Stephen Castlejan, The New York Times
17 January 2016
Stirring a divisive internal debate over defense, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, suggested on Sunday that he might support the continued existence of the country’s Trident submarine fleet if it were sent on patrol without carrying nuclear warheads.
Mr. Corbyn, who was elected as the party’s leader last year, is trying to shift Labour leftward on a range of
economic issues, such as opposition to inequality and government spending cuts, but defense has become central to his efforts to reshape the party.
As a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons, Mr. Corbyn has opposed Labour’s support for the Trident submarine system, and last year he said that, if elected prime minister, he could never order the use of such weapons.
While many of the party members who elected him their leader back that stance, Mr. Corbyn faces fierce opposition from some Labour lawmakers, and tensions have surfaced ahead of a parliamentary vote, likely in the spring, on the Conservative government’s plan to renew the Trident program.
Speaking on the BBC, Mr. Corbyn argued that even Prime Minister David Cameron would be unlikely to order the use of Trident missiles, and when asked about the point of keeping submarines on patrol, Mr. Corbyn replied, “They don’t have to have warheads on them.”
He also described the protection of employment in the defense sector as a priority, suggesting that his position was designed at least partly to allay concerns among union leaders who argue that the cancellation of Trident would cost many jobs.
Trident is a highly sensitive issue for Labour. This month, Mr. Corbyn removed his shadow cabinet’s defense secretary, Maria Eagle, a supporter of nuclear deterrent. Her successor as spokeswoman on defense issues, Emily Thornberry, confirmed on Sunday that one option being considered was to have the capability to deploy nuclear weapons without routinely doing so, a stance she likened to that of Japan.
For Mr. Corbyn’s internal opponents, the issue is totemic because, while out of power in the 1980s, Labour shifted away from a unilateralist position on nuclear disarmament as part of a change championed first by Neil Kinnock and later by Tony Blair.
In recent years the debate has evolved somewhat, across the political spectrum. The Scottish National Party won a landslide in Scotland in last year’s general elections on a platform that included scrapping the Trident program. Some military figures have also argued that, in an era of strained budgets, Britain could be better off spending its scarce resources on conventional capabilities.
In response to Mr. Corbyn’s comments, Michael Fallon, the defense secretary, described the Labour Party as a “threat to our national security.” But Bill Kidd, a member of the Scottish Parliament from the Scottish National Party, argued that “keeping the capability to launch nuclear weapons, and therefore the ability to cause catastrophic and unimaginable destruction, is not a suitable solution, and Trident should be scrapped altogether.”
In his BBC interview, Mr. Corbyn also said a channel of communication to Islamic State militants should be created, and cited the secret contacts between the British government and the Irish Republican Army during the decadeslong conflict in Northern Ireland.
“There has to be a route through somewhere,” he said, adding that some senior Islamic State commanders were former officers in the Iraqi Army, and that “there has to be some understanding of where their strong points are, where their weak points are.”
Mr. Corbyn also said there should be a “discussion” with Argentina about the future of the Falkland Islands, and on domestic issues, suggested a repeal of laws outlawing labor action by trade unions in sympathy with other workers.