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British Parliament Votes to Spend Big on Nukes

A large majority of British MPs back costly plan to replace the country’s fleet of nuclear-armed subs.

LARGS, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  In this handout image provided by MoD Crown Copyright, HMS Vengeance departs for Devonport prior to re-fit on Ferbruary 27, 2012 off the coast of Largs, Scotland. The UK Ministry of Defence has awarded UK's leading naval support business Babcock, on March 25, 2012, with a contract to commence the planning phase for the ?350 million GBP refit of Trident ballistic missile submarine HMS Vengeance, which will be undertaken at their Devonport Royal Dockyard. The project to upgrade and refuel the nuclear submarine will safeguard 2,000 UK jobs and will take around three and a half years. River Tamar shipping was suspended when the the 150m-long, 15,900-tonne submarine HMS Vengeance travelled to the Devonport Dockyard ahead of the scheduled refit on March 2, 2012, arriving amid concerns without a signed contract for the refit.  HMS Vengeance will be the last of four Vanguard class submarines to undergo a Lond Overhaul Period and Refuel LOP(R) at Davernport that will commence once HMS Vigilant leaves Devonport on completion of her LOP(R) in 2012. Mandatory Credit: (Photo by Andrew Linnett/MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images)
LARGS, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 27: In this handout image provided by MoD Crown Copyright, HMS Vengeance departs for Devonport prior to re-fit on Ferbruary 27, 2012 off the coast of Largs, Scotland. The UK Ministry of Defence has awarded UK's leading naval support business Babcock, on March 25, 2012, with a contract to commence the planning phase for the ?350 million GBP refit of Trident ballistic missile submarine HMS Vengeance, which will be undertaken at their Devonport Royal Dockyard. The project to upgrade and refuel the nuclear submarine will safeguard 2,000 UK jobs and will take around three and a half years. River Tamar shipping was suspended when the the 150m-long, 15,900-tonne submarine HMS Vengeance travelled to the Devonport Dockyard ahead of the scheduled refit on March 2, 2012, arriving amid concerns without a signed contract for the refit. HMS Vengeance will be the last of four Vanguard class submarines to undergo a Lond Overhaul Period and Refuel LOP(R) at Davernport that will commence once HMS Vigilant leaves Devonport on completion of her LOP(R) in 2012. Mandatory Credit: (Photo by Andrew Linnett/MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images)

A large majority of British lawmakers on Monday backed plans to replace the country’s nuclear-armed submarines with new vessels, a move that advocates argued would maintain the U.K.’s status as a major world power despite its vote to leave the European Union.

Members of the House of Commons voted by 472 to 117 to build new submarines to replace the aging fleet, endorsing an expensive project that will cost an estimated 31 billion to 41 billion pounds ($54 billion) over the next 20 years.

Nearly the entire ruling Conservative Party voted in favor along with more than half of the opposition Labour Party, who defied their leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has long backed nuclear disarmament.

But Scottish National Party MPs voted against renewing the nuclear arsenal, and have pledged that if Scotland seceded from the United Kingdom, it would demand London remove the Vanguard-class subs that are currently docked there. 

The British exit from the EU was opposed by 62 percent of Scottish voters, and the referendum result has bolstered pro-independence sentiment. A British parliamentary report has warned that if Scotland seceded and booted out the submarines, it would take up to 20 years and billions of pounds to build an alternative base in England for the vessels.

Monday’s vote does not resolve the potential problem of where the submarines should go if Scotland were to leave Britain, but it does resolve the uncertainty about whether London is committed to paying for a new fleet of subs to replace the four vessels that have been in service since the 1990s.

The vote came after last month’s Brexit referendum roiled world markets, jolted London’s political class, and caused some inside and outside Britain to openly question whether the U.K. would retain its military might and standing as a great power.

The referendum result exposed deep divisions in the ruling Conservative Party, prompting the resignation of David Cameron as prime minister after his unsuccessful campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.

The new prime minister, Theresa May, was accused by critics of pressing ahead with the nuclear vote to rally her fractured party around an issue it could agree on, while forcing an uncomfortable debate on her Labour opponents.

In her first statement in parliament since taking over as prime minister on Wednesday, May gave full-throated support to the nuclear weapons program. And in an extraordinary moment, May said she would be ready to order a nuclear attack if necessary.

During the debate, George Kerevan of the Scottish National Party asked May: “Is she personally prepared to authorize a nuclear strike that can kill 100,000 innocent men, women, and children?”

May replied without hesitation: “I have to say to the honorable gentleman, the whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it, unlike some suggestions that we could have a deterrent but not actually be willing to use it, which seem to come from the Labour Party frontbench.”

The parliamentary vote will be welcomed in Washington and across the NATO alliance. But the Labour Party’s leader, Corbyn, has suggested removing the nuclear warheads from the Trident missiles carried on the submarines. In Monday’s debate, he once again questioned the rationale for retaining dozens of nuclear warheads that could cause catastrophic loss of life.

“What is the threat we are facing that a million people’s deaths would actually deter?” Corbyn said. After all, he argued, the nuclear arsenal had not deterred the Islamic State, Saddam Hussein, war crimes in the Balkans, or genocide in Rwanda.

Since 1969, Britain has maintained one ballistic missile submarine on patrol at all times. The silent subs each carry eight U.S.-manufactured Trident missiles with a range of 7,500 miles and 40 atomic warheads that carry 266 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

According to supporters of the program, the Trident “deterrent” is supposed to protect Britain by discouraging an enemy from attempting a nuclear attack or blackmail through the threat of massive retaliation. 

The long-running debate about the Trident nuclear force has always been as much about Britain’s place in the world as about the utility of the weapons themselves.

“Trident may or may not keep us safe,” columnist Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian in February. “The hope is, and always has been, that it will keep us important.”

Photo credit: Andrew Linnett/MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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