UK parliament votes to update nuclear arsenal

A Trident nuclear-armed submarine outside the naval base of Faslane, on the Clyde, Scotland. [MinistryofDefence/Flickr]

The new British Prime Minister Theresa May won her first parliamentary victory on Monday night (18 July), as MPs voted overwhelmingly to update the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Parliamentarians voted 472-117 to replace the ageing submarines that carry the Trident nuclear missiles as part of Britain’s “continuous at sea deterrent”.

Britain and France are the EU’s only nuclear powers, alongside the US in NATO, although the timing of the vote seemed aimed more at embarrassing the opposition Labour party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn voted against the renewal – in conflict with his own party’s existing policy.

In his speech to MPs, Corbyn said Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons had not deterred the Islamic State group – and warned that it was immoral.

He said: “I do not believe the threat of mass murder is a legitimate way to go about international relations.”

The submarines are based in Faslane, Scotland – where the Scottish National Party, which rules in a minority government in Edinburgh, is committed to removing them.

In her first address to the House of Commons since taking office last week following the Brexit vote, May warned that the threat from nuclear weapons was increasing and said it would be an “act of gross irresponsibility” to abandon the nuclear deterrent.

The vote gives the green light for the construction of four new submarines to carry the Trident missile system and their nuclear warheads, at a cost of £41 billion (€49 billion).

Some 138 Labour lawmakers, over 70% of those party members who voted, backed the Conservative government despite the opposition of their leader Jeremy Corbyn.

May cited Russian aggression and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea as proof that “the nuclear threat has not gone away, if anything it has increased”.

“It is impossible to say for certain that no extreme threats will emerge in the next 30 or 40 years to threaten our security and way of life,” she said.

“And it would be an act of gross irresponsibility to lose the ability to meet such threats by discarding the ultimate insurance against those risks in the future.”

It has had a continuous at-sea deterrent since 1969, meaning that a submarine – equipped with up to 40 nuclear warheads – is always deployed somewhere in the oceans.

Each boat contains a sealed letter from the prime minister containing instructions on how to proceed if a nuclear strike on Britain has incapacitated the government.

Pressed whether she would be prepared to launch a nuclear attack and kill 100,000 innocent people, May said: “Yes.”

However, the one sole Conservative MP to vote against renewal, Crispin Blunt, pointed out that over the lifetime of the new submarines, they would be subject to both cyber-attack and deep-sea drones.

MPs voted overwhelmingly in 2007 to begin preparatory work on building a replacement for the current Vanguard-class submarines, with Monday’s decision clearing the way for them to enter service in the early 2030s.

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Some 30,000 jobs are linked to the nuclear deterrent, although the Trident missiles themselves are built in the US. They will not need replacing until the 2040s.

Critics question the morality, effectiveness and cost of the programme, with construction of the new boats alone estimated at £31 billion, with £10 billion contingency.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which held a protest outside parliament during the debate, put the total cost at £205 billion, although this is over 30 years and includes decommissioning.

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