Cambridge MP Julian Huppert Absent from Trident Vote

Tellers report the result of a vote on an ambiguous SNP amendment on Trident which was supported by 27 MPs

Tellers report the result of a vote on an ambiguous SNP amendment on Trident which was supported by just 27 MPs.

On the 8th of June 2010 MPs were discussing the coalition’s programme for government in the House of Commons. An archaic tradition, which does nothing for making Parliament more accessible and easy to follow, means that they do this in the form of a debate on how MPs ought phrase a letter of thanks to the Queen for attending Parliament and reading out the government’s proposals. Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson proposed adding a section to the note of thanks to the Queen saying:

… but respectfully request that your Government includes as part of its Strategic Defence and Security Review a full examination of the Trident nuclear missile system and any possible replacement.

My view is that the hereditary monarch ought have no role in government, and if MPs are to debate the government’s plans with respect to the defence of the country they ought do so directly and not via this absurd charade. The lunacy of the parliamentary process isn’t the only source of confusion. What’s much worse is that Mr Robertson’s amendment wasn’t, at least in my view, particularly clearly written. What it appeared to be doing was asking for the consideration of abandoning the UK’s nuclear deterrent entirely as an option in the upcoming defence review; given the pro unilateral nuclear disarmament policy of the SNP who were behind the motion I’m sure that was its intent. However as written the motion could be read as calling for a full examination of “any possible replacement” ie. expressing support for investigating alternative nuclear deterrent options other than renewal of the existing Trident system. I can understand that some of those in favour of getting rid of any form of UK nuclear deterrent may not have wanted to support a motion to which the latter interpretation could be applied.

I hope the people of Moray are following the performance of their MP Angus Robertson in Parliament as I don’t think someone who is unable to draft an unambiguous amendment ought have any role in formulating legislation.

Despite a number of Liberal Democrat MPs, including Cambridge’s Julian Huppert, having stood for election on a platform of discontinuing the UK’s nuclear deterrent in any form they did not vote for this SNP amendment. This may have been due to the ambiguous wording or it may have been that they’ve put power, the unity of the coalition, and their party allegiances, ahead of the principles on which they stood for election. During the election campaign Mr Huppert cited the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent as the key area where he disagrees with Lib Dem party policy. Around two hundred and eighty MPs, just under half, including Mr Huppert, didn’t vote at all in the division. Under the current system there is no way of knowing if those who abstained made a positive decision to do so or if they were just absent. Abstaining MPs could easily shout “I abstain” into the nearest microphone when votes are called and if they insisted their “interventions” were recorded in Hansard their positions would be clear and the transparency of Parliament would take another step forward.

The vast majority of Liberal Democrats (51/57) voted with the Conservatives against the amendment. All but 15 Labour MPs didn’t vote at all.

I could not spot Mr Huppert in the chamber prior to or after the vote and he also did not vote in division which immediately followed despite that subsequent vote being a very well attended division (the house was pretty full and 592 MPs took part), this suggests Huppert may have, intentionally or not, been absent. As the later vote (while literally again about sending a thank you note to the queen) is generally seen as a vote of support or not of the coalition’s programme for government Huppert’s failure to participate was again notable.

I can understand members of the Government voting no; both on the grounds of avoiding being asked by Parliament to do something ambiguous and on the grounds of voting against the clear intent of the motion. The Liberal-Conservative coalition’s programme for government states:

We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.

The Liberal Democrat use of “Alternatives” appears to me to be designed to allow it to be read by different people in different ways. They are free to suggest to some it means: “alternative nuclear deterrents”, and to others “alternatives to a nuclear deterrent”. This is the way Liberal Democrats operate and it is not in my view a honest and upstanding way to behave.

My own view is that the coalition policy of maintaining Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is the right one. I think the strategic defence review ought consider all ways in which that can safely and effectively be achieved and with a view to keeping costs as low as possible.

16 responses to “Cambridge MP Julian Huppert Absent from Trident Vote”

  1. The 27 MPs who voted in favour of the SNP amendment were:

    Ronnie Campbell – Labour
    Katy Clark MP – Labour
    Jeremy Corbyn – Labour
    Mark Durkan – Social Democratic and Labour Party
    Jonathan Edwards – Plaid Cymru
    Paul Flynn – Labour
    Nia Griffith – Labour
    Dai Havard – Labour
    Kelvin Hopkins – Labour
    Stewart Hosie – Scottish National Party
    Siân C. James – Labour
    Eric Joyce- Labour
    Mark Lazarowicz – Labour and Co-operative
    Elfyn Llwyd – Plaid Cymru
    Naomi Long – Alliance Party
    Caroline Lucas – Green
    Angus MacNeil – Scottish National Party
    Alasdair McDonnell – Social Democratic and Labour Party
    John McDonnell – Labour
    Linda Riordan – Labour and Co-operative
    Margaret Ritchie – Social Democratic and Labour Party
    Angus Robertson – Scottish National Party
    Dennis Skinner – Labour
    Peter Soulsby – Labour
    Mike Weir – Scottish National Party
    Eilidh Whiteford – Scottish National Party
    Mike Wood – Labour
    Pete Wishart – Scottish National Party (Teller)
    Hywel Williams – Plaid Cymru (Teller)

    Hansard Source Division on PublicWhip

  2. Julian Huppert has been absent from three out of his first four votes in Parliament:

    (Vote titles are automatically extracted from Hansard, and Hansard is notoriously difficult to machine read so the titles don’t make sense – yet another little example of how those in power make it hard to keep track of what they’re up to. )

    screenshot from linked page on Public Whip

    Public Whip Source

  3. I don’t agree with your comment about the form of the Queen’s Speech debate making parliament inaccessible. I think anyone who takes enough interest to try to follow the debate will be able to cope – it’s not being interested in the first place that’s the problem. Sorry, it doesn’t wash as an argument for republicanism.

    MPs can abstain by voting both for and against in a division.

  4. For what it’s worth; the people of Moray will be most concerned with Angus Robertson’s ability to protect defense spending at least as far as keeping RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss open. Those are two very large RAF bases that are absolutely critical to the economy of a rural area of Scotland that would otherwise be fairly deprived.

    If one were being particularly cynical, it may be suspected he may have asked for “a full examination of the Trident nuclear missile system and any possible replacement” with the hope that it would include an option to return nuclear deterrence to the RAF, despite his party’s support for unilateral disarmament.

    At the very least he is likely to want the money spent on Trident to be redirected toward conventional forces, including those at Lossiemouth and Kinloss.

    (My interest here is that I grew up in Elgin, and still have family there.)

  5. If one were being particularly cynical, it may be suspected he may have asked for “a full examination of the Trident nuclear missile system and any possible replacement” with the hope that it would include an option to return nuclear deterrence to the RAF, despite his party’s support for unilateral disarmament.

    If that’s the case then through his ambiguity he has managed to dupe his fellow SNP MPs and the Green into voting with him, despite them disagreeing with any form of nuclear deterrent being maintained.

  6. A SNP article suggests the intent of the amendment was merely to:

    ensure that the £100bn Trident renewal was not excluded from the defence review.

    If they’d managed to write an amendment actually saying that I can’t imagine any MP wouldn’t support it – surely they all want to make informed decisions with detailed, costed, options in front of them.

    The Green party’s MP Caroline Lucas has written an article suggesting she thought the amendment was asking the Government to consider in the strategic defence review if the UK ought to continue to have a nuclear deterrent at all:

  7. I disagree with you about the Monarch’s role in British democracy, but agree about our nuclear deterrant.

    In the pre-election Stop the War hustings, which could only have been more anti-semitic if the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were read out, Huppert started as he meant to go on by displaying his grasp of international affairs: “We should stop Israel entering the Eurovision song contest, it’s what worked in South Africa.” But I think he nailed his colours decisively to the flag with this comment:

    “We have to respect Iran’s right to have nuclear power. We shouldn’t invade. It’s hard to take a moral stance that says “you can’t have nuclear weapons but we’ll have ours”. Let’s just ditch them, it would help us deal with Iran.”

    Is this a sign of impending trouble with the Coalition – or have the Lib Dems realised what a loose cannon he is and asked him to attend Parliament as seldom as possiible?

  8. The document in Frugal Dougal’s link is obviously not official minutes.

    Is the video taken by the Cambridge Socialists available online?

  9. I’m not entirely sure I follow Dougal’s comments, except to note that he makes the common mistake of equating opposition to the state policies of the Israeli government with “anti-semitism”, a confusion which the said Israeli government has been promoting for over 50 years. The Israelis consistently ignore United Nations resolutions and international law generally. I agree it is hard to oppose Iran’s right to develop nuclear weapons when we are apparently supporting Israel’s right to possess them (and also apparently to offer to sell them to whomever they choose, including of course the former apartheid regime in South Africa)

  10. I don’t know what you’re smoking, Richard, but the motion looks perfectly clear — in light of the fact that Trident and its potential replacement are bizarrely not included in the “Strategic defence review”

    Being against this motion means either:

    (a) retention of this nuclear weapons system is a political issue, not a defence issue, or
    (b) you are in favour of Trident, but you are not confident that it can survive the scrutiny of a defence review that would consider what other stuff we could buy instead.

    Basically, they should take this thing out of the MoD budget and put it under the control of Number10. Oh, and while we’re at it we might as well withdraw from the NPT while we’re at it, as we have not satisfied our obligations under it.

  11. Julian,

    If I was in Parliament; and following my view that we ought maintain a deterrent but the detail of how we go about doing that as cost effectively as possible ought be reviewed I wouldn’t have voted for the amendment on the grounds that to do so could have indicated the deterrent was something I was prepared to sacrifice.

    Having decided not to vote for the amendment determining whether to vote against it or abstain is harder. I want the defence review to look in detail at both the Trident nuclear missile system and any possible alternative nuclear deterrents so I don’t want to vote against – I want to abstain on the grounds of ambiguity; however the responsible thing for the Conservative Government to do is vote against – so their defence review doesn’t waste time examining an option they’ve already ruled out.

    My view is that if we have a nuclear deterrent or not isn’t an operational defence matter; it is the core of our defence strategy so it is a political question for our representatives in the Commons to decide. To that extent I agree with the first of your interpretations of what being against this motion means.

    Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions David Cameron said:

    … Barrow, which I have visited and where I have seen the building of Astute class submarines and the submarines carrying our nuclear deterrent? I know how important that is, but a defence review is under way, and it must include the Astute class submarines

    So the new nuclear deterrent missile submarines appear to be included in the defence review. [Update: Oops – That’s not what he said] This indicates to me that how we maintain our deterrent is under review; but not the deterrent itsself. In this I fully support the Conservative wing of the government.

  12. We’ve got a lot of pointless submarines floating around in the sea, so it’s easy to get them confused.

    The Prime Minister said: “…in the submarine yards in Barrow, which I have visited and where I have seen the building of Astute class submarines **AND** the submarines carrying our nuclear deterrent”

    Astute submarines are nuclear powered, but not nuclear armed. They are up for the review, whilst the already decided upon like-for-like Trident replacement is not to be scrutinized.

    You might have noticed it’s called “The Strategic Defence and Security Review”, not “The Operational Defence Review”. But basically you should be happy to rename it as:

    “The Doughnut Shaped Strategic Defence Review Of Everything Except The Bit That’s At The Core Of Our Defence Strategy”

    If it was in the Defence Review, then alternative, smaller, less dangerous, less cold war era nuclear weapons systems could be considered. But it is not, because the political decision about the precise weapons system has been made, and we all know they lie every single time when the describe it as “the minimum”.

    Now, your concern about it being in the Defence Review seems to be that you believe there is a real risk that the Review panel, with all its generals, military experts, and arms company stooges, might between them decide to *recommend* nuclear disarmament. Is this true?

    Anyway, it’s not an excuse because the government can write the terms of the Review however they like, and say it’s got to have some form of nuclear weapons system in it.

    The first issue is whether or not the precise form of the weapons system is going to be held up to any form of expert scrutiny, which it is currently not. That’s what the motion very clearly was about.

    Those who are in favour of abolition of nuclear weapons should quite easily be in favour of this amendment, because it would likely result in fewer nuclear weapons. Not as good as none, but a lot better than what we have now.

    The perfectly clear Angus Robertson amendment is drafted, as is normal practice, to pick at the weakest point in the whole pro-nuclear weapons argument. And this is the spot. The LibDems voted against it because they decided to completely sell out on this issue (as we saw from the photo of Nick Clegg’s hand-written agreement with the Tories).

    It’s a reasonable thing to do if you win the gamble, because at best there won’t be a horrible accident and everything will be fine.

    It was an interesting vote, because it essentially showed that the widespread view that the cold war ended 20 years ago and we should buy something smaller than Trident, has practically no representation in Parliament.

  13. I misinterpreted what David Cameron said; I now see he wasn’t referring to the replacements for the nuclear missile submarines. I’ve expanded the quote in the above comment to make it clearer.

    I do think it is right to give some political direction to the defence review; otherwise there would be wasted effort in the exercise.

    Had the motion been on:

    …the strategic defence review ought consider all ways in which the UK can safely and effectively continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent with a view to keeping costs as low as possible.

    Then it might have got more than 27 MPs voting for it. Then though some of those who voted for the Angus Robertson would not have supported it.

    Hopefully Parliament will have the opportunity to have another vote on what ought go in the review.

  14. Varsity has written an piece citing this article.

    They asked Mr Huppert why he didn’t vote, and he confirmed it was an intentional abstention. Varsity reported he clarified that he was “absolutely committed to getting rid of Trident” and said:

    I did not attend the vote intentionally because we were being whipped to vote against the amendment and I refused to do that. I felt this would jeopordise the talks to end Trident.

  15. That’s an awful motion which you proposed, because a vote for it means you believe that:
    (a) a nuclear weapons system can be continued “safely” — which evidence that has escaped suppression indicates it cannot, and
    (b) that it is a “deterrent” — which is an irrational description unless someone can state who is being deterred.

    The vote on the motion which you didn’t like expressed a clear choice between:
    (a) building a new 4 submarine cold war nuclear weapons system unlikely to be of relevance to the any realistic threats in the future, or
    (b) allowing a government appointed panel of pro-military experts (ie to CND members will be on it) to review the options and make recommendations to the government, who can then take it or leave it — as they did with the last one.

    All of which still leaves me with the conclusion that you are pro-nuclear weapons, but you think the case for them is so poor it’s worth the risk of holding it up to any scrutiny by military experts.

    Some things are too important to be left to reason, eh?

  16. At Prime Minster’s Questions on the 23rd of June 2010 Julian Huppert asked:

    Does the Prime Minister agree with several generals, many members of the public and myself that Trident should be included in the Strategic Defence and Security Review? Does he agree that if there is a case for retaining it that would come out in the review, and if there isn’t a case then it shouldn’t be kept?

    David Cameron replied:

    I know my right honourable [sic] friend will know this was carefully negotiated in the coalition agreement between our two parties. My view is very clear that Britain should retain the nuclear deterrent, that we should always keep that insurance policy against great danger. While I think there is a case for looking at the costs of the Trident system and seeing how we can bear down on those costs I don’t think we should have the wider review he speaks about.

    I think this a much stronger expression of Mr Huppert’s position than he gave last week when he merely abstained on the question. While he didn’t dare rebel against his Government in a vote, he is prepared to question his own government during PMQs. However ultimately it’s the votes that matter, not the grandstanding.

    David Cameron answered a slightly different question to the one asked in that Mr Huppert asked about Trident but the response was about the general principle of a nuclear deterrent.

    I think David Cameron’s position and answer was the right one. We don’t know what the future holds, the world can change very quickly. If the political decision is to be made to continue with a nuclear deterrent regardless of the outcome of the defence review then it is pointless to ask that review to consider it. Considering the deterrent would be a major distraction from the work that review has the potential to do in ensuring that our armed forces are in the best possible position to defend us in the upcoming years, and ensuring the forces are organised and equipped in such a way as to minimise the loss of life and injury caused to those defending us.

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