Labour’s tribulations over Trident continue. This week, Andy Burnham told us that getting to an agreed party position on the subject looked like an impossibility. I agree – but actually, there’s nothing new about that. Labour has had difficulty with the issue of nuclear weapons from the outset, and there has always been a dissident group within the party opposing the party’s official policy. When the party has officially argued for nuclear weapons, the minority has been those arguing against; and in the two elections that I can recall when the party’s official position was to oppose such weapons, there were those in the party who continued to argue in favour of them.
Burnham also said that it’s an issue on which a compromise position is neither sensible nor achievable. Possessing nuclear weapons but committing never to use them is just plain daft, as is building boats specifically designed to carry them and then not arming them. There is no middle way here.
On all of that, what Burnham says is true. However, to date, that hasn’t stopped Labour having an official policy on the issue; it has simply meant that not all the party’s members support that policy. Insofar as there is anything new now, it’s that implicit in what Burnham has said is that the party should not take a position at all if that position is contrary to what the pro-nuclear brigade believe, but should simply leave all members free to argue as they wish. It is, apparently, OK for the anti-nuclear members to argue against policy if the policy is pro-nuclear, but the pro-nuclear side will oppose even having a policy if it isn’t the one that they support.
None of us yet knows whether the Labour leader’s view will prevail when the party’s new policy is decided. But it probably doesn’t matter a lot. Even if it does, and even if Labour wins the next election, it is highly unlikely the House of Commons will support Labour’s policy - too many Labour MPs will support the Tory position. Besides, history tells us that even if Labour support the scrapping of nuclear weapons when in opposition, and win an election with that policy in their manifesto (as happened in the 1960s), once safely elected they will feel free to do the opposite.At present, there seems to be only one route which has any hope of leading to UK nuclear disarmament, and that’s Scottish independence. It’s certainly not through the Labour Party.