Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. She is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
Much ink has been spilt discussing Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show in January. Specifically, on his contention that Trident renewal could happen; but that Successor class submarines could be sent on patrol without missiles:
“They don’t have to have nuclear warheads on them.”
But what has received much less attention is the appearance of another Labour leader, on another BBC programme, demonstrating even more clearly the tortured knots the party now finds itself in over this issue of national security.
Kezia Dugdale’s appearance on Radio 4’s Any Questions ten days ago was a masterclass of ideological gymnastics.
She very clearly laid out the Scottish Labour position; that at their Scottish Party conference in October, delegates voted overwhelmingly against the renewal of Trident, and, as such, unilateral nuclear disarmament is now their official policy.
When pressed, she conceded that she is by both instinct and belief, a multilateralist. She believes in renewing Trident and using the UK’s position as a nuclear nation to reduce nuclear weapons across the globe.
She married this apparent state of doublethink with the following:
“What I’ve done tonight, is I’ve expressed my view and I’ve also put forward the democratically-made position of my party and it’s my job to do that as leader of the party. I’m proud that, unlike other parties represented on the table, we’ve gone through that healthy, democratic process and we’ve come to that conclusion. And we will advocate for that position across the UK Labour movement.”
I’ve highlighted the last sentence as I think it best sums up the tortuous contortions the party – both north and south of the border – now finds itself in.
We have a multilateralist party leader saying that she not only accepts a unilateralist approach, but that she’ll advocate that approach – which she herself does not believe – to colleagues across the rest of the UK. Colleagues who, of course, also have a democratically determined position, but one of multilateralism (which is at odds with the UK party leader, who is a unilateralist).
And there’s the rub. Labour hasn’t decided in this new era of ‘straight-talking honest politics’ whether democratic decision-making trumps leadership or is subservient to it.
In Scotland, it is apparent that the leader has bowed to conference delegates. Across the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that the fact every single member of his parliamentary party (including himself) was returned to the Commons on a manifesto commitment of Trident renewal, matters not a jot. Nor does it matter that there was only a handful of days between the Scottish Labour conference where delegates voted to scrap Trident and the UK Labour conference where delegates voted for a motion to renew it. To Corbyn, such a conference vote is just something to get around – and going on television to say he’d consider building the submarines as long as he was allowed to leave the missiles in the shed was a sidestep to that effect.
It is also a sop to the Trade Unions who have – quite rightly – spoken up for the tens of thousands of workers whose jobs rely directly or indirectly on the Trident weapons programme and the Vanguard class submarines which are the platform on which they sit. Building replacements, even if they were never allowed out on patrol, would at least answer the jobs question.
I remember speaking last October to a Labour colleague of mine, who I knew well through our shared work on the Better Together campaign. He was upset and angry at the unions’ response to their conference motion scrapping Trident:
“For two years they said nothing. All during the referendum, we tried to make the case for Trident and the SNP kicked us all over the park. Where were Unite and the GMB then? As soon as we change our position, they come out against us, but we couldn’t get a word of support out of them when we were backing them.”
And this speaks to the mindset of Scottish Labour. One of the great reliefs over the changed positioning on Trident is that it covers an exposed flank. It means there’s one less thing for the SNP to aim at. Ditto the decision a fortnight ago to go into Holyrood’s election campaign on a promise of putting up taxes on every worker in Scotland. Suddenly, despite seeing the polls and knowing they’re heading for their worst defeat in the post-devolution era, Labour in Scotland are happy warriors again. They aren’t being attacked from the left by a party that’s borrowed their clothes, won their voters and assumed the mantle of Scotland’s natural party of government.
It is an admission of weakness. Scottish Labour is happy to abandon the case for an independent nuclear deterrent because it is too hard, and they are no longer prepared to accept the suffering inflicted upon them by repeated SNP attacks on the issue. Their leader, who does not believe in her party’s new policy, is happy to go along with it, to give her troops respite.
If this was a debate about bus-passes for pensioners or student support, then I could understand a bit of toing and froing over where the line is drawn and questions over funding formulas to set rates or scales.
But this isn’t. This is an issue of national security. It is a question of defence capability. It is a decision about main-gating a huge – and integral – piece of our armed forces’ infrastructure.
It’s also about having the political courage to do what’s right. And to articulate that case, no matter how hard it may be.
The Labour party is in an utter mess over Trident renewal. And it’s in this mess for political, rather than defence, reasons.
The Conservatives believe in renewal in both principle and practice. And we need to act from a position of principle.
There has been much speculation that the vote on Trident renewal could be pushed closer to the Labour Conference in October to maximise that party’s discomfort. I believe this would be a mistake, and one that cheapens both us and the import of the decision itself. This is a decision which should have been taken in the last parliament. The practicalities of coalition, and the position of the Lib Dems, prevented that. We now need to get on, put the question to the House and act in the interest of the security of our nation.