Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?

Kate Hudson of CND reveals what 1981’s cabinet papers show about Mrs Thatcher’s determination to secure Trident over the objections of her own party.

 

Kate Hudson is the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Strange to find a retrospective ally in Thatcher’s defence secretary John Nott. Yet that is what the 1981 cabinet papers, released last week, convey loud and clear.

In February of that year, Thatcher met with Nott and foreign secretary Lord Carrington at Downing Street to discuss the purchase of Trident nuclear missiles from the United States. Nott, the papers show, told Thatcher that a full debate on nuclear policy was essential:

“…since two-thirds of the party and two-thirds of the cabinet were opposed to the procurement of Trident. Even the chiefs of staff were not unanimous.”

Obviously – from my point of view – Nott was making the right demand for the wrong reason: he was in full support of buying Trident and wanted to win the rest of the Tory party to his position. But nevertheless his instinct was right – change people’s minds through open debate and discussion.

But Mrs Thatcher had no interest in debating the issue and saw no need to win hearts and minds when she could make such significant decisions behind the scenes, without scrutiny or accountability.

In fact she had already made a secret deal with US President Jimmy Carter to buy the missiles in July 1980. The rest of the cabinet only became aware of the deal when the details were leaked in the US.

Yet even though Trident was a done deal, it continued to cause concern amongst Thatcher’s ministers.

In March 1981, trade secretary John Biffen warned Thatcher that support for the anti-nuclear movement would increase, surpassing its 1950s Aldermaston peak. Biffen was indeed right as CND membership grew exponentially and it went on to mobilise many hundreds of thousands against Pershing, cruise and Trident in the years that followed.

Biffen warned of the electoral impact of this opposition on the Tory vote and so the party machine went into overdrive to discredit the movement – and by association the Labour party – through a systematic campaign of lies, smears and dirty tricks.

None of that is really surprising of course. Of far greater significance is the news of the scale of opposition to Trident within both Tory cabinet and party ranks. It is all too easy to make assumptions about what one’s perceived political opponents will believe. Clearly, even at the height of the Cold war, the majority of Tories did not have a knee-jerk pro-nuclear reaction.

Recent polls show Tory supporters marginally more in favour of scrapping Trident (48 per cent) than not (47 per cent), but the actual views of Tory party members – and indeed cabinet members – are not available in quantifiable form. But it is hard to believe that there can be anything like the unanimity on the subject that is popularly portrayed.

Strong opposition from senior military figures describing Trident as useless must cut some ice, as must the swingeing cuts made to conventional defence as MoD money goes on nukes.

I have no doubt that there are major debates at top political levels about whether or not Trident should be replaced. All the more reason why, as Nott said in 1981, there should be a full debate on nuclear policy.

Thirty years later, as we head towards Trident’s successor, we have still not had one. And now – as spending on replacement grows, even prior to the final decision in 2016 – is the time to have that discussion, openly and without prejudice.

See also:

Tories plan to suppress Trident debateKate Hudson, November 24th 2011

We can still fight Trident: Here’s howDaniel Blaney, November 10th 2011

Scrapping Trident for the savings is a losing argument; CND need realistic oppositionAndrew Gibson, November 4th 2011

Government ramps up Trident work despite coalition pledgeKate Hudson, February 18th 2011

Cost of Trident delay inevitable result of the compromise of coalitionMarcus Roberts, November 11th 2010

18 Responses to “Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?”

  1. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course? //t.co/fq8TDUrv

  2. Lindsey German

    Kate Hudson on @leftfootfwd: "Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?" //t.co/C2mMCr2N

  3. Janet Graham

    Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course? //t.co/595PJMFQ by @CNDuk’s Kate Hudson

  4. Anonymous

    Thirty years later, as we head towards Trident’s successor, we have still not had one. And now – as spending on replacement grows, even prior to the final decision in 2016 – is the time to have that discussion, openly and without prejudice.

    ==========

    How about starting with why under Labour defence procurement was so piss poor?

    Then we could move on to why the rest of government procurement was identical.

    Then we can investigate the consequences.

    7,000 bn of debt (6,000 bn hidden off the books like PFI). That’s the symptom

    The consequences are going to be massive cuts.

    However I’ve no doubt your will carry on blaming Thatcher for your fiscal incontinence.

  5. chris paling

    Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course? //t.co/595PJMFQ by @CNDuk’s Kate Hudson

  6. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow… //t.co/qkBFCh5C

  7. Dominic Linley

    Now we know Thatcher shut down debate on Trident in the 80's. Will the coalition follow the same course? //t.co/vyEf57tx

  8. Labour CND

    Kate Hudson on @leftfootfwd: "Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?" //t.co/C2mMCr2N

  9. Labour CND

    Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course? //t.co/595PJMFQ by @CNDuk’s Kate Hudson

  10. Luke Massey

    Kate Hudson on @leftfootfwd: "Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?" //t.co/C2mMCr2N

  11. Seanie

    In the Cold War there was possibly some justification for spending vast sums of money on nuclear weapons. Today there is none. How can they protect us against Al Qa-eda, cyber attacks, and financial crises – the main threats our society faces today?

  12. NIS

    Kate Hudson on @leftfootfwd: "Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?" //t.co/C2mMCr2N

  13. Blarg1987

    Defence contracts never run on time or money, the new technologies that are developed are always delayed and cost more, and by the time they are ready the threat has changed.
    BAE admitted it underbidded for the 2 carriers to get the contract and besides if we were fully upfront about defence costs to begin with half these projects would never have happened.

    The alternative of off the shelf procurement for minor systems may make sense but there again do we want to be relying on a foreign power to supply the cornerstone of our military capability when things could change?

    It is right to have an open discussion about trident as there could be cheaper more practical alternatives such as an updated generation of SSN’s with long range nuclear cruise missles, spending on cyber warfare rendering offensive capability null and void etc.

    No one can predict future warfare as there are so many variables, who would have thought nearly 100 years ago that horses and trenches would be rendered obsolete.

  14. Newsbot9

    Fix the UNSC, THEN talk about this. Throwing away our negotiating hand is silly.

  15. Newsbot9

    No, I’ll blame you and your Tories for their plain incontinence. Then blaming the poor for it. As usual.

  16. Karin

    Kate Hudson on @leftfootfwd: "Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?" //t.co/C2mMCr2N

  17. Knut Cayce

    RT @leftfootfwd: Now we know: #Thatcher shut down debate on #Trident. Will the #coalition follow course? //t.co/nInlBHWU

  18. John Creaby

    Kate Hudson on @leftfootfwd: "Now we know: Thatcher shut down debate on Trident. Will the coalition follow course?" //t.co/C2mMCr2N

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