Why Lib Dem Conference should debate UN Nuclear Weapons treaty

This coming Saturday the Federal Conference Committee will meet to choose motions for inclusion on the Agenda for Autumn Conference. Earlier this year a motion was submitted for Spring Conference signed by 137 members calling for the UK to Sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. FCC chose not to include it on the Agenda then. It has been submitted again, this time with 157 members supporting it :


Conference notes that

(a) in July 2017 the United Nations voted on and approved the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

(b) The Treaty opened for signature on 20 September 2017

(c) The UK has repeatedly claimed to support multilateral disarmament

Conference regrets that despite this, the UK Government:

(i) Has boycotted the negotiations, and

(ii) Has since insisted that Britain will never support the Treaty

Conference believes that these failures demonstrate the UK Government’s lack of commitment to ridding the world of nuclear weapons despite its repeated claims to support multilateral disarmament.

Conference commits Liberal Democrats to campaign for the UK to add its name to the list of signatories to the Treaty.

If it is chosen, the motion will be proposed by Baroness Sue Miller who initiated a Lords debate on the subject earlier this year. An Early Day Motion to the Commons was also signed by four LibDem MPs:

Sue’s article on this site calling for the motion to be debated by Conference back in the Spring is still applicable for Autumn Conference:

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.

The motion arises from a significant event that has taken place since the Party last debated nuclear weapons. For an internationalist Party with an admirable record of support for the United Nations, it would be tremendously disappointing if Conference was to be denied the chance to debate this Treaty. It is to be hoped that Federal Conference Committee will come to the same conclusion and agree to place it on the Agenda for Brighton.



* Kevin White is Chair of LibDems Against Trident. He was a member of the last LibDem working group on nuclear weapons and was a member of the pre-merger Liberal Party's Defence and Disarmament Panel

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  • paul barker 11th Jul '18 - 2:14pm

    This strikes me as slightly disingenuous, if there is widespread support for scrapping Trident then that should be the motion, this is simply trying to change The Party position by the back door.
    It would look very bad for The Party to simultaneously back Trident & a Treaty banning Nuclear Weapons, that would be the worst sort of gesture Politics.

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Jul '18 - 2:24pm

    As NATO is a nuclear alliance, and is committed to, if necessary, first use, I would be delighted if Kevin could explain two things:

    First, how can signing the Ban Treaty – which under international law requires the UK not to act against the principles and purposes of the Treaty, even before ratificaation – be squared with NATO membership?

    Second, how many NATO members have signed up to the Ban Treaty?

    I think that he will find that the answers to the these questions are (1) It can’t, and this would require that the UK withdraw from NATO as well as scrap Trident and (2) None.

    Given that this would require the UK to withdraw from NATO which is absolutely not party policy, FCC should rightly reject this motion.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Jul '18 - 3:02pm

    Kevin, thank you for this article, and for submitting this motion for consideration for Autumn Conference.
    I am proud to be one of the 157 members who have signed this motion. Its good that the number has increased since the motion was last submitted, though I do find it disappointing that the number was not higher, in a party that in Spring 2017 passed a motion that professed to be about achieving “a world free of nuclear weapons”, and whose constitution commits us to playing our part in bringing about disarmament.
    It is disappointing that our government refused to have anything to do with the conference that resulted in this treaty. Disappointing, but not exactly unexpected. Personally, I find it far more disappointing that our Party’s leadership has been silent on the subject.
    I just hope that FCC will give this motion more serious consideration than they did last time. An FCC member described in her blog how a number of motions, including this one, were rejected by the committee at a very early stage, on the grounds that it failed what they call the “snowflake test”. That is, they decided at an early stage that certain motions did not have a “snowflakes chance in …” of being accepted, and therefore did not give these motions any in depth consideration. Clearly self-fulfilling.
    The “official” reason given for the motion’s rejection was that it was less than two years since Conference had last debated nuclear weapons. It is true that the party had debated nuclear weapons in spring 2017. But Conference had never had a debate on the issue of the UN Treaty.
    Presumably FCC would not argue that there could not be a debate about, say, education or health because there had been debates on these issues in the last two years, even if the motion was on an aspect of these issues that had never been debated by Conference.
    And if there were really a “two year rule”, why has there been a motion about Brexit every Conference since the referendum – Autumn 2016, Spring 2017, Autumn 2017, Spring 2018? And I would be very surprised if the subject turns out to be absent from the agenda in Autumn 2018. Yet surely even the most ardent Remainer knows deep down that nuclear weapons are an infinitely greater danger to the world than Brexit?

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Jul '18 - 3:08pm


    Do you support leaving NATO? What do you propose the UK foreign policy is instead?



  • Dominic Shadbolt 11th Jul '18 - 3:10pm

    As per @Toby Fenwicks observations:

    “Given that this would require the UK to withdraw from NATO which is absolutely not party policy, FCC should rightly reject this motion.”

    There simply is no middle ground. To ever fulfil this policy the UK would need to withdraw fully from NATO. I think enough turbulent withdrawal is happening at the moment without throwing this into the mix.

    Were such a motion to ever become public it would further feed the narrative that the Lib Dems are a fringe party with laughably inconsistent policy ideas and a complete naivety when it comes to the act of governing.

    I say this as someone who feels that there is no need for nuclear weapons but is a political realist.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Jul '18 - 3:14pm

    Toby Fenwick, you seem to be arguing that FCC should reject a motion because it would change party policy, and might lead to other changes? Surely the whole point of a motion is that it changes party policy. If this motion was passed by Conference, then yes, perhaps other policy changes might follow. That again would be up to Conference. That is how party democracy is supposed to work.

  • Kevin White 11th Jul '18 - 3:28pm

    Thank you Catherine. I do agree with you. The motion is supported by members from Local Parties the length and breadth of the country including members of the House of Lords, Councillors, PPCs, and former MPs. As a Party with a record of respect for the United Nations it would surely be an insult if we were not to debate a Treaty voted for by 122 nations.

  • Toby Fenwick, you seem to be arguing that FCC should reject a motion because it would change party policy, and might lead to other changes?

    Isn’t it more that if a policy would require the changing of other parts of party policy, those required changes should be explicitly called out as part of the motion, so that people voting on it will know what effect their vote will have?

    I don’t think Toby Fenwick would have a problem with the motion if it was: ‘Conference commits Liberal Democrats to campaign for the UK to add its name to the list of signatories to the Treaty; and commits the Liberal Democrats to campaign for the UK to leave NATO; and commits the Liberal Democrats to oppose any replacement of the UK’s nuclear weapons capability’.

    Of course that might reduce the chances of it getting passed significantly, but if that’s your worry, then aren’t you guilty of trying to change policy by stealth, which is not terribly democratic?

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Jul '18 - 3:51pm

    Catherine: Conference is sovereign and can of course vote on whatever policy it wants. But this motion does not begin to deal with the ramifications of what it proposes – where, for instance, does it accept that signing the Ban Treaty will mean leaving NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament, and therefore the Party has decided to change UK foreign and defence policy to….what?

    Moreover, from an international legal standpoint, it should be understood that

    (i) though 59 states have signed the Treaty only 11 of the requred 50 have ratified it – so it is miles away from being implemented;

    (ii) no NATO members have – or will – sign it becuase they would have to leave NATO to do so;

    (iii) even if the Treaty comes into force, it cannot bind any States that are not signed up to it if they have objected to it from the start (this is called the Persistent Objector Rule in international law, and is the actual reason that the nuclear weapon states stayed away from the negotiations).

    So the Treaty will not actually lead to any disarmament, and has actually made the dialogue between NWSs and non-NWSs more difficult.

    None of these elements are in the motion, which they should be if it were to be an honest survey of the implications of signing the Ban Treaty. We can only ask ourselves why Kevin has not chosen to be direct and transparent in drafting this motion – the most obvious answers are that he is either unaware of the implications of what he is proposing, or that despite having lost every successive vote on unilateralism at Conference, he is attempting another tilt at the issue but hasn’t got the decency to be honest about it.

    For all of these reasons, FCC should reject the motion in its current form.

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Jul '18 - 3:53pm

    Kevin: the 122 number is typically misleading. You should point to 59 state signatories, 11 ratifications, 0 nuclear weapons states and 0 members of NATO.

    Here’s a link that may be helpful for you: http://www.icanw.org/status-of-the-treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/

  • If Britain has to retain nuclear weapons to remain part of NATO

    Britain doesn’t have to retain nuclear weapons to remain part of NATO. Obviously.

    However, the treaty in question includes the following:

    ‘1. Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to:
    (d) Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;’

    As being a member of NATO amounts to threatening the use of the USA’s nuclear explosive devices against anyone who attacks you (that being the whole reason NATO was originally created: so that the USSR knew that attacking even non-nuclear-armed countries which were part of it would bring a full American nuclear response), no NATO member can possibly sign up to this provision, and signing up to it would be incompatible with remaining a member of NATO.

  • Andy Hinton 11th Jul '18 - 6:22pm

    I’m with Dave Page. Conference debates on nuclear weapons are invariably of a high standard, with lots of articulate people on both the unilateralist and multilateralist sides, either of whose positions I would be relatively happy to see the party adopt. Instead, we invariably end up with a ludicrous fudge that does the party no good whatsoever with anyone (part-time submarine, anyone?). Until someone comes up with a way through that problem, I don’t see the point in yet another conference dust-up on nuclear weapons.

    Meanwhile, there is plenty of worthwhile stuff conference could be talking about.

  • @ David Raw

    “If Britain has to retain nuclear weapons to remain part of NATO – how come Germany, Belgium, Denmark and all the others can remain in NATO without them ?”

    That’d be because they, as members of NATO are quite happy to be tied into an organization that does have nuclear weapons – as long as somebody else takes responsibility for firing them. The UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons goes beyond that, and is incompatible with the NATO potential first use policy – which is why the countries you named haven’t signed up to it.

    Though the UK could unilaterally disarm itself and remain in NATO, we would still have to agree that NATO first use is an option, and support France or the US if they used them.

  • Mick Taylor 11th Jul '18 - 9:39pm

    There has never actually been a debate on a unilateralist motion or amendment in the Liberal Democrats. FCC ALWAYS refuses to take such a resolution/amendment (I know I’ve submitted them). Unilateralists like me always have to decide which nuclear bomb position is the least worst under consideration. I really do wish we could have an honest debate where the unilateralist position is put and voted on, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Jul '18 - 11:08pm

    Mick Taylor

    The last time (2015) there was a unilateralist amendment and it failed.

    As a multilateralist who has tried very hard to break out of the binary Trident vs Unilateralism dichotomy, the polarised debate in the party tends to kill debate rather than promote solutions that move beyond these positions.

    Oh, and unilateralism has always lost at Conference and framed in this way it will be no different, albeit this would undermine all of our foreign policy fundamentals.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Jul '18 - 5:27am

    Toby Fenwick, you say that “Conference is sovereign, and can of course vote for whatever policy it wants”. But Conference can only vote for this policy if FCC accepts it for debate. You seem to be arguing that FCC should deny Conference the opportunity to choose.
    I would urge FCC to have the courage to accept this motion for debate. I am sure that the issues you mention – the possible implications for our membership of NATO, etc – would be raised during the debate. I am sure party members voting at Conference are quite capable of considering these issues while making their decision.
    The point is that Conference should be given the opportunity to debate the issue, and make a decision, and FCC should give them this opportunity. To argue that FCC should reject the motion just because it might lead to wider changes in our defense policy, is to argue that FCC, rather than Conference, should decide party policy.

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Jul '18 - 11:50am

    Might we be better off without nuclear weapons and NATO?
    The problems with nuclear weapons is that they are so devastating in practice and the theory of their use is so deficient.
    Their use depends upon secure knowledge of what the opponent is actually and practically doing. To have reliable evidence of this is, in practice, impossible.
    Human have always been involved with accidents and misunderstandings and the consequential risks are too great to make a nuclear threat wise.
    Another problem is that nuclear weapons involve money and so there is a commercial vested interest in their retention and some form of use. Proposals to add more tactical “mini nukes” to the already massive nuclear weaponry indicates this.
    The US has the largest weapons industry and so it makes billions off the NATO purchases and it wants more to defend us against Russia.
    Russia spends $47 billion on its military while the US spends $647 billion.
    Russia’s GDP was $1.5 trillion while the EU’s was $17.3 trillion and that of the US was about $20 trillion.
    How are the Russians a real threat?
    If the aims of nuclear deterrence and NATO are to reduce death and hardship might we be wiser to put more into health and social care and less into nuclear weapons and aggressive military associations?

  • Ever since the nonsense of supporting a replacement for Trident came up in discussion I have argued that we should simply have a motion that says Trident will be phased out and no submarine based system will rep[lace it. The arguments in favour of that are overwhelming. If it were policy then eventually our nuclear weapon programme would wither on the vine but it would probably take a decade or more. All the valid arguments about NATO etc that others have made become irrelevant. We don`t, of course, know what that massive idiot and threat to world peace that has just about landed on our shores will do about NATO. Having said this I dis support this motion. If it is debated it might give some clarity with respect to long term defence strategy. In terms of UK National Security vastly more important than what is now (I believe) called Dreadnought is the Navy disposing of perfectly serviceable assets to Brazil & elsewhere for peanuts; the crisis of manpower in all services; inadequate basic equipment and much else. The government is NOT short of money – it just chooses to spend it on the wrong things.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Jul '18 - 1:17pm

    The questions we should be asking are : Do we consider that it can ever be morally justifiable to murder thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent civilians?
    Do we consider it morally justifiable to attempt to intimidate other nations by threatening the mass murder of their citizens, even if we do not intend to carry out that threat?
    If the answer is “no”, then we should support the UN treaty.

  • Do we consider it morally justifiable to attempt to intimidate other nations by threatening the mass murder of their citizens, even if we do not intend to carry out that threat?

    Problem is, if we don’t do that, then any nation which doesn’t have those same scruples can basically order us to do whatever it wants and we just have to comply.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Jul '18 - 2:39pm

    I rarely contribute to this site now as my experience for years is it is as polarised as it is sensible, years of getting nowhere fast here.

    This issue is one of great importance. There is a party called the Green Party. Why not join it.

    Why can there not be a mainstream party for Liberals who believe in defence and prison, not because we love them, but for the reason we need them.

    Must Liberals become liberal conservatives if classical in emphasis and liberal socialists if social more.

    Why not debate the end of the tv licence which imprisons people or Gosport that ended their lives.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Jul '18 - 2:56pm

    I add that I am not of the view that this or any party should be of one view, nor should members leave, I regularly encourage economic and social liberals to get on, but this issue has this party in a tiswas it doesn’t need. This issue, like abortion or capital punishment once upon a time, or even now if debated, should not have a policy beyond individual mp or peer conscience or non whipped decision.

    We can debate that we can change readily and those aspects we can do something about .

  • Peter Watson 12th Jul '18 - 4:02pm

    @Catherine Jane Crosland “The questions we should be asking are : Do we consider that it can ever be morally justifiable to murder thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent civilians?”
    Given the opprobrium that was heaped on Corbyn a couple of years ago when he stated that if PM he would not press the button, the impression I got was that even with the devoutly Christian Tim Farron as leader, the Lib Dem answer to your question was “yes”.

  • Kevin White 13th Jul '18 - 7:13am
  • Dominic Shadbolt 13th Jul '18 - 10:07am

    @ Toby Fenwick is far too modest to shout about his professional and academic expertise in this precise area, and can reasonably be referred to as an expert. He may go all ‘aw shucks’ at this but nevertheless, I think it is worth pointing out. And no, we are not bosom pals where I feel the need to leap to his defence any more than he requires defending. I just wanted to make the point.

    From my perspective debates such as this where they are a nice idea but not grounded in political and military realities just make the Liberal Democrats vulnerable to the facile but believed accusations from other political players that they are not suitable to have control of this country as they are not to be trusted with defence matters.

    I think that the nuclear deterrent is just expensive willy-waving to assure ourselves that we are some great big global player (strains of Empire here) and suck up to an increasingly isolationist US.

    Notwithstanding that, It is first necessary to achieve power to effect change. However distasteful that may be, the party needs to look and sound like what the average voter (remember, Brexit was lost to the ‘average voter’) wants to be led by. It is a game that the LDs seem to refuse to play. To change the game one has to first win at the existing game and then change the rules. Otherwise, one is condemned to losing with the cold-comfort of sitting on the moral high ground thumbing a nose and saying ‘I told you so.’

    *gets off soapbox*

  • Toby Fenwick 13th Jul '18 - 11:12pm

    Thanks Dominic – ‘aw shucks’ from me. However, the issues you raise are real, and as usual, I’m afriad, Kevin White has not attempted to answer them. Disappointing.

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