The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing criticism for lobbying up to 27 Westminster politicians on the “benefits” of nuclear weapons for “UK industry, economy and the union”.
Four lords and 23 MPs were invited to two briefings by senior MoD officials at the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde in 2021. According to the MoD, the aim was to “educate” them on the “continued relevance” of the Trident nuclear weapons system, and how replacing it was “value for money”.
According to experts, it is “highly unusual” for a government department to lobby politicians in this way. Campaigners questioned whether it was an “appropriate” use of public money and accused the MoD of acting as an “influencer” for nuclear vested interests.
The MoD pointed out that briefings were part of a long-established armed forces parliamentary scheme for “better educating” MPs and lords in military matters. This included briefings on “nuclear deterrence”.
UK government ministers briefly mentioned the meetings with politicians in a report to an international review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in November 2021.
“We are implementing a programme of regular engagement with parliamentarians, designed to increase their understanding and awareness of the UK’s nuclear deterrence and disarmament policy,” the report said.
In response to a freedom of information request, the MoD has now spelt out what that involved. On 1 June 2021 it invited 13 MPs and three lords on a visit to Faslane to an online briefing on nuclear weapons policy from a deputy director at the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Organisation, James Franklin.
On 25 November 2021 the MoD invited 12 MPs and two lords to an in-person briefing at Faslane on “nuclear deterrence policy” from an unnamed senior nuclear official. Three of them had also been invited to the June briefing, and the MoD noted that “not all those invited may have attended”.
Most of those invited were Conservatives from England and Wales, including 14 MPs and three lords. There were also five Labour MPs from constituencies south of the border.
Three SNP MPs were invited to the November briefing — Alan Brown (Kilmarnock), David Doogan (Angus) and David Linden (Glasgow East) — but it’s unclear whether they attended. The Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Jamie Stone, was asked to the June briefing.
According to the MoD, parliamentarians were “a priority audience” and engagement with them should have a “broad, educational focus”. It listed six issues on which it thought politicians would “benefit from gaining a better understanding”.
One was “the benefits to UK industry, economy and the union of the deterrent and wider defence nuclear enterprise”. Another was the costs of renewing Trident being “a necessary long-term investment in our security” and “value for money”.
A third was “the current and near future threat picture, and the continued relevance of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent to meet this”. Other issues were “collaboration with the US” and “the UK’s continued commitment to multilateral disarmament”.
The MoD said: “The overriding objective for any such engagement is to inform and educate interested parliamentarians on the UK’s approach to nuclear deterrence and disarmament policy.
“In doing so, activity seeks to underpin the credibility and long-term sustainability of the deterrent by increasing understanding and support among parliamentarians for maintaining that capability for as long as the security situation requires.”
But the MoD insisted that it was not trying to sway opinions. “Activity is designed to inform, not influence, and help place the deterrent in its strategic security context,” it added.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also invited 12 peers on the International Relations and Defence Committee to a virtual briefing about the UK’s approach to nuclear non-proliferation on 7 December 2021. The briefing was presented by the foreign office minister, James Cleverly, and senior officials.
One lobbying expert disputed the MoD’s suggestion it was not trying to influence politicians. “This is clearly a lobbying and influencing strategy, thinly disguised as a briefing to promote dialogue about defence policy,” said Dr Will Dinan, a senior lecturer in political communications at the University of Stirling.
“It is highly unusual for a government department to lobby UK politicians in this way. While the rationale offered is that these briefings are simply educational, it is clear that the overall strategic aim is to increase support among parliamentarians for maintaining nuclear capability.”
Dinan maintained that the nuclear briefings were “hardly neutral, informational or apolitical”. The need for nuclear weapons was “highly political” and MoD officials appeared to have “strayed some way from offering neutral and balanced advice to inform decision makers”, he said.
The Nuclear Information Service, which researches nuclear weapons, was also critical of the MoD. “These documents make it clear that the purpose of this exercise is to bolster support for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme,” said the group’s director, David Cullen.
“Lobbying in this fashion is not an appropriate use of public funds and diminishes the prospects for meaningful parliamentary oversight.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament pointed out that retired military commanders had spoken out against nuclear weapons. “The MoD is acting as an influencer for the nuclear-military-industrial complex with vested interests in them being constantly modernised and never given up,” said the campaign’s chair, Lynn Jamieson.
“If the MoD had a genuinely educational agenda it would include consideration of how to move towards signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But then their job isn’t education, it’s defence and security — and Scottish CND’s view is that nuclear weapons put that at risk.”
The SNP MSP, Bill Kidd, is co-president of the international group of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He pointed out that MSPs from the Scottish Parliament had not been invited to MoD nuclear briefings.
He said: “Will this be because we, at Holyrood, have voted time and again against the maintenance of these weapons of mass murder being stationed in our midst and looking for their removal? Or could it be that it’s Westminster that votes on the budget and long-term future of nuclear weapons and therefore it’s MPs who need to be influenced?”
Kidd also criticised the House of Commons and Lords for voting through upgrades and increases in nuclear warheads. This breached article six of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty committing countries to nuclear disarmament, he claimed.
The Scottish National Party, and the three SNP MPs invited to the nuclear briefings, did not respond to repeated questions from The Ferret. So it is not known whether any SNP MPs attended.
The SNP’s policy is to reject nuclear weapons, arguing that they are “wrong – strategically, morally and financially”. On 7 March the party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP, said that the policy had not been changed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“There is a threat to the world from nuclear weapons,” he stated. “The idea that having nuclear weapons provides a deterrence that removes that threat is far-fetched, to say the least.”
The Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Jamie Stone, has also been asked to comment.
According to the Ministry of Defence, the nuclear briefings were part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. It had done “outstanding work for over thirty years in better educating members of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and others in military matters”.
An MoD spokesperson said: “The scheme is long-established and comprehensive in scope, delivering visits and engagements wherever defence operates, from the Falklands to Faslane.
“These visits included briefings on operations at the base and the UK’s nuclear deterrence and disarmament policy.”
The Ferret reported in July 2021 that the MoD had been allowed to keep nuclear safety problems secret by an information tribunal in London. In 2019 we revealed that staff shortages had prevented the MoD’s internal watchdog from completing “essential tasks” to ensure the safety of the UK nuclear weapons programme.
Freedom of information response from the Ministry of Defence
Cover image thanks to the Ministry of Defence. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.