Trident renewal vote by MPs before Holyrood elections
Tory sources deny timing influenced by fears over trigger for second referendum
A KEY Commons vote on Trident will be held before the Holyrood elections next year, which could thwart one of the SNP’s potential triggers for a second independence referendum.
Conservative Government sources said that the so-called “main-gate” decision on the controversial issue is expected to be made before Scottish voters go to the polls next May.
The timing will lead to fears the issue could dominate the campaign instead of domestic issues. The move comes after Alex Salmond’s suggestion that a vote for Trident renewal could lead to a second referendum.
A Conservative source insisted, however, that the pre-election date was not influenced by constitutional concerns over the future of the UK.
“This is a very serious matter, with important defence and national security implications. That is what is uppermost in people’s minds,” he added.
But the SNP accused David Cameron’s government of attempting to rush through the defence system’s renewal at a huge cost to the taxpayer. The party’s defence spokesman, Brendan O’Hara, said: “The UK Government clearly wants to rush through the renewal of Trident at a cost of £167 billion.
“What the Tories face now in Scotland is a cross-party consensus against renewal, with Labour joining the SNP in rejecting these weapons of mass destruction, as well as the churches, the trade unions and civic Scotland, who have rejected Westminster’s nuclear arsenal being dumped on the Clyde.’’
The SNP is on course to repeat its landslide victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections, which led to last year’s independence vote. This time around, however, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said that she would only support calls for another referendum after the election if there was also a significant change in the political landscape.
Former SNP leader Mr Salmond has suggested that renewing Trident could be one of those triggers. However, a vote by MPs before the election would mean the Trident issue would be settled by the time Scottish voters go to the polls on May 5.
The Conservatives have rejected the idea of a second referendum, arguing that the 2014 vote settled the issue.
A row over Trident erupted this week after more than 70 per cent of both grassroots Labour activists and trade union affiliates at the Scottish Labour conference voted to scrap the nuclear deterrent last weekend.
It is a position the party has not endorsed at an election since the 1980s.
Within days, one of Labour’s most senior MSPs, Jackie Baillie, said that her party needed a “reality check” and warned of the impact on workers.
She said 13,000 jobs could be affected and said her stance had the backing of the general secretary of the Unite trade union, Len McCluskey, and the employees at Faslane. “I will be arguing, as I have done consistently, for the workers at the base,” said the Dumbarton MSP.
Divisions south of the Border were also laid bare when Diane Abbott, a close ally of party leader and anti-nuclear campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, predicted that the party as a whole would eventually follow Scotland’s lead.
Within hours, Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, said that Labour’s policy remained in favour of renewing Trident.
The previous Tory-Liberal Democrat government agreed during its coalition negotiations five years ago to delay the vote on whether or not to replace Trident until 2016. Now sources have indicated that the vote is expected to be held in the spring, before the Holyrood poll.
Earlier this year, Mr Salmond, the MP for Gordon, said there were “four issues, any one of which, and a combination of them most certainly, could provide a change in material circumstances” adding: “Lots of people are opposed to Trident; it’s in the SNP’s DNA.”
The Conservatives are confident that they will win the Trident vote.
The Tories expect support from a number of Labour MPs, as well as MPs from other parties, such as the DUP.
However, the bulk of Scotland’s 59 MPs will vote against renewal. A Scottish Labour spokesman said it opposes the renewal of Trident. He added: “Labour is reviewing our position and the views of Scottish Labour Conference will feed into this review.”
CONSPIRACY theorists will thrive at the news that the so-called “main gate” decision on renewing the UKs Trident nuclear weapons system is likely to be taken before next May’s Holyrood elections.
Taking the decision in the run-up to the Scottish Parliament vote could expose splits in Labour over the issue. This is scarcely difficult given the UK party has a leader, in Jeremy Corbyn, who opposes renewal, while national policy officially supports it, yet the Scottish party voted by landslide to scrap the nuclear weapons only last weekend.
But there is a view within the Scottish party that the stance taken by members at its conference may do as much good as harm, by undermining perceptions Scottish Labour is still merely a branch office of the London party, and by eliminating one of the key policy issues which the SNP has used to woo away unilateralist would-be supporters.
A focus on Trident might not help the SNP either, in the context of the Holyrood vote. Former leader Alex Salmond, in these pages, suggested recently that a decision to renew might be sufficient to trigger a second independence referendum. But his successor Nicola Sturgeon has endeavoured to reassure voters such a vote is off the table at present, and to focus on domestic matters, especially for the Scottish elections.
That focus would be desirable for all concerned. For while the decision on whether to spend up to £167 billion over the lifetime of a replacement system is a crucial one and there are major questions to be asked about the cost, and about the morality of nuclear weapons, and about the impact on jobs, the decision is not, as it stands, one for the Scottish Parliament.
If information from senior UK Government sources is accurate, and the crucial decision to press ahead with procurement is taken before May, the heat generated by the issue could dominate Scottish political debates.
There may be no intention to disrupt the Holyrood elections by the UK Government, which strongly supports renewing Trident and sees the issue primarily as one of national security (although some may suspect otherwise). That doesn’t mean the decision would not have such an effect.
But debate must be focused on areas in which the next Scottish Government will have a direct remit. Voters need answers about the SNP government’s record and the policies of those who would replace it. Should hospital care be more centralised, how desirable is testing in schools and what would be the unintended consequences? How can the problems of the further education sector be addressed and what direction should Police Scotland take in future? What measures will lead to economic growth in Scotland and address worrying unemployment figures?
These are just some of the many issues of significant concern, within the purview of the Scottish Parliament, which risk being drowned out by an inflammatory debate over Trident.
All the Scottish parties have stated their intention to focus on domestic matters. Given the potential timing of a decision, Trident must not be allowed to dominate this vital debate.