Baroness Sue Miller writes: Lib Dem Conference should debate UN nuclear treaty

This week the Federal Conference Committee will decide whether to allow Conference to debate the UK joining the UN multilateral nuclear disarmament Treaty.

Lib Dems, like the other main parties, have been unwilling to be seen as unilateralist but since the Trident debate a most important new initiative from the UN has changed the nuclear weapons landscape.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, supported at the UN General Assembly by 122 countries, will place nuclear weapons in the same category as other WMDs -illegal under International  law.  Also,  importantly, it provides a framework and a pathway to their eventual total elimination. If we are to live up to our statement that we support multilateral disarmament, internationalism and a long term view we must debate and, I believe, support it.

The Treaty grew out of three Conferences on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear War. As the scientists, medics and civil society examined various scenarios it became starkly clear that now, with more powerful weapons, more countries possessing them and a modernisation programme planned in several countries the scenario was even bleaker than at the height of the Cold War. Even a limited regional nuclear exchange would have environmental consequences for agriculture that would lead to the risk of billions starving. They also found that no medical response could be adequate. As the International Red Cross said as the UN debated the Treaty

The treaty alone will not make nuclear weapons disappear overnight. But it delegitimises their role in the world today and provides a strong disincentive for their proliferation. The treaty signals to all that any development, modernising, testing, threat or plan to use nuclear weapons by anyone is completely unacceptable.

The timescale is important and practical. Nuclear states will not relinquish their weapons overnight. In the current febrile atmosphere of Russian/Chinese /US relations there are likely to be decades of work to do the create the necessary trust, verification and de escalation. 

This Treaty is part of the start. If the world allows nuclear weapon possession to continue as legitimate,  proliferation is inevitable. Proliferation, human error, mechanical error, cyber hack mean that in a nuclear prolific future the world is most unlikely to get though the 21st century without the nuclear nightmare coming true.  In any case Article 6 of the Nuclear non Proliferation Treaty, requires  nuclear weapons states (NWS) to work towards disarmament, but has been ignored and sidelined. Other forums where NWS are supposed to make progress towards disarmament, such as the Conference on Disarmament has made no progress on the issue for decades because NWS have blocked progress.

Indeed most NWS are planning a programme of modernisation. This escalation is obviously as dangerous to nuclear weapon states as to others.

There is every moral imperative that the UK should sign up to this Treaty, but what about the military and defence arguments.

Over forty years ago Lord Mountbatten said

Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. Their existence only adds to our perils because of the illusions they have generated.

That logic has not changed.

The Conservative Government are refusing to join these discussions that could lead to  multilateral disarmament despite their continual statements that they support a multilateral approach. The organisation behind the Treaty, ICAN, won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017. It is the first really plausible multilateral move for decades. Liberal Democrats must demonstrably support this  multilateral approach, respect the international will of 122 countries and campaign for the UK to sign the UN Treaty which will work to prohibit these apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction.

* Baroness Sue Miller is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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26 Comments

  • Does the treaty indicate how disarmament is to be forced upon a rogue state which refuses to get rid of its nuclear weapons? Especially if nobody else has any in order to threaten them with mutually assured destruction?

  • @ Sue Miller”Lib Dems, like the other main parties, have been unwilling to be seen as unilateralist”.

    By the narrowest skin of its teeth – and notwithstanding a very large body of opinion in the party that does so think (about the same proportions as the Brexit Remain vote in the Referendum) – and also despite a huge amount of arm twisting in more recent years at the Bournemouth Conference.

    Latest lifetime costs for replacing Trident comes to £ 205 billion (The Independent, May, 2016) .Much more sensible to focus expenditure on anti-terrorism and cyber security.

    “This week the Federal Conference Committee will decide whether to allow Conference to debate the UK joining the UN multilateral nuclear disarmament Treaty.” What a democratic notion !!

  • We have 37 motions before us to choose between, David. There isn’t time to debate them all. 2 of them are constitutional amendments that we have to take. That leaves 35 to pick between.

    There is a presumption towards taking stuff from federal policy committee, which this motion isn’t.

    There is a presumption against taking things that have been debated in the last two years, which nuclear weapons most definitely have.

    If (and it’s still an if) FCC doesn’t take this motion, it will not be for any sinister reasons.

  • OnceALibDem 17th Jan '18 - 7:30pm

    How many times have the Lib Dems debated a unilateralist position in the last 10 years? Three or four is it? I’d love to see them adopt such a clear position but I think it’s fair to say that there is a settled view on this.

    Unless of course people think this should be debated every conference.

  • Kevin White 17th Jan '18 - 9:29pm

    This motion arises as a result of a significant event that has taken place since the Party last discussed nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a major international talking point at present. The Government has behaved disgracefully. We have a clear chance to hold a topical and important debate that could bring kudos to the Party. It would be a missed opportunity if FCC couldn’t find a slot on the agenda for it.

  • Simon Banks 18th Jan '18 - 9:15am

    There are three good reasons why this motion should be considered for inclusion. One is that the treaty is new. The second is the profound change in international calculations caused by the election of Trump. The third is that a debate on this would not be a repeat of the Trident debates as the issue is different.

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Jan '18 - 10:29am

    Is this a two step matter?
    1) Do we really know if our nuclear weaponry is, in practice, independent and under our own control?
    2) Do we then discuss retaining independent nuclear weaponry or nuclear weaponry whichi is under someone else’s control?

  • Peter Hirst 18th Jan '18 - 2:04pm

    If I’ve got it right, a UN initiative to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal under international law is a significant move forwards complete abolition. We should support it by passing a relevant motion at Conference. It must be clear to all nation states that possessing these things is a matter of pure evil intent and not worth of any civilised society.

  • @ Jennie Good of you to respond, Jennie. It must be frustrating travelling to London on the awful Grand Central (owned by the awful Arriva) to be on a Committee which reflects so well party policy constipation.

    In my younger days, when the Party was a lively and radical, yes, we had an Assembly, but dear old Jo G. used to commission outstanding Liberal Academics to work out policy positions with a Party Research Officer Harry Cowie (funded by Richard Wainwright and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation). We could do with something similar from that other York worthy Sir Vincent. Oh, …..and it wasn’t just all about Europe.

    Now Jennie, I hope you can push for an informed policy response to the awful inequality which afficts our society after seven years of austerity. It’s getting worse.

    Evidence ? My local Food Bank has seen a 39.6% increase in parcels given out since December, 2016 : reason for referrals ? 29% refused a crisis grant, 20% Benefit changes. 19% Benefit delays. Total number of people fed in last twelve months 4,228, 37% of whom were under 16.

    Have we nothing to say about this ? There’s plenty of evidence out there and happy to supply some.

  • Thank you Carl Gardner for pointing out that if we supported signing this treaty we would be supporting unilaterally disarming our nuclear weapons.

    As has been said we discussed Trident recently and failed to take the radical position of even not buying a replacement for it.

    It therefore seems that to discuss the UK signing this treaty would be another discussion of whether we as a party supported unilateral nuclear disarmament or not!

  • Neil Sandison 18th Jan '18 - 5:45pm

    Excellent article that offers a clear a constructive path to a multilateral party that means it .Suggest Sue starts now circulating to local parties for discussion and perhaps an MP or Lord can hold an adjournment or West Minster Hall debate on what would be the first steps towards a de-escalation of the nuclear arms race.

  • Simon McGrath 18th Jan '18 - 6:17pm

    @Kevin White is right when he says “Nuclear weapons are a major international talking point at present. “. thats because of North Korea – does that really seem a good reason to abandon our nuclear weapons ?

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 18th Jan '18 - 8:22pm

    Yes! About time conference debated nuclear weapons! The voters have heard not nearly enough from us on this subject which is so high up their list of priorities.

  • If I’ve got it right, a UN initiative to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal under international law is a significant move forwards complete abolition

    Only if there’s an enforcement mechanism to remove nuclear weapons from those who sign up to the treaty, or those who sign up but then keep some nuclear weapons anyway.

    What enforcement mechanism is envisaged by those proposing the treaty?

  • Sorry, ‘remove nuclear weapons from those who don’t sign up to the treaty’.

  • Toby Fenwick 19th Jan '18 - 12:09pm

    The nuclear ban Treaty is fundamentally misconceived- it cannot create obligations on nuclear weapons states without their consent. In that sense it changes nothing at all, and in fact has the effect of driving the two sides further apart, which is really unhelpful to actual multilateral disarmament efforts.

    So the promoters of this debate should be honest: this is a call for the party to adopt a policy of unilateralism – which has been repeatedly rejected, most recently in September 2015.

  • Tom Papworth 19th Jan '18 - 3:50pm

    The CND wing of the Lib Dems believes that EVERY conference should debate nuclear weapons.

    If we ever vote to go unilateral, however, they will insist (Farage-style) that we never debate it again.

  • Re: This week the Federal Conference Committee will decide whether to allow Conference to debate the UK joining the UN multilateral nuclear disarmament Treaty.

    For what purpose?
    Is it so that Conference can adopt making (joining the treaty) official LibDem party policy?

  • While unilateral nuclear disarmament should have been put to bed by now, there does appear to be support for this initiative among UK representatives http://www.icanw.org/projects/appeal/ as signatories to the ICAN appeal.

  • Reading some posts on this thread is depressing. It appears what is left of the party is bent on retaining a pointless so called independent nuclear deterrent at a cost of at least £ 205 billion.

    There’s nothing new in a debate on military v social welfare spending in the party – going back to the Asquith government. It was Dreadnoughts then……. which spent most of the First War cooped up in Scapa Flo, Invergordon and Leith. Now its Trident and two £ 5 billion aircraft carriers with no aircraft, no vessels to protect them, and a leak.

    Lifetime cost of replacing Trident at least £205bn, latest estimate …
    http://www.independent.co.uk › News › UK › UK Politics
    12 May 2016 – The total cost of replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system will come to at least £205 billion – significantly higher than previous estimates.

    That might be fine and dandy if we didn’t have more pressing needs in this unequal society with a stressed NHS, rising poverty and inequality and a collapsed PFI system. But, hey, why not ? Let’s be little Sir Echo to the Tory Party…. we’ve had plenty of practice in recent years.

  • David: there’s a bunch of motions in front of us to do with inequality, including one from the lovely Lord Wallace that I have a big soft spot for.

    As for the motion referred to in the article, I actually quite like it and plan to argue in favour of it’s inclusion. But there are lots of other people on the committee, and for the reasons given in my first comment, I don’t hold out a vast amount of hope.

  • David Raw,

    It was the Asquith government that expanded the production of dreadnoughts from 1906, and the ships did see action in the Battle of Jutland which kept the German fleet hemmed in and the naval blockade of Germany in place for much of the great war.

    Trident replacement (and its cost) has clearly been a contentious issue for the party in recent years.. The ICAN initiative looks like a step in the right direction, if it can be adopted as part of a program of multilateral disarmement. If, however, it relies on unilateral disarmament by only those states signing up to the treaty, then I fear it is unlikely to succeed in its objectives. The only states that will sign-up will be those that do not possess and have no intention of developing nuclear weapons.

  • Joe B “It was the Asquith government that expanded the production of dreadnoughts from 1906, and the ships did see action in the Battle of Jutland which kept the German fleet hemmed in and the naval blockade of Germany in place for much of the great war.”

    Joe, it’s a change to discuss historical events rather than the state of the modern party, but yes and no to your comments. Agreed Asquith (reluctantly) expanded production of the various Dreadnought heavy battleship classes. Indeed Mrs. Asquith launched HMS Collingwood in 1908. However, the first Dreadnought, was commissioned by Balfour’s Tory Government..

    There was a real tension in the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith Governments about the competing claims of defence and social reform. Asquithian sleight of hand kept the Cabinet together, finessing the Dreadnought building programme spreading the cost over a longer period.

    As to Dreadnought usefulness, it was more psychological than real. HMS Audacious was sunk by a German mine in October 1914 (kept secret by Churchill and the Government until after the war). HMS Queen Elizabeth spent a short time off Gallipoli but was removed early in May, 1915 after rumours of German submarines.
    At Jutland, the majority of the fighting was done by Beattie’s battle cruisers based in Rosyth. The Dreadnoughts from Invergordon and Scapa Flo under Jellicoe saw considerably less of the action. Who won is a moot point. Both sides claimed victory but nearly 7,000 British sailors were lost compared to 3,000 Germans ; 113,000 British tonnage lost compared to 62,000 German. The Germans thereafter relied on submarines. The Dreadnoughts did very little. The Blockade (extremely successful, devised under Asquith) was maintained by lesser vessels.

    Incidentally, Charles Trevelyan, Liberal MP for Elland, who supported your Georgian land tax scheme, first devised the phrase “For the many not the few” in 1910. He resigned in protest at the war and was later a Labour Cabinet Minister.

  • Chris Randall 14th May '18 - 8:35am

    My worry as a ex soldier and a realist is not nuclear weapons but having a conventional force to back it up we now have a UK Defence Force, (I refuse to call something to small to form an Army The British Army.) of around 79,000 how would that fare in a war not too well I think, but worse when I served in Northern Ireland we had around 22,000 that equals 132,000 needed and if the IRA kick off over brexit what’s the plan. I support nuclear disarmament because whether you have nukes or not you need a sensible conventional force and we certainly haven’t got that at the moment.

  • Steve Bolter 16th May '18 - 12:38pm

    My recollection is that The Bournemouth Conference did not come to a decision on policy. It decided to refer the matter to a working party of some sort. I have not seen any recommendations. It is time to produce the recommendations to Conference for

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