David Webb
Vivienne Westwood fashion designer
Professor John Whitelegg
Baroness Williams of Crosby
Thom Yorke musician
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Rev Rowan Williams