LONDON: Britain’s parliament is expected to approve a new nuclear arsenal on Wednesday but Prime Minister Tony Blair may have to rely on opposition votes to push his plans through.
Blair is due to step down in the next few months and is convinced Britain needs to renew its nuclear deterrent, despite deep-rooted opposition within his Labour Party which could see scores of Labour lawmakers voting against him.
Blair argues Britain must keep atomic weapons because potential threats from Iran, North Korea or nuclear terrorists mean abandoning them now could be a costly mistake — even if there is no current threat.
“If we did not have these weapons available there is no possibility that a future generation could get them to deter that sort of threat should it emerge quickly,” Defence Minister Des Browne told BBC radio on Wednesday.
Britain’s nuclear arsenal is the smallest among the five U.N. Security Council permanent members who are legally recognised as nuclear states under the non-proliferation treaty.
It consists of four British-built Vanguard-class submarines that carry 16 U.S.-supplied Trident long-range missiles, armed with British-built nuclear warheads. The submarines are due to go out of service in about 2024.
The government wants to spend up to GBP 20 billion ($39 billion) on three or four nuclear-armed submarines to replace the present ageing system, saying it must act quickly to have a replacement ready in time.
IMPETUS TO PROLIFERATION
But opponents say Britain no longer needs weapons to deter an attack from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, and by renewing the arsenal it would become harder to persuade countries such as Iran and North Korea to forsake nuclear weapons.
“Our decision could well be the hinge point between real impetus towards stopping proliferation or a trigger leading to a cascade of further proliferation...,” said Michael Meacher, a left-wing Labour legislator who will challenge for the party leadership when Blair goes.
Critics say the money could be better spent beefing up ground forces for peacekeeping, to intervene in failed states, or to fight militant groups -- the sort of missions Britain has undertaken almost continuously since the Cold War ended.
A deep hostility to nuclear weapons runs through the Labour Party, which espoused unilateral nuclear disarmament until the late 1980s. Almost two-thirds of Labour lawmakers who took part in a poll released on Sunday opposed the plan.
Nigel Griffiths, deputy leader of the lower house of parliament and a member of Blair’s government, quit on Monday in protest. Jim Devine, a ministerial aide, was also reported to have resigned on Tuesday.
Blair has a majority of 67 in the 646-seat lower house. The revolt over Trident is likely to be the biggest since nearly 140 Labour legislators voted against going war in Iraq.
However the opposition Conservative Party, which has 196 seats, has said it will back Blair’s plans to renew Trident.