Jeremy Corbyn has signalled he can’t envisage ever using nuclear weapons because to do so would mean the world had already suffered a “cataclysmic failure”.
The Labour leader said that nuclear warfare would mean “the indiscriminate killing of millions of people” and risk long-lasting radiation that would wipe out all life across much of the planet.
In a keynote speech on defence and security at the Chatham House think tank, Corbyn stressed that his “first duty” would be to protect Britain by using diplomacy and defusing tensions around the world.
He also said that the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent would be renewed by Labour and then placed into a strategic defence review to look at new, long-term threats such as cyber warfare.
Corbyn also said that he wouldn’t “take any lectures” from the Tories on humanitarian intervention after the Thatcher government refused to apply sanctions on South Africa in the wake of apartheid shootings of children in Soweto.
And he claimed that the Conservatives were the party putting Britons in danger as “Theresa May seeks to build a coalition of risk and insecurity with Donald Trump”.
A Labour government would “step back, learn the lessons of the past and find new ways to solve and prevent conflicts”, he said.
And it would seek to build cooperation with China and India, unlike the Prime Minister, who in January said that the two Eastern giants were threatening to ‘eclipse’ the West in military terms.
Corbyn, a long-time advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, said earlier this year that his instructions in any nuclear conflict would be to “follow orders when given”, rather than writing a letter automatically granting prior authority to fire off missiles.
In his speech in London on Friday, he said set out his position on his using the deterrent.
“I am often asked if as prime minister I would order the use of nuclear weapons.
It’s an extraordinary question when you think about it – would you order the indiscriminate killing of millions of people? Would you risk such extensive contamination of the planet that no life could exist across large parts of the world?
If circumstances arose where that was a real option, it would represent complete and cataclysmic failure. It would mean world leaders had already triggered a spiral of catastrophe for humankind.”
Stressing that he was not a “pacifist”, he told the BBC that the Second World War showed that “there has to be ultimately that preparedness to use military force”.
He added that Labour is committed actively to pursue disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to “no first use” of nuclear weapons.
“But let me make this absolutely clear. If elected prime minister, I will do everything necessary to protect the safety and security of our people and our country. That would be my first duty.
“And to achieve it, I know I will have to work with other countries to solve problems, defuse tensions and build collective security.”
The Labour leader said that his government would “work to halt the drift to confrontation with Russia and the escalation of military deployments”, a pledge that suggests he would withdraw British forces currently placed in Nato states bordering Russia.
Stressing Labour would create a new role of ‘Minister for Peace’, Corbyn added that: ”Too much of our debate is about military security - you’re either for or against strong defence.”
Asked directly if he would back a ‘like-for-like’ replacement of the UK’s current four nuclear-armed submarines, he replied: “The decision of Parliament was to endorse the Government’s proposals for the replacement of Trident. That’s the decision we will inherit as a Labour government. That’s what the position is.
“We will also we will also undertake a strategic defence review looking at all aspects of our defence priorities for the future. We cannot obviously decide what the review would decide otherwise we wouldn’t have the review.”
Aides stressed later to HuffPost UK that Corbyn was standing by the party policy to renew a ‘continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent’ and that was ‘generally though to mean four submarines’.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: “Jeremy Corbyn has shown beyond all doubt that he would put Britain’s security at risk. He says he would never use Trident.
“Jeremy Corbyn is simply too weak and shambolic to stand up to terrorists and tyrants who want to do us harm.”
But in the questions after his speech Corbyn said he would boost spending on conventional armed forces.
He told a Royal Marine asking for more cash for the military: “Your point about the funding of Royal Marines and others is a very important one because actually it’s that capability of defending is the most important and I would recognise that and support that”.
Later, Corbyn was asked by Channel 4 News if he would send troops to defend a fellow Nato ally who was under attack from Russia.
He replied: “Well Article 5 of the Nato treaty says there is a duty to support any other nation state that is under threat. That doesn’t necessarily mean sending troops. It means diplomatic, it means economic, it means sanctions, it means a whole range of things.”
He added that for example relations between Turkey and its neighbouring states were “not good”. “Turkey is a Nato member state. Would we automatically want to get involved in a war that had been provoked by somebody’s actions? I think you have to nuance it and think it through.”
Under Nato’s Article 5, if one a fellow member of Nato is attacked the other states have a duty to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.
Here’s the rest of the exchange:
Cathy Newman: “So you can’t sit here and commit troops under article 5 to protect an ally under attack?”
Jeremy Corbyn: “That’s a very unfair way of characterising what I just said...You have to think through the entire issue. You have to think through the tensions that are there, and what we can do as a member of the UN security council, as a very powerful nation, what we can do to try and bring about a situation where there isn’t a war.
“Don’t let’s think all the time about how to go to war. Let’s think instead about how to prevent wars by providing real security, real democracy, and real respect for human rights for people.”