Prime Minister (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 7th December 2006.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 7th December 2006

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister and what issues they will discuss. (S2F-2598)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I remind the First Minister that, in response to previous questions, he has refused to state his view on the replacement of Trident. On 23 November, he said that it was essential to have a debate first, and that it would be wrong to state a position at the start of that debate. Sure enough, at 11 o'clock on Monday morning, the day a three-month debate was formally kicked off, the First Minister's office duly confirmed that he still had an open mind. However, at 6 o'clock on Monday, the First Minister said:

"I agree with the decision of the UK government" to replace Trident. What were the compelling arguments that turned him from don't know to gung-ho in seven hours?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

It is easier to comment on a decision after it has been made than before it is made. Ms Sturgeon may find it easy to have a preconceived position regardless of the evidence, any analysis or any proper discussion, but I take a far more serious approach to my responsibilities and to the defence of the nation.

I believe that the decision announced by the United Kingdom Government on Monday, in the light of current international circumstances, was right for two reasons. First, I do not believe in any unilateral action to disarm either Scotland or the United Kingdom. Secondly, I believe that the UK Government was right to announce that the number of warheads should be reduced, that the number of submarines on operational duty—and perhaps even the number of submarines in existence—should be reduced and that, in the next UK Parliament, there will be a further decision to be made about the future of the warheads themselves. On all those bases, I believe that the decision was right for the moment, and that it allowed further opportunities for multilateral disarmament in the future. That is right for Britain and right for the world.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Can we get this clear? What happened on Monday was that the Prime Minister told the First Minister what his view was to be, and the First Minister complied. Now that the First Minister has got a position, I would like to explore his logic just a little bit more. He also said on Monday that he believes in disarmament, and he seems to have said that again today. However, does not the Government's white paper actually make nuclear proliferation more likely, not less likely? Tony Blair says that nuclear weapons are "the ultimate insurance" and a vital element of national security. He also says that he would be prepared to use them in a first-strike attack.

My question for the First Minister is this: what does he say to other countries that cite their national security and their need for an insurance policy as justification for developing nuclear weapons of their own?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Let me again make it perfectly clear that for seven and a half years we have allowed questions on reserved matters that have an impact on Scotland, and on areas for which the First Minister has executive responsibility or on which he has taken a position.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I make it clear, as I have done before, that I lead the Labour Party in this Parliament and that, unlike Ms Sturgeon, I do not take my orders from a leader in London.

I have consistently said in this chamber that I believe that it would be wrong to have a knee-jerk reaction, particularly in advance of a decision, to universally disarm our nuclear deterrent in Scotland or in the UK. I have also said that I believe that it would be wrong to take a decision, without even looking at the evidence, to maintain the full system that is currently in place. That is why I welcome a decision that protects Scotland's and Britain's national interests in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world. At the same time, I welcome the fact that the UK Government has decided to reduce the number of warheads by 20 per cent, to reduce, if possible, the number of submarines by 25 per cent and to allow, as stated in the white paper, a decision to be taken in the next Westminster Parliament as to whether or not the warheads are even renewed at all.

That is the right decision for multilateral disarmament worldwide; it is the right decision in an uncertain world; and it is a decision that the Scottish National Party could never take because it is not serious about Government, not serious about the defence of the nation and certainly not serious about being in Britain.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Perhaps the First Minister should remember that just one nuclear warhead can wipe out entire populations. That is why they are morally wrong.

Is it not the case that the decision to replace Trident, publicly backed on Monday by the First Minister, represents the most appalling hypocrisy? It robs the UK of any moral authority in arguing the case for non-proliferation. Is it not also the case that he is out of touch not only with the majority of Scots on this issue but with those in his own party who say in a parliamentary motion lodged yesterday that there is

"a convincing ... military, economic and political" case to be made

"for the non-renewal of Trident".

If the First Minister really believes in disarmament, should he not have the courage and honesty to make the case against new weapons of mass destruction instead of meekly following Tony Blair's line?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Ms Sturgeon's position appears to be that the world would be safer, and that it would be morally right, for only other countries to have nuclear weapons and for those countries to find it easier to use them in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world. I believe that she is wrong and that her party is wrong.

I believe, as I have said in this chamber consistently for at least six months now, that the only way to reduce the nuclear arsenal worldwide is through multilateral action and certainly not through weakness. I believe that it is essential that Britain continues on a path begun by the previous Conservative Government—I will give it some credit for that—but maintained and pursued by the current Labour Government to reduce Britain's nuclear arsenal by 70 per cent since the time of the cold war and by 30 per cent since the election of the Labour Government in 1997. To continue down that path, to reduce the number of warheads by a further 20 per cent, to reduce the number of submarines by a further 25 per cent and to ensure that in the next Parliament at Westminster there will be a further vote on whether or not to renew the warheads—these are the right decisions for multilateral disarmament, the right decisions for the security of our nation and the right decisions in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of order. Presiding Officer, you have just made a ruling that questions may be put to the First Minister when the First Minister has made his position public in a public statement. That is fair enough. However, it is quite clear from the First Minister's responses now that he is speaking as the leader of the Labour Party and not as the First Minister of Scotland in this coalition. Would you make that quite clear please?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Those are matters for the coalition and, if you are patient, Mr Rumbles, you will find that the issue may be taken care of in just a minute.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I remind the First Minister that eight countries in the world have nuclear weapons, and 180 countries in the world do not have nuclear weapons. I want Scotland to be in the majority.

The real difference between the First Minister and the SNP is that he is happy for £25 billion to be wasted on nuclear bombs, whereas we want that money to be spent on better schools for our children, better pensions for our old folk and a better health service for all. He is for weapons of mass destruction; we stand for building a better Scotland for all. Is that not why more and more people now want an SNP Government?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

If the SNP believed in better schools, better health care and improvements for our young people, it would not support the abolition of public-private partnerships, the ending of the school-building programme, the ending of the hospital-building programme and the many other improvements that we see in the fabric of our public services in Scotland; and it would support new school buildings, new hospitals, new health centres and—yes, Mr MacAskill—new prisons as well.

If the SNP believed that we needed resources in this country to spend on education, health, tackling crime and so on, it would not even support independence for Scotland, because it would not want the Scottish budget to be cut by billions of pounds as a result of the loss of the union dividend; it would not want Scotland's economy made weaker because the companies in Scotland that trade with the rest of the United Kingdom had more barriers in place for that trade; and it would not want the family ties that exist in the United Kingdom disaggregated by the creation of a foreign country on our borders. That would be inappropriate in the 21st century when interdependence should be the value that we hold dear.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

Will the First Minister confirm that the answers on Trident that he has just given have been expressed by him as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland and that there is no collective agreement or collective responsibility among members of his Executive on the position on Trident that he has adopted? Will he also accept that many people—not just in my party—believe that the decision on Trident has been rushed and that no decision needs to be taken until 2014?

The First Minister said that we live in an "uncertain and dangerous world". Where does he think that our independent nuclear deterrent should be targeted?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As the Prime Minister made clear this week and as others have made clear, with much common sense, any indication of where and in what circumstances our nuclear deterrent would be targeted would be foolhardy. No Government has ever given such an indication and it would be wrong for Government to do so on this occasion.

I am very happy to confirm not only that I am speaking as leader of the Labour Party in the Parliament and that there is no collective responsibility among Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers on the issue, but that I regard the decision as one that is rightly made by the Westminster Parliament. It is a decision for the United Kingdom Government to take and it is for members of this Parliament on all sides and in all parties legitimately to express their view on the decision. I am happy to express my view, having taken some stick during the past six months for taking a considered approach to the issue and listening to the evidence, and for taking a view on the basis of the evidence and the actual decision that was made. I will defend my position on that basis.

I want to make it clear that I expect people in my own party as well as in the Executive to speak from their consciences and to speak their own minds. We live in a democracy, and I want people to do that.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

I apologise, Presiding Officer. I disagree fundamentally with what the First Minister said, but that is not why I got to my feet. The First Minister said that he was speaking as leader of the Labour Party. This is First Minister's question time, not Labour Party leader's question time.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

As I said, the answers are not matters for me, although the questions are. That is a matter for the coalition.