Trident: time to raise the level of debate

By Jill Segger
February 10, 2016

It will surprise no one that a Quaker should be a unilateralist. But to explain the reasons and make the case for this is another comment piece. On this occasion I want to make a plea for calmness in the debate about Trident – a debate which is currently dividing many who should be able to differ without destroying what they claim to hold dear.

Jeremy Corbyn takes a unilateralist stance. He has made it clear that, should he become Prime Minister, he would not authorise the launch of nuclear missiles. This is a straightforward statement of conscience which deserves respect. Nuclear disarmament has historically divided Labour on many occasions. But a democratic party should be able to contain difference without seeing it as a zero-sum game.

On Monday (8 February), the shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry presented her review on Trident renewal to the Parliamentary Labour Party. The consequent storm of insult and hyperbole owes much to a disappointing piece of work from the Daily Telegraph which relied too much on the kind of practice of which a paper of record should walk very wide. The quoting of unnamed sources as the basis for a misleading headline and the presentation of limited numbers as though they were in a majority with no countervailing evidence, have formed the basis for yet more prophecies of doom on social media. These include some childish responses from MPs such as “La-la land” and “waffling”. The latter being so common in politics that one has to wonder at the motivation lying behind the apparent shock.

I am, however, prepared to believe on previous evidence that Ms Thornberry is perhaps not always as concise and eloquent as might be expected from a former barrister. But whatever her failings of expression might have been on this occasion, her critics (and by extension, of course, those of Jeremy Corbyn) are eager to present a view which they oppose as a policy which is about be to imposed on the Labour Party, to its electoral destruction. This is a sorry misrepresentation of the manner in which policy is decided in the party. The scrapping of Trident is not current policy and to become so, it would need to go through the policy making process with a final vote being taken by the party's Annual Conference.

The storm of point-scoring, insult and confrontation in which some 'moderate' MPs and party members currently indulge is doubly distressing in its modelling of a mindset which often lies at the root of violence. When nations, parties or individuals cease to listen or to engage honestly with those with whom they have profound differences, the outcomes are likely to lead to damage and suffering. “Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war”, our Quaker Advices and Queries warns us. Seeking for the seeds of undemocratic behaviour would also be advisable.

The possession, and therefore potential use, of nuclear missiles is a matter of conscience. There are strong and sincerely held views on both sides of the argument and no debate which loses sight of that fact is worthy of a democratic country. If respect for conscience is not shown, there will be no advance in understanding of this profoundly important question. In Emily Thornberry's own words, “I think it's important that we have the discussion first before people jump to conclusions.”

Politicians owe their electorate this respect. Hyperbole and venom demean those who use them and short-change the rest of us. In the year in which the final decision on the Trident Successor programme is to be taken, we must demand something far better than the spirit displayed in the ill-considered tweet of Labour MP Madeleine Moon: “Oh dear oh dear omg oh dear oh dear need to go rest in a darkened room.”

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.