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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:51 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 7:51 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, I would like to make a powerful speech in favour of remain but we have heard lots of such powerful speeches, and I agree with them. Straight after the referendum there is likely to be a vote on the other matter the gracious Speech referred to: the securing of the future of the British nuclear deterrent. I will therefore make a few comments on that and pose a few questions, because many questions need to be asked before we get to that point of a vote in the other place.

There are economic, practical, moral and legal aspects to the decision to renew the deterrent. The economic estimates of the cost vary widely but they always climb upwards very steeply. The independent Trident Commission estimated in 2014 a lifetime cost of around £100 billion. About six months after that, the Foreign Affairs Committee chair Crispin Blunt estimated a cost of £167 billion, and the figure of £205 billion was very recently reported, so it seems to go up by about £50 billion every six months. Therefore, cost is a big concern, but certainly by no means the only one.

Questions must urgently be asked about whether Trident will already be past its sell-by date technologically before it is put into service. Could the UK be investing in a technology that will shortly be rendered useless by technological advances? Many well-informed people think so. I know that older decision-makers find it hard to imagine the speed with which technological changes happen. Some 25 years ago we had no idea of what cyberwarfare meant or what it would mean to an internet-connected world. My worry is that Trident will be to the UK what Hannibal’s elephants were to him: seemingly fearsome, massive and invulnerable, but easily defeated as the Romans crept round behind them and hamstrung them. The likelihood is that the ability of autonomous underwater submarines and associated detection will develop as fast over the next 20 years as it has in the last 20. If so, the Trident-carrying Vanguard submarines will not be so invisible in the depths of the ocean. What if the very fast developing cyberthreat means that such a nuclear weapons system is a bigger threat than a reassurance?

Then there is the moral case. The pressing case for nuclear disarmament is as strong as ever, but memories of the horrendous nightmare of the reality of a nuclear attack have faded. It is therefore significant that this week, President Obama will visit Hiroshima. The reality of what we mean by nuclear warfare must be remembered and understood. I hope the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will join the almost 7,000 other Mayors for Peace who find targeting of cities, even as a so-called deterrence strategy, totally unacceptable. Moral arguments have been made powerfully by spiritual leaders. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and right reverend Lord Williams of Oystermouth, said that the weapons were “intrinsically indiscriminate”, and Pope Francis has called for the full application of the non-proliferation treaty. That leads me to the next point, the legal aspect.

Would the renewal of Trident be in violation of the UK’s commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons? The ongoing Marshall Islands case in the International Court of Justice in The Hague began this year. The Marshall Islands argues that nuclear weapons states have failed to carry out good-faith negotiations towards nuclear disarmament. It is not enough just to talk about nuclear disarmament or submit well-meaning Motions to the UN Conference on Disarmament if you are renewing and modernising your nuclear arsenal at the same time. The Marshall Islands case may well just be the start of non-nuclear powers using legal recourse to address these weapons of mass destruction.

The vote in the Commons this year will set a posture for the UK for the next 50 years. We need clear thinking and long and loud debate before it happens. The noble Lord, Lord West, called that a political football. I call it a very necessary debate, and I am glad that Jeremy Corbyn has raised the level of that debate, because before he mentioned it, it was virtually invisible.

As I conclude, I ask the House to spare a thought for Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who last Sunday was charged with violating the terms of his release, more than a decade after he completed an 18-year jail term, and all for telling the truth.