10 June 2006

Play up! Play up! And Play the Game!

By Marguerite Finn

'The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! Play up! And play the game!'

(Sir Henry Newbolt 1862-1938)

Sir Henry Newbolt died before the onset of the second world war, which changed most things forever, yet his words are oddly relevant today – when the great game is being played across the world – that of threat and persuasion between former and present global powers.

Last Friday, about 50 Norwich citizens gathered to debate the replacement of Britain's not-so-independent Trident nuclear submarine system – our very own weapon of mass destruction – when it goes out of service in the 2020s.

Campaigners for the CND on Hay Hill, Norwich Photo: Campaigners for the CND on Hay Hill, Norwich

On September 13th 2005, defence secretary John Reid promised "an open debate in the country, parliamentary party and parliament" on whether Trident should be replaced with a new and more powerful system. It was in this spirit that Norwich CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) held its meeting, although the government and the Ministry of Defence have so far declined to provide any of the information necessary for a full and balanced debate.

CND believes it must help set the terms of the debate. To this end, Bruce Kent and the Chair of National CND, Kate Hudson, came to Norwich to engage the public on this crucial issue. It's not an easy task. The public – who Kofi Annan terms 'civil society' – is reluctant even to think about issues such as Trident Replacement or nuclear weapons, let alone debate them – hence the low turnout at the meeting. Why?

Well, people may feel that they have not got enough information or time to give proper consideration to these questions; they may be in denial about the whole thing, or they may simply not want 'politics' to disrupt their relatively comfortable lives. But 'politics' is part of all our daily lives and we should be glad of any opportunity to influence major political decisions taken in our name. There is no shame in asking the question; do we really need to spend upwards of £25bn on a system that will be out of date almost as soon as it is built?

The world is moving on from cold-war thinking. In national editorials the argument is split less along ideological lines than around practical arguments about the utility and relevance of nuclear weapons for addressing 21st century security challenges. At the Norwich meeting, Bruce Kent gave a wonderful analogy: - we had arrived "at a cusp" in world affairs when nuclear weapon states should re-evaluate their adherence to "the castle view of History" with each defending its own fortress with ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction, while the 'castle' itself was degenerating into a run-down boarding house with a leaking roof, a mass of dry rot and a rusty fire-escape!

The US 'Star Wars' programme renders deterrence useless. Submarines will no longer be invisible and a surprise first strike will be impossible. Therefore spending £25bn to replace Trident would be like replacing the cavalry! The US and British governments are 'legally delinquent' in threatening Iran for wanting nuclear energy, which is their right under the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, when nuclear disarmament is our duty under the very same treaty!

Kate Hudson spoke of growing public opposition to nuclear weapons. She quoted the latest report from the UN Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Hans Blix, which calls for the removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, saying that the 'war on terror' must be abandoned to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable.

Kate urged everyone to get their MPs to sign EDM 1197 which calls for a full public debate on Trident's replacement, and she ended her upbeat message by reminding us that the power of public protest should never be underestimated.

Several members of the audience commented that the real evil of Trident lay not in the submarines themselves but in human minds and hearts and unless that changed there would be no solution to nuclear proliferation. UK nuclear weapons are not just to deter any invaders but to protect our 'economic interests', wherever they may be – a hang-over from the worst of Empire. There was a strong feeling that there is now a unique opportunity for Britain to achieve greater stature by disarming unilaterally and becoming a force for peace in the world, thus playing the Game as we ought - honourably.

To join in the debate visit http://www.cnduk.org/.