Trident debate highlights Labour divisions on defence

SNP is determined to highlight and exploit cracks in the Labour party

The 16,000-ton Trident-class nuclear submarine Vanguard, as Labour’s divisions over Britain’s nuclear deterrent grows. Photograph: PA Wire

The House of Commons has overwhelmingly rejected a motion to scrap the Trident nuclear defence system, just as its sponsors, the Scottish National Party (SNP), always knew it would. The motion was, in any case, nonbinding, but its purpose had less to do with shaping Britain's defence policy than with launching a poison-tipped missile into the unhappy ranks of the parliamentary Labour party.

As national security emerges as the fault-line dividing Labour MPs from their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the majority of the party members who support him, the SNP is determined to exploit the divisions.

“We had high hopes that we would not be a lone voice. When the rank and file of the British Labour party elected the right honourable Member for Islington North, an avowed unilateralist, as its leader, SNP Members hoped that there would be serious opposition to Trident.

Robust opposition

“Of course, the mere thought of that caused palpitations among both the red and blue shades of the British establishment. I genuinely wish the right honourable gentleman well in continuing his robust opposition to Trident,” said SNP defence spokesman Brendan O’Hara as he introduced the motion, his voice and demeanour betraying not the smallest trace of sincerity.


Labour MPs had been instructed to abstain, and most of them stayed away from the chamber altogether.

Of those who spoke, however, the majority voiced support for retaining Trident, a position that remains official Labour policy despite Mr Corbyn's anti-nuclear stance. The party has undertaken a review of its defence policy, co-chaired by shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle and, controversially, former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

“It will allow people across the party, in the trade union movement and in communities right across the land to engage in the debate.

"It will learn about the facts and debunk the myths, as part of a national conversation. We will not shrink from the debates; we will relish them. This is an issue on which we believe there needs to be more light and less heat," said Labour's Toby Perkins.

In the end, the motion was defeated by 330 votes to 64, with 14 Labour MPs rebelling by voting with the government and a further six voting with the SNP.

Doing well

With most Labour MPs despairing of his leadership and under daily attack by a universally hostile media, Mr Corbyn can draw comfort from a new poll of Labour members and supporters, showing that 66 per cent think he is doing well. The YouGov poll of those eligible to vote in a Labour leadership election follows a ComRes poll of voters generally, which put the Conservatives 15 points ahead of Labour, at 42 per cent against 27 per cent.

Mr Corbyn faces a further test on defence next week, when MPs are expected to vote on whether Britain should extend its airstrikes against Islamic State (IS), which are currently limited to Iraq, into Syria.

David Cameron will make the case for military action in Syria on Thursday and the government is increasingly confident of securing a majority in favour of it.

The Labour shadow cabinet will meet after Mr Cameron’s statement and will spend the weekend consulting with constituents before meeting again on Monday to agree a common approach to the Commons vote. Mr Corbyn is opposed to extending the airstrikes into Syria, but he is almost certainly in a minority within the shadow cabinet as well as in the Labour parliamentary party.

The shadow cabinet could allow Labour MPs a free vote on the issue, thereby limiting the potential embarrassment to Mr Corbyn if most MPs vote differently from their leader.