The Chancellor's annual set-piece speech to the City is not the most obvious place in which to look for a government policy statement on the British nuclear deterrent. Yet Gordon Brown's purpose in underlining his commitment to the retention and renewal of the country's nuclear weapons capacity was all too clear.
Tactically, it deflected the political fire that would have been unleashed on the Prime Minister, had he risked such a definitive statement at this stage. More important, however, it sent two clear signals about Mr Brown's intentions. First, it showed that he had banished any lingering personal opposition to Britain renewing Trident and that his CND sympathies were long behind him. Second, it indicated that he is prepared to spend the £20bn or so that will be required.
That Mr Brown has come out so early, and so unambiguously, in favour of replacing Trident is regrettable. It means that the open national debate that we should be having, both about Britain's supposedly independent nuclear deterrent, and about our defence relationship with the United States, will not be anything like as open as it should be. Already the suspicion must be that the decision has been, in effect, taken.
Yet there are crucial questions that need to be asked, and which are as pointed today as at any time in the past. What message, for instance, does Britain's choice to retain a nuclear weapons capability send to countries, such as Iran, which are being told by Britain, among others, that they do not need one? Why does Britain, which has long benefited from the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, need a nuclear weapon of its own? And, now that the cold war is over, might a European defence, nuclear or non-nuclear, perhaps be a more appropriate option for Britain.
We sincerely hope that there will be an opportunity for these arguments to be fully aired. It was noticeable yesterday, however, that those who objected to the Chancellor's assumptions on Trident were promised a White Paper and a parliamentary debate, but what they were not promised was a vote. Quite simply, this devalues any discussion there might be.
Yet, for all the attention focused on the Trident question yesterday, this was not really what Mr Brown's speech was about. Support for a British nuclear deterrent is, quite simply, one of the crucial litmus tests of new Labour versus old. Mr Brown was reassuring the City that, as Prime Minister, he would fly the standard of New Labour. And Trident was far from the only mark of his intentions he offered in his speech. Alongside free trade, he extolled the virtues of change. Difficult long-term choices were in the offing, he warned, that would require lightness of regulation and flexible approaches: allusions to market solutions that are not naturally associated with Mr Brown.
Reassuring the City, of course, is the duty of any Chancellor. But there is something discordant about Gordon Brown - a man who has always flouted banquet convention by wearing an ordinary tie - wrapping himself so deliberately in the Blairite flag of New Labour. (Or the England flag, for that matter, by inviting reporters to watch him watching England play in the World Cup.) And the very idea that he wakes up to the Arctic Monkeys suggests that he is heeding some strange image advice.
Mr Brown has his own distinctive merits as a politician. They include his stewardship of the economy; his capacity for hard work; his personal gravitas and solidity. We might add his attachment to the home hearth and a Puritanical streak. Voters can detect falsity in a politician a mile away. Blairism worked in electoral terms for Tony Blair. To convince as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown needs to be his own man.Reuse content