Trident: Mr Corbyn and the General

Jeremy Corbyn was unwise and wrong to denounce the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, for pointing out that nuclear deterrence ceases to have any effect if the head of government concerned has declared that he would not order its use in any circumstances, and that as a supporter of the nuclear deterrent, he would “worry” if such a situation were to come to pass. His reference to the incompatibility between a policy of nuclear deterrence and a prime minister who was committed to never using it was a factual statement of the obvious, and completely uncontroversial. In saying that he would “worry” if the nuclear deterrent were to be made ineffective by a prime minister who had declared that he would never use it, he was expressing a view that was completely consistent with both official Conservative government and official Labour party defence policy, both committed to the nuclear deterrent.  How can that have been “taking sides”, or interfering in party politics?

The fierce controversy stirred up by Mr Corbyn’s complaint against General Houghton (rather than by anything said by the General) has tended to confuse three separate issues

1. Whether UK defence policy should continue to be based on the doctrine of nuclear deterrence – i.e. whether Trident should be renewed or scrapped.
2. Whether Mr Corbyn should have declared publicly that if he became prime minister, he would never “press the nuclear button”.
3. Whether General Houghton, as a senior serving officer, was improperly interfering in politics by publicly pointing out that Mr Corbyn’s position was incompatible with a policy of nuclear deterrence, and by saying he would be worried if that incompatibility came to pass.

Issue no. 1 is irrelevant to issues 2 and 3. Like it or not, the nuclear deterrent is the official policy of the Labour party, which has announced that it is shortly to be reviewed through the established organs and procedures of the party. The arguments for and against it have no bearing on Mr Corbyn’s declaration that he would not observe its implications if he became prime minister, regardless of the party’s forthcoming review. Similarly, the propriety or otherwise of General Houghton’s remarks has to be judged against the background of the existing bipartisan defence policy of both the government and the Labour party opposition, regardless of its intrinsic merit or lack of it.

As to issue 2 – the questionable wisdom of Mr Corbyn’s public statement that he would never order the use of a nuclear weapon – it seems clear that by in effect pre-empting the outcome of the party’s forthcoming review of defence policy, without any prior consultation with his party colleagues, without warning them in advance that he was going to act in this way, and without the agreement of any party organ or official, Mr Corbyn has gravely embarrassed his own shadow defence secretary and the majority of her fellow members of the shadow cabinet, and indeed Labour party members and supporters everywhere, regardless of their individual views on Trident. Some of us had been hoping that the party’s eventual decision on Trident and the nuclear deterrent would be taken after careful discussion and analysis following extensive consultation with the wider party membership and advice from defence experts of all persuasions (such as General Houghton). If after due process within the party the decision is to support Trident renewal and the nuclear deterrent doctrine, both the party and its present leader will find themselves in an almost impossible position. Jeremy Corbyn could easily have declined to answer questions in advance of the party review about his willingness to press the nuclear button: political leaders routinely refuse to answer hypothetical questions of that kind. Why he chose not to do so is a mystery.

Of course if as a result of the party review Labour commits itself to abandoning Trident and nuclear deterrence, and if a party offering unilateral nuclear disarmament can somehow nevertheless get itself elected to government, we shall have a completely new situation and Mr Prime Minister Corbyn will have no nuclear button to decide not to press. However, that scenario looks at present so improbable as to be hardly worth discussing.

But it’s issue no. 3 which is currently bothering the media commentariat and the blogosphere: did General Houghton speak so seriously out of turn that he should be reprimanded, as Mr Corbyn seems to be demanding, or even dismissed?

I find it difficult to follow the reasoning behind the Guardian’s denunciation of General Houghton in its editorial of 9 November. The essence of the Guardian’s complaint is that “What the military are not entitled to do is to challenge the very legitimacy of the elected government itself.” But General Houghton did nothing of the sort. He said he would be worried if the present established bipartisan nuclear deterrent policy were to be made ineffective by a prime minister who had publicly assured any future potential nuclear blackmailer that he would never use it. That has nothing to do with a challenge to any government’s legitimacy.

The Guardian further reminded us, in case we had somehow forgotten, that “in the end the military must obey his government’s defence policy with the same unconditional professionalism as it obeys any other.” But General Houghton said nothing whatever about not obeying the government or its defence policy, present or future. He merely pointed out what we all know: that if Labour defence policy remains as it is following the forthcoming party review, and should Mr Corbyn become prime minister, that policy will be as dead as the Pythons’ parrot. It will be the late policy. A doornail will have more life in it than that policy. And the situation of a Labour government whose defence policy had been killed by its own prime minister would seriously “worry” a great many more people than just the present chief of the defence staff. Those who seek to deny General Houghton the right to say so, offering a military professional’s opinion on a major defence policy question in full accordance with the declared policies of both government and opposition, need to think again. And banging on about the wickedness of nuclear weapons simply muddies the waters.

PS: Full disclosure. Since the end of the cold war I have come to the conclusion that Britain’s nuclear deterrent no longer serves any practical or definable purpose, that it distorts our defence priorities, and although representing only some 5 to 6 per cent of the defence budget, it tends to starve other more pressing defence needs of resources. So on balance I now believe it should be scrapped. If (improbably) Britain were to be faced in the future with a threat of nuclear blackmail or even of an impending nuclear attack, I believe that the American (and French) nuclear deterrents would be as effective for us as they are for Germany or Italy or any other western European non-nuclear-weapon power that relies on the NATO shield – as indeed we and France do too, when the chips are down. But I recognise that there are tenable arguments the other way – and that for better or worse, the Labour party is at present committed to retaining and renewing the nuclear deterrent. Until the party decides through due processes of consultation and debate to change that policy, it’s the duty of its leaders–and its leader–to respect it, even if they disagree with it (as I do).


9 Responses

  1. robin fairlie says:

    Brian, the one part of your post that fills me with enthusiasm is your PS: right on. Can we (and the Guardian) then agree to conduct the ” careful discussion and analysis following extensive consultation ” which you now rightly advocate, leaving relatively trivial considerations of who said what to whom, and whether it was wise or unwise, proper or improper, to professional nit-pickers?

  2. Tom Berney says:

    You have already made it clear you do not approve of Jeremy Corbyn.

    However, once again Brian, (as with the HOL and Tax credits) it seems to me that  you seem to be more hung up with the process than the outcome. The Scottish Labour Conference has voted not to renew Trident and I’m pretty certain that given the chance the masses of the new ‘Corbyn’ Labour party in England would do the same – but they were not given that opportunity.  My guess is that Corbyn is therefore representative of most of his party.  There was certainly never any doubt about his anti-nuclear stance when he was elected. So if we want rid of Trident then isn’t helpful that he has provoked the debate?  If OTOH the party are unhappy to have him defying existing policy then they have the means to replace him.

    You suggest that a unilateralist party could not get elected. Well. who knows, but we do know that in Scotland SNP’s opposition to Trident was consistently shown to strengthen their support in polls. No doubt that was major factor in Scottish Labour’s  recent decision.


  3. Brian,

    The nuclear deterrent would still be there. Much as anyone might like Jeremy Corbyn it has to be acknowledged that he’s a politician. Just as Cameron couldn’t be trusted on the question of tax credits any potential aggressor would have to ask if they could trust Corbyn on his pledge too.

    To paraphrase Sir Humphrey:

    Even though the Russians , or whoever, now certainly know that Jeremy Corbyn probably would n0t “press the nuclear button”, there is no certainty that he certainly would not!

  4. Alan Petrides says:

    Dear Brian, you said that all Corbyn needed to say was “await the outcome of the party review, and anyway it’s a hypothetical question”. Surely those types of responses are what the country has been fed up with from politicians for the past twenty odd years. Balls’ wife, name escapes me as I write, spent the whole time during the leadership campaign making prevaricating comments like that, frankly infuriating me and presumably several thousands of others who didn’t vote for her. Corbyn’s direct responses have to be applauded not criticised. The phrase ‘a breath of fresh air’ comes to mind.

  5. ObiterJ says:

    Both of them are wrong.  This is an unedifying public row which we do not need.

  6. Phil says:

    General Houghton said nothing whatever about not obeying the government or its defence policy, present or future

    I assume you’re not equally relaxed about the (anonymous) serving British Army general who told the Sunday Times that, should a Corbyn government announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces”,
    The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.
    It’s true that there is a difference between declaring opposition to a (potential) elected government’s defence policy and actually committing oneself to obstruct it, but I tend to think – with the Guardian‘s leader writer – that the two statements express very much the same position; if one’s less deplorable than the other it’s only a matter of degree (and, perhaps, a matter of what a serving general may be prepared to put his name to).

  7. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to Robin Fairlie: I’m glad that we agree on one of the issues indirectly arising here (that it’s time to scrap the UK’s nuclear deterrent). But I can’t agree that a formal complaint by the leader of the opposition against the chief of the defence staff, posing a clear threat to the latter’s military service career, is a trivial matter, especially when in my opinion and in that of many others the complaint is unfounded as well as, um, injudicious. (I suppose it’s a first for me, coming to the aid of a senior army General against a threat posed by the leader of the Labour party!) The CDS is after all the professional head of the British Armed Forces and the most senior uniformed military adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister:  if he can’t make a public comment on a major question of defence policy, commenting well within the proclaimed official policies of both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition, it’s difficult to imagine who can.

    In reply to Tom Berney: Whether I “approve” of Mr Corbyn is not relevant to the issues raised in my post here: nor is the opposition to Trident expressed by the Scottish Labour party conference, any more than my own similar personal view, set out in my post as an aside, that it’s time to give up our nuclear weapon. I’m sure you are right to guess that if the future of the UK nuclear deterrent were to be decided by a mass vote of the thousands of people who flocked to support Mr Corbyn’s candidature for leadership of the Labour party, there would be a substantial majority against renewing Trident – and against any decision by Mr Corbyn as prime minister to press the nuclear button in any conceivable circumstances. The annual conference of the national Labour party might well vote the same way. But like it or not, Labour party policy is not (at present) decided either by a vote of the whole membership of the party with or without its £3 ‘supporters’, nor by a vote at party conference. Conference has for generations voted for changes in party policy that have in many cases not been adopted when Labour has been in government. The reality is that as of now, or as Sir M Rifkind would say, ‘at this moment in time’, official Labour party policy is to renew Trident and maintain the UK nuclear deterrent. Even the leader of the party can’t reverse that policy by simply saying No in reply to a hypothetical question on television. But by uttering that two-letter word he can make his party’s policy inoperable if he ever leads a Labour government.

    I plead Not Guilty to your charge of being “more hung up with the process than the outcome”. There are lots of outcomes that I’m hung up on: a government with a rational and equitable fiscal and economic policy, the restoration (if it’s not too late) of the welfare state (including the NHS), the reduction of gross domestic and international inequality, safeguarding the future of the Human Rights Act as a permanent feature of the UK constitution, a constructive collaborative role for the UK inside the EU, a generous contribution by Britain to the resolution of the European refugee crisis, an adequate or more-than-adequate role for Britain in the battle to save the planet from climate change, the return of state education and many other services to local government control with adequate local tax powers and central government funding, the completion of the devolution process by the creation of an English parliament and a fully federal constitution for the four nations of the UK with maximum decentralisation to the four nations and further decentralisation within each of them, and several other objectives that I need not spell out here. (I have not included the scrapping of Trident in this list because I regard it as a second-order issue for which public opinion in England is unlikely to be ready in the foreseeable future, whereas I believe that imaginative and courageous leadership could in the fullness of time bring about public enthusiasm for all the other items on my list.) What all the items listed have in common is that a precondition for achieving any single one of them is the election of a centre-left progressive government in which Labour would play a central role. Rightly or wrongly, I share the opinion of the vast majority of democratically (yes) elected Labour MPs that as long as Mr Corbyn is leader of the Labour party, no such progressive government has any hope of being elected. Mr Corbyn’s action in sabotaging Labour’s official defence policy, undermining his shadow defence secretary and putting his parliamentary colleagues in a painfully embarrassing position in relation to a major area of public policy, has erected a probably impassable obstacle to the election of a centre-left government, and hence to the achievement of any of the objectives I have listed above. This is in every sense a preoccupation with outcome, not just process.

    In reply to Peter Martin: My guess is that every embassy and High Commission in London has been reporting to its foreign ministry that if Mr Corbyn should ever become the UK’s prime minister, he would be constitutionally** incapable of ordering or approving the firing of any nuclear weapon in any circumstances, even if there had been no change in official Labour party policy of retaining the nuclear deterrent, owing to his lifelong commitment to nuclear disarmament, his extreme aversion to compromise on any issue of morality or principle, and the lack of evidence throughout his long career in local and national politics that he ever changes his mind about such issues. His unqualified and instant No to questions whether as prime minister he would ever press the button confirm that he would never be able to do it: so as long as he was in No. 10, our nuclear deterrent could safely be ignored: he had effectively disabled it. (Incidentally the email address that you have supplied for receiving notifications of new comments in this thread is not functioning: please re-register for Ephems notifications with a different, functioning email address, which will not of course appear publicly anywhere.)

    **[By “constitutionally incapable” I mean humanly incapable, incapable because of the kind of person he is, not “incapable under the provisions of the UK constitution”. Sorry for any ambiguity.]

    In reply to Alan Petrides: It’s a question of priorities, isn’t it, Alan? Which is more important: respecting one’s party’s policies and one’s colleagues who support them, and the procedures laid down for changing them, as well as taking account of the electoral viability of a highly contentious change of defence policy, however ardently one might desire it: or answering an impermissible hypothetical question utterly frankly, publicly and on the record, in complete disregard of the political consequences of doing so? Of course utter frankness whatever the consequences earns the New Politics Household Seal of Approval, which no doubt flatters the utterer’s ego and pleases the army of idealists who support him, but by what possible system of priorities is that outcome of a higher priority than loyalty to and solidarity with one’s party, one’s parliamentary colleagues, and the party rule book? Maybe those considerations seem trivial to a rebellious back-bencher: but to the leader of the party? “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.” Thus spake the prophet Nye Bevan. As usual he was right. Flaunting one’s conscience at any cost, when refusing to answer an unethical question was a perfectly honourable alternative option, may in some circumstances be little better than self-indulgence.

    In reply to ObiterJ: I strongly agree that we could well have done without this unedifying public row between the the professional head of the British Armed Forces and (according to Wikipedia, as quoted above) ‘the most senior uniformed military adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister’ on the one hand and the leader of the opposition on the other, a row unnecessarily and unwisely precipitated by the action of the latter in making a formal and probably groundless complaint against the former. But I don’t, with respect, agree that both were wrong. I think only one of them was, and it will be clear from my post which of the two I mean.

  8. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to Phil:  Phil, your assumption is correct.  The two alleged comments are as different as chalk from chocolate éclair.  The threat of mutiny by the armed forces can, I suggest, be safely and contemptuously dismissed since (a) it is anonymous, (b) it’s just a cheap bit of UKIP-like scare story in Murdoch’s Sunday rag, probably invented, and (c) comparing it to General Houghton’s cautious and restrained expression of “worry”, indeed suggesting that the alleged mutiny threat and the CDS’s “worry” comment somehow resemble each other (“the two statements express very much the same position; if one’s less deplorable than the other it’s only a matter of degree”, you wrote) is not only untrue and probably libellous — it also comes close to doing the Dirty Digger’s dirty work for him.   The one is a party-politically neutral expression of legitimate opinion by a public servant better placed than almost anyone else to express a view on a defence policy issue. The other is seditious rubbish.  Bin it.

  9. robin fairlie says:

    “if he [General Houghton] can’t make a public comment on a major question of defence policy…………’s difficult to imagine who can.”

    Well actually, about 60 million other people – but not a serving officer, or indeed a civil servant in the MOD.

    I don’t suppose that even Jeremy Corbyn was aiming to end the general’ s career, but a rebuke would have been in order for straying out of bounds, regardless of what one thinks of Corbyn’s answer to an irresponsible question.

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