A major speech about nuclear weapons by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been described as a “missed opportunity” by campaigners. Speaking yesterday (19 March), Brown failed to make any specific commitments to cutting back the UK government’s nuclear arsenal.
However, Brown promised to allow international inspectors into the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria for the first time. He also said he would extend co-operation with the French government over nuclear arms and assist other countries to develop peaceful nuclear technology.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) said that the Prime Minister could have used the speech to set out a “positive agenda” ahead of the international nuclear non-proliferation summit in May.
“Previously we've seen Brown discuss cutting back the Trident submarine fleet and suggesting further initiatives were in the pipeline,” said CND Chair Kate Hudson, “Yet today's comments seem to reflect a `business as usual' mindset which can only be seen as a disappointing rowing back from the momentum that previous policy shifts had started to build”.
The Prime Minister said that he wished “to see multilateral disarmament around the world and we are ready to contribute towards that”.
But he did not seem willing to go as far as US President Obama or Russian President Medvedev, who have recently agreed major cuts to nuclear warheads.
Brown said that “in a world that is so insecure, particularly with other countries trying to acquire nuclear weapons, we do not see the case for us withdrawing the independent nuclear deterrent that we have”.
There may be speculation that Gordon Brown is concerned not to be seen as anti-nuclear in the run-up to the general election, for fear that the Conservatives would accuse him of being weak on defence.
However, polls consistently show that the majority of the British public oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. It has also been condemned by a number of NGOs, trades unions and faith groups, including the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches.
Trident renewal is supported by the Conservative opposition as well as the Prime Minister, although the cabinet is reported to be split on the issue.
Brown’s decision to invite officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Sellafield appears to follow encouragement from Obama. However, a government spokesperson said that no timetable has been set for the visit and that it is unlikely within the next six months.
The Prime Minister is also likely to be criticised by opponents of nuclear power for his suggestion that the UK could lead efforts “to secure the safe global expansion of civil nuclear power”.
“The world deserves better than this,” said Hudson, urging Brown “to show real global leadership by driving forward concrete disarmament proposals both at home and internationally”.
She added, “A few short weeks remain for the UK's negotiating position to be established. Sadly, we know that attempts to maintain the status quo, with nothing more than the weak rhetoric that we saw today, are doomed to consign the world to a less-secure, more nuclearised future”.