New British PM wins vote to update nuclear arsenal

A Royal Navy photo released on Monday shows a Vanguard-class submarine, which carries Trident missiles, in 2007.
A Royal Navy photo released on Monday shows a Vanguard-class submarine, which carries Trident missiles, in 2007.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Move to replace ageing submarines seen as UK's bid to remain a global power despite Brexit

LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May, in her first major parliamentary appearance since taking office last week, won a vote on Monday to authorise and update Britain's nuclear arsenal, a move designed to underscore the nation's commitment to remaining a global power despite its recent decision to leave the European Union.

Making her first statement in the House of Commons since becoming Prime Minister, Mrs May told lawmakers that it would be an act of "gross irresponsibility" not to replace the nation's aging fleet of nuclear-armed submarines at a time when threats were increasing rather than diminishing.

Mrs May told lawmakers that she would be willing to order the use of the Trident system of submarine-based nuclear missiles if necessary, and she made a broad defence of the programme's renewal.

"The nuclear threat has not gone away. If anything, it has increased," she said, adding that it was impossible to predict that no extreme threats would emerge in the next 30 or 40 years, and that "it would be an act of gross irresponsibility to lose the ability to meet such threats by discarding the ultimate insurance against those risks in the future".

The vote in Parliament on maintaining Britain's nuclear missiles and the submarines that carry them gave the new British leader a chance to highlight the deep divisions in the opposition Labour Party over the issue, and the relative unity of her own Conservative Party after months in which the Conservatives were deeply split over whether to leave the EU.

Lawmakers supported renewal of the Trident nuclear programme by a vote of 472-117. Most Conservative Party lawmakers supported Trident, and enough deputies in the Labour Party were expected to vote in favour, or to abstain, for the measure to pass comfortably.

However, Labour's left-wing leader, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, who has campaigned for decades for nuclear disarmament, opposes Trident and on Monday described it as "an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction."

The issue also illustrated the deep strains afflicting Britain after the "Brexit" vote. The Scottish National Party, which dominates representation of Scotland, fiercely opposes the nuclear system as well as withdrawal from the EU, and it has indicated that it might seek another referendum on Scottish independence, after a failed vote in 2014, if Britain goes through with its departure from the bloc.

Almost all Scottish lawmakers voted against the Trident programme, like many lawmakers on the left wing of the Labour Party.

Britain's nuclear submarines are based in Scotland, which complicates the question of how the nation could retain its capacity as a nuclear deterrent if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom.

Mrs May also promised to allocate at least 2 per cent of gross domestic spending for defence, matching a Nato guideline that the United States has pressed its European allies to do more to meet.

The renewal of Britain's continuous, at-sea nuclear deterrent, which includes four Vanguard-class submarines, comes with a price tag of £31 billion (S$55.4 billion), with a further £10 billion set aside as a contingency.

Lawmakers voted in 2007 to go ahead with a nuclear defence programme that extends beyond the 2030s, and Monday's vote was on proceeding with that programme.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'New British PM wins vote to update nuclear arsenal'. Print Edition | Subscribe