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British Press Chastise Blair For Rushing Trident Decision

Nuclear weapons are a divisive issue within Blair's governing Labour Party, as unilateral disarmament was a key plank of its policy at the height of the Cold War during the 1980s. But he is unlikely to suffer an embarrassing defeat in parliament.
by Prashant Rao
London (AFP) Dec 05, 2006
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposals presented to parliament to modernise Britain's nuclear deterrent were met with sceptism in the country's press on Tuesday, which asked: Why now? Left- and right-wing newspapers alike united to question the seemingly rushed decision-making process after the government said lawmakers would vote on the issue early next year, on a decision that will affect Britons for a generation.

The right-of-centre Daily Mail, no fan of the government, while stating its support for Britain retaining an independent nuclear deterrent asked in its editorial: "Why is the nation being bulldozed into a decision without a proper debate?"

"Aren't there vitally important questions we need answered before we are committeed to this huge decision for a generation to come?"

"For a start, is the case totally proven that Britain still needs a deterrent?"

The Daily Telegraph -- another right-of-centre supporter of retaining nuclear weapons -- similarly asked: "Why the rush?"

"Mr Blair claims it will take the better part of two decades to build replacement submarines and the process must start swiftly," the newspaper's editorial, which usually backs the main opposition Conservatives, read.

"The more sceptical will suspect that the entire timetable has been dictated by Mr Blair's endless quest for a political legacy as he prepares to hand over power."

The left-wing Daily Mirror, traditionally a government-backing tabloid, said in its editorial: "Tony Blair is a man in a hurry to persuade Britons to spend tens of billions of pounds on an expensive new generation of nuclear weapons."

"After nine-and-a-half years in power, just three months' debate is inadequate on a decision of fundamental importance that will have far-reaching consequences long after he's gone," it read.

The Guardian, another supporter of the governing Labour Party, was also unimpressed by Monday's announcement: "The question the government must answer in the debate it has promised before parliament votes next March is not just 'why', but 'why now?'."

"Intended as a gesture of seriousness to show Britain's intentions in the world, the weapons may or may not impress a future and unknown enemy."

"They are certainly not 'critical' as the prime minister said yesterday."

Also chiming in was the Financial Times, which similarly noted in the headline of its editorial that there were "unanswered questions surrounding Trident".

"What exactly ... is it for? ... What is Britain's deterrent meant to deter?"

"Put simply: do we need Trident as 'the ultimate insurance' as Mr Blair says? Or are we clinging to the ultimate vestige of the great power delusions to which this prime minister seems especially prone?"

The Independent, a left-of-centre daily, lamented: "There was a chance here for Britain to set a new direction in the international debate: one that was about restraint rather than escalation," the newspaper's editorial read.

"That opportunity has been lost."

The only two newspapers that offered support for Blair's proposals were The Times and The Sun.

The Sun, Britain's best-read daily, noted in its "The Sun Says" editorial column that it "was good to see Tony Blair and (Conservative Party leader) David Cameron united yesterday in support of a second generation of Trident nukes."

"In these troubled and uncertain times, it is vital we maintain our guard and stand together against all possible threats."

The Times, meanwhile, noted: "There is indeed little chance now or in the next few years that any dictator would be able to launch a nuclear strike on Britain."

"But that may not be the case in 10 or 20 years, when nuclear proliferation may have gone far beyond Pyongyang and Tehran."

"Mr Blair, to his credit, is not prepared to gamble Britain's future security."

earlier related report
Blair unveils plans to keep nuclear arsenal, cut warheads
by Lachlan Carmichael
London (AFP) Dec 4 - Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled plans Monday to modernise Britain's nuclear deterrent, cutting the number of warheads but warning that disarming would be dangerous as new terrorist threats emerge. While the Cold War is over, he said states like North Korea and Iran both had "highly dubious" reasons to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, and other rogue states were a distinct reason for Britain to keep its deterrent.

The plans include a new generation of nuclear submarines at a cost of up to 20 billion pounds (39.5 billion dollars).

In an apparent concession to critics from within his own party and the anti-nuclear lobby, Blair promised to cut the number of stockpiled nuclear warheads by 20 percent from about 200 currently to 160.

But he said: "The government's judgment, on balance, is that though the Cold War is over, we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interest will not emerge."

The premier, outlining the government's proposals to retain the US-built Trident missile system to parliament, said there were "new and potentially hazardous" threats from states like North Korea and Iran.

He cited "a possible connection between some of those states and international terrorism", saying that no other nuclear state in the world was considering unilaterally getting rid of its capability.

"In these circumstances, it would be unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent," he told the lower House of Commons.

Blair argued that action was needed immediately to take the first steps towards maintaining Trident, because of the estimated 17 years it takes to design, build and deploy a new submarine.

A new generation of submarines would cost between 15 billion and 20 billion pounds (22.2 billion-29.7 billion euros, 29.6 billion-39.5 billion dollars), including design and manufacturing costs, he added.

No decisions were needed on replacing warheads, as the lifespan of the Trident D5 missile can be extended to 2042, he said.

Blair rejected concerns that by retaining Trident, Britain was in breach of its obligations to nuclear non-proliferation.

"We have the smallest stockpile of nuclear warheads amongst the recognised nuclear weapons states, and are the only one to have reduced our stockpile of operationally available warheads to no more than 160, which represents a further 20 percent," he said.

"Compared with previous plans, we will have reduced the number of such weapons by nearly half."

The issue of replacing Trident is likely to dominate the political agenda in the coming months before a parliamentary vote on the matter in March.

Nuclear weapons are a divisive issue within Blair's governing Labour Party, as unilateral disarmament was a key plank of its policy at the height of the Cold War during the 1980s.

But he is unlikely to suffer an embarrassing defeat in parliament.

The leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, told Blair his party agreed with Blair's position "on substance and on timing".

Opponents including the anti-nuclear lobby have claimed that Blair is trying to rush through a decision without a proper public debate and under pressure from the defence industry.

They also pointed to the cost of replacing the system, with observers putting estimates at anything from 25 billion pounds upwards.

"To pursue another generation of nuclear weapons, without sufficient consultation and consideration of all the options, is irresponsible to the extreme," said Kate Hudson, chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

"This decision will promote proliferation and a new nuclear arms race which will ultimately lead to nuclear weapons use."

The Trident system is currently based on four Vanguard class Royal Navy submarines, one of which is always on patrol and fully armed.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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