Anti-Trident motion sharpened up

by
01 March 2007

Replacing Trident

Child of peace: the Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, surrounded by the Bishops of Ripon & Leeds, Liverpool, Bath & Wells, and Carlisle

Child of peace: the Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, surrounded by the Bishops of Ripon & Leeds, Liverpool, Bath & Wells, and Carlisle

THE proposed upgrading of Trident is “contrary to the spirit of the UK’s obligations in international law and the ethical principles underpinning them”, the General Synod suggested on Monday afternoon.

A motion reflecting the findings of a report from the Church of England’s Public Affairs Council was amended by a narrow vote to make it more directly challenging of the Government’s recent decision, and then carried overwhelmingly.

The Synod had not had a substantial debate on nuclear weapons since 1988 in the era of the Cold War, said the Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, opening the debate. The time therefore seemed ripe for the Synod to contribute to the national debate the Government had called for before its consultation of Parliament next month.

When the Synod first debated nuclear weaponry in 1983, the country had learned to live with the bomb, “but with the kind of undergirding anxiety that today is experienced with issues such as climate change”. At that time, the Board for Social Responsibility had submitted a report that nuclear weapons could never be ethical.

The then Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, disagreed in an alternative report, arguing that neither insights from the Old and New Testaments provided answers to the ethical questions.

But both the BSR and Dr Leonard’s reports agreed the principle of proportion: “The harm done in the conduct of war must never be greater than the harm done or the injustice caused by the aggression it is intended to restrain or remedy.”

The use of nuclear weapons could never meet that criterion, but the possible threat of using them, the Mutually Assured Destruction policy, might. But there was no longer the threat of a massive Soviet army rolling into western Europe.

There was an argument that the Government should keep all options open. But nuclear weapons were not cheap. The £20 billion or so that the renewal of Trident would cost might bring more national security if spent on conventional arms.

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It was true that the British Government had reduced the scale and readiness of the Trident system, and planned to reduce it by another 20 per cent; but it was hardly in the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty. It could hardly claim to be in a strong moral position to argue that non-nuclear nations should not seek to develop them.

Michael Birkbeck (Salisbury), a former weapons engineer, made a case for the proved effectiveness of nuclear weapons. Gospel references about using weapons were “enigmatic”. The Government did not need to explain how the 20-per-cent reduction figure had been arrived at, nor to give out any sensitive information. “We do not need to know.” Trust was needed in senior military personnel and properly elected representatives.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, would have preferred the whole debate to have a more unilateralist approach. To renew Trident was to break faith and renege on international agreements, and to strip welfare provision of its resources, as had happened in the United States. He urged the Synod to support the motion, but to consider how it could have been more radical.

The Archbishop of Canterbury believed that modern welfare was generally regarded as a “morally shadowy business”. Christian unease about warfare had been allayed by appeals to lesser evils, but had stopped short of categorising nuclear warfare as “intrinsically indiscriminate” along with chemical and biological weapons and landmines.

It was impossible to make the case for proportional use. Was Trident indiscriminate? If the Christian body did want to locate nuclear weapons in the category of intrinsically indiscriminate, then the deterrence argument ought not to outweigh that consideration. It was a fundamental moral question, “the only issue on which a Synod like this can dare to have an opinion that has any kind of force. . . What is our view of the fundamental nature of these weapons?”

The nuclear threshold was now extremely high. “Once that threshold is passed, we are in a very new and dangerous environment.” Dr Williams reiterated that he did not believe that there was a case for the moral acceptability of nuclear weapons. This was the only issue upon which the Church could take a clear stand.

Dudley Coates (Methodist Church) said that the Methodist tradition had been divided on the subject of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War period, but now the situation was radically different. A debate in the Methodist Conference last year had endorsed the United Reformed Church’s view that the failure of nuclear states to pursue disarmament was a factor in making non-nuclear states feel at a disadvantage, and therefore leading to proliferation.

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They were opposed to renewal of Trident; and the Baptists and Roman Catholic bishops had raised similar questions. He would have liked the resolution to be a little more specific.

Richard Moon (Bath & Wells) suggested that 60 years of peace could be attributed to the world’s knowledge of the “ultimate deterrent”. The question was: were they safer with or without a nuclear deterrent? Unilateral disarmament involved too much risk.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, described himself as “a child of the peace”, and recognised that this fragile, peace had to a great extent been secured by nuclear deterrence. But he challenged the idea that security was the good that made other goods possible. Jesus Christ had set no premium on his own security. “People of faith cannot be risk-averse.” Whichever decision was made was not risk-free. “Some time, somewhere, someone has to risk breaking out of the pernicious upward, and therefore downward, spiral of nuclear proliferation.” Could that be Britain now — exchanging the status it gained from its nuclear arsenal for the status of “moral leadership”?

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, described himself as “a child of the peace”, and recognised that this fragile, peace had to a great extent been secured by nuclear deterrence. But he challenged the idea that security was the good that made other goods possible. Jesus Christ had set no premium on his own security. “People of faith cannot be risk-averse.” Whichever decision was made was not risk-free. “Some time, somewhere, someone has to risk breaking out of the pernicious upward, and therefore downward, spiral of nuclear proliferation.” Could that be Britain now — exchanging the status it gained from its nuclear arsenal for the status of “moral leadership”?

The Revd Moira Astin (Oxford) was surprised to hear it said that there had been peace for 60 years; that reflected a narrow, western-European definition. It entailed the loss of moral integrity, and for the MAD principle to work necessitated one or other moral failing, because there had to be ambiguity about whether or not Britain was willing to fire the weapons.

Brigadier Ian Dobbie (Rochester) said it was likely that new nations with ill intent would seek to acquire nuclear weapons by any means possible. It would be grossly irresponsible if the UK did not retain its own deterrent while at the same time pursuing non-proliferation.

He welcomed the proposal to reduce the Trident system by 20 per cent, but reminded the Synod that while 29 per cent of government expenditure went on social security, only five per cent was spent on defence. Nuclear deterrence was comparatively cheap, but more also needed to be spent on conventional weaponry.

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Nuclear weapons were more political than military weapons, said Robert Key (Salisbury). The Church of England had a particular duty to express its views to Government and people. Morality was not the exclusive preserve of those who demonstrated outside Parliament and military establishments. There was no evidence that disarmament by the UK would have the slightest influence on other countries that had, or sought, nuclear weapons.

Jonathan Redden (Sheffield) asked for more teaching on the just-war principle. Whose view was to be taken: the pre-Augustine and essentially pacifist view, or Tony Blair’s?

Justin Brett (Oxford) moved his amendment, which sought to strengthen the motion. He wished he could have been even more radical. It was not the task of the Church to determine defence strategy, but to give a moral lead: “Does the Government care what we say when we just tell them something that is morally cuddly, something with no bite?” he asked.

If the Synod wanted the Government to engage with the issue, then it ought to give it something to which it could respond.

Peter French (Birmingham) urged the Synod to carry the amendment. The C of E should be clear and unambiguous: Christians were peacemakers and offered something different. The Church should be clearly proclaiming that to spend money in this way was wrong and immoral.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) reminded the Synod that the Government had decided to renew Trident. Would an amendment suggesting that the Government was wrong have any effect?

After a close count of hands, the Synod divided: the amendment was carried by 165 to 149.

Prebendary David Houlding (London) said that the nuclear threat not only “causes terror to others, but causes terror to us, too”. Aquinas, in his just-war theory, was clear about the importance of proportionality, and no one could ever say that nuclear weapons were proportional. Prebendary Houlding wanted the Synod to reflect further on what a just war meant. Aquinas was far from out of date. The Synod should insist on no deterrent at all.

Robin Lunn (Worcester) said that the Government had a responsibility to protect its people. He was concerned, though, that upgrading Trident would lead to the postponement of the three new aircraft-carriers that the Royal Navy needed. It also put at risk thousands of jobs in Gosport and others in naval bases.

Replying to the debate, Dr Butler said that those who had produced the report had expected a unilateralist amendment. The fact that there had not been one, and that the vote on the amendment had been so close, suggested that the report and its motions “had been pitched about right”. The amended motion was put to the vote, and carried by 206 to 38.

It said:

This Synod, recognising the fundamental responsibility of HM Government to provide for the security of the country:

(a) welcome the response from the Mission & Public Affairs Council to the House of Commons and Defence Select Committee’s inquiry expressing serious questions about the proposed renewal of the UK’s deterrent;

(b) call on Christian people to make an informed contribution to the issues raised in The Future of Trident in the light of Christian teaching about just war; and

(c) suggest to HM Government that the proposed upgrading of Trident is contrary to the spirit of the UK’s obligations in international law and the ethical principles underpinning them.

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