Blair asked to show 'courageous leadership' over Trident
BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE ROW OVER the future of Britain's nuclear arsenal was dramatically reignited this week when the Catholic bishops of England and Wales demanded total disarmament.
They called on the Government to act with "courageous leadership" by not renewing the Trident submarine system when it becomes unserviceable in the 2020s.
"The United Kingdom is now at a moral and strategic crossroads," the bishops said in a statement released on Tuesday.
"Our judgment is that, by decommissioning its nuclear weapons, the UK now has a unique opportunity to offer the international community an approach to security and legitimate self-defence without the unconscionable threat of nuclear destruction," they said.
"At the same time it could give a new impetus to the wider process towards total nuclear disarmament."
The bishops continued: "We recognise the Government's grave responsibilities in these matters of security, both for our countries and the wider world.
"We urge the Government to take a long-term view and act with courageous leadership by seeking to make this breakthrough towards total nuclear disarmament."
Britain's 16 nuclear warheads, each of which has a range of about 7,500 miles and could wipe out an entire city, are carried by four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines based at Faslane naval base in Gare Loch, Scotland, one of which is always at sea.
The bishops said that the very existence of nuclear weapons had always posed grave moral questions for the Church because their "uniquely destructive power means that they belong in a different category from any other weapons".
The bishops' intervention comes at a time when the future of Britain's nuclear capacity is becoming increasingly controversial.
Initial decisions about its continuance need to be taken within the lifetime of the present Parliament.
This is because the design and building of the submarines and the weapons took 14 years.
Estimates of the likely cost range from £20 billion to an astonishing £76 billion. The Labour Party is deeply divided over the issue as many serving MPs supported disarmament during the Cold War and in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government commissioned the Trident system.
Last month Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett hinted that a costly replacement for Trident might not be needed.
She said that today's security situation was "very, very different" to the period when Trident was introduced and called for a national debate, claiming it should be open to the whole country to question whether Britain's nuclear deterrent was still necessary.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are already publicly committed to a new generation of nuclear weapons, however, with the Prime Minister signalling his determination to announce a policy before stepping down.
Calls for a debate at the party's annual conference were blocked, which led to claims among disaffected Labour backbenchers that the issue had already been decided.
More than 120 MPs have signed a Commons motion asking for a vote in Parliament. Mrs Beckett said she thought there was "merit" in plans to publish a White Paper shortly.
"I think it would be a very good thing for all of us as a country to think carefully about what the situation of today is," she said.
"I think that is something people deserve to have laid out before them and to be able to think about it for themselves. I'm sure people will question whether we need [a deterrent] or not."
But Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton said the real debate should be over how and not whether to replace Trident.
He said Labour had won the last General Election promising to retain Britain's nuclear deterrent, and added: "There is no case at all for Britain to take a unilateral act to disarm ourselves."
Some analysts have estimated that 35 countries around the world may now have the technical know-how to produce nuclear warheads, and claim it is impossible to predict threats to Britain in 30 or 40 years time.
Attempts by North Korea and Iran to obtain nuclear weapons have added urgency to the debate, and will make it harder for opponents to argue that nuclear deterrence is irrelevant in the post-Cold War world.
The intervention by the English and Welsh bishops comes six month after the eight Scottish bishops urged the Government not to invest in a new weapons system but instead to spend the money on the alleviation of global poverty.
In September the bishops' statement was endorsed by Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In a letter to Cardinal Keith O'Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh and the chairman of the Scottish bishops' conference, Cardinal Martino said the Vatican appreciated the statement for the clarity with which it set out the Catholic Church's position on nuclear weapons.
The cardinal said the statement also represented a "sound answer" to calls for a public debate on whether to replace Britain's nuclear deterrent. "Nuclear weapons represent a grave threat to the human family," said Cardi
nal Martino. "The social doctrine of the Church proposes the goal of a general, balanced and controlled disarmament.
"In this light, the statement issued by the Bishops' Conference of Scotland constitutes a service and a reason to hope in a more peaceful world."
Cardinal O'Brien said that Cardinal Martino's letter would "undoubtedly renew the resolve of Scotland's Catholics and other people of good will who are campaigning for an end to nuclear weapons".