Steve Richards: Trident - a word that terrifies this timid government and its subservient ministers

Only a few MPs dare to oppose an outdated project. As with Iraq, the minority will be proved right
Click to follow
The Independent Online

No other single word has the power to terrify this timid government more than "Trident". For an administration defined by what happened in the 1980s Labour's support for unilateral nuclear disarmament is an especially nightmarish memory. Whisper "Trident" and the minds of new Labour's nervy leadership are filled with frightening images of Neil Kinnock being humiliated by President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher lording it around the globe, dark election nights in 1983 and 1987, Tory posters of Labour "surrendering" to Britain's enemies.

It was wholly predictable therefore that under the guise of boldness a government shaped by election defeats over18 years would succumb weakly to the arguments in favour of renewing Trident. Indeed, the last sentence flatters the way the decision was made. There have been no arguments. Forensic debates are swept aside in favour of the symbolism: Labour has changed. It is strong on defence. The country is safe under Labour. A contrived urgency means a supine Cabinet was given no chance to consider yesterday's White Paper in advance of its publication. This has nothing to do with the Government as a whole, nor the details of the complex arguments. Ministers met yesterday morning to discuss a document that had been published already. Some of them have private doubts, but they will not be considered or expressed. Already it is too late.

Robin Cook argued in his final months that this style of presidential government must be overhauled. Clare Short has written brilliantly on the subject in her book on the build-up to the war against Iraq. But there is nothing in the existing arrangements to stop the Cabinet flexing its muscles if it chooses to do so. Instead it remains in terrified awe of Tony Blair, exposing the persistent myth that his power is draining away. Ministers are too used to being subservient to change now.

A year ago the Cabinet met to discussthe Schools' White Paper. In a similar fashion the document had been published before the Cabinet meeting. By general consent, the White Paper was one of the most muddled documents to be published by the Government since 1997. No minister complained then that their opportunity to propose changes was denied them. No minister complains now.

Mr Blair's political philosophy can be summarised as "We must be new and never old. Most of what Labour stood for in the 1970s and 1980s must be purged." Once that is understood it is possible to predict the stance he will take on virtually every issue. Anyone who thought there was a chance of Mr Blair opposing the war against Iraq at any point misunderstood the paralysing influence on him of Labour's vote-losing past. He was never going to end up in a position on a major international story in which he was on one side with France and Germany opposing a war supported by the US, the Conservative leader in the UK and Rupert Murdoch's newspapers.

On every issue it is possible to discern the agonised determination: "I must be new ... I must not be old." After nearly a decade in power, Mr Blair goes into battle still with Margaret Thatcher on one shoulder and Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot sharing the space on the other.

The tragic irony of Mr Blair's leadership is that he applies his philosophy in changed circumstances. His attempts to be new rather than old lead him into as many difficulties as those faced by his predecessors. Iraq is the most obvious example, where much of the defence and media establishment he sought to woo now regards the conflict as a disaster. It also applies to his determination to win over business leaders and keep a distance from the trade unions, a combination that led inadvertently to the current wildly over-the-top police inquiry into "cash for honours". In a relatively minor key, the same applies to his decision to renew Trident. Once more Mr Blair prepares to take a modest bow for being "new" and not old, but already doubts are raised from those he likes to have on his side.

Several advocates of Britain's nuclear deterrent in the 1980s are questioning the need for one now. From defence specialists to former Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, on to Charles Clarke - a pivotal figures in Labour's belated support for Trident in the 1980s - the cry goes up: Britain does not need an independent nuclear weapon any more. The cry will grow louder if there are more terrorist attacks and the intelligence services and others plead for more resources. Like other politically defensive moves made by the Government, this is one that could rebound in the changed circumstances of the current era.

Already some Conservative MPs register their distance. In the Commons yesterday Mr Blair was a little uneasy in dealing with questions about cost from the chairman of the public accounts committee, Edward Leigh, and from the former Conservative chairman, Michael Ancram, on whether there were more flexible non-nuclear options that could be considered as an alternative. Mr Ancram makes the pivotal point. Which rogue states would Britain threaten with a nuclear strike? There will be more such questions to come in the years ahead as public spending rounds become tight and the new defence priorities are so evidently unresolved by a new independent nuclear weapon. The orthodoxy of the 1980s can become wastefully backward looking in the 21st century. This version of new Labour feels old.

But for now the same political dynamics are in place as there were in the build-up to Iraq. For all their vague talk of optimism and sunshine, the Conservatives' leadership support the renewal of Trident. Indeed Mr Cameron sought to appear tougher than Mr Blair in the Commons yesterday. When it comes to policy rather than analysis, David Cameron is a more conventional Conservative leader than he seems. Only a few MPs are realistic and daring enough to oppose a hugely expensive and outdated project. As with Iraq, the minority will be proved right.

Mr Blair ends his leadership where he began, campaigning for decisions that reinforce the orthodoxy of the 1980s. Stealthily, his government moves away from that decade. Look closely and Britain is a different place, from equal rights for gays to the quality of public services and a commitment to address global poverty. Over time Mr Blair will get some credit for moving a reactionary country in a progressive direction. He gets little credit now because, for a decade, he has used the pulpit of Downing Street to deliver the same messages that were conveyed with a populist frenzy during the Thatcher era.

What a shame he never took a high-profile campaigning stance in which his immense persuasive powers were deployed to challenge popular prejudice. This government will change Britain more when it is no longer haunted by the past.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Comments