The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent: the case against renewal

December 3, 2012 11:11 am

At the end of October Polly Toynbee wrote a piece in the Guardian which has reopened the debate about the renewal of Trident within the Labour Party. Polly quoted Tim Farron as saying that the Liberal Democrats ‘are making this an election issue for 2015’. For good measure she also threw in a strongly anti-Trident quote from Nick Clegg, the present Leader of the Liberal Democrats. As usual the Liberals look set to go into the election using the savings from Trident as an accounting excuse for all sort of cherished Lib Demery.

It is therefore unavoidable that every candidate standing at the next General Election is going to be asked, ‘What is your position on building a new fleet of Trident submarines to maintain Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent?’ On Tuesday evening in Westminster I will be speaking on a panel making the case that, faced with 21st century security threats and a public spending squeeze which shows no signs of abating, the responsible position for the modern Labour Party is non-renewal.

Polly’s article drew a response from Luke Akehurst, a former Labour Party National Executive member, who wrote for Progress that ‘a sensible Labour strategy would be to sit tight and let the Coalition partners rip each other apart on this.’ Trying to dodge the question at the next general election, when the issue is to be decided in the next Parliament, is just hopeless. We need a clear answer.

The strategic way forward internationally is surely through multilateral non-proliferation, a sophisticated arrangement of negotiated guarantees and concessions, combined with a far better understanding of the viewpoint of those countries who are contemplating developing nuclear weapon systems. For our material defence, in military terms, we have our membership of NATO, overwhelming the most powerful military alliance on the planet. There are no circumstances in which we ‘independently’ use our own nuclear deterrent without the rest of NATO. In what circumstances would we ever use nuclear weapons independent of all other NATO members?

The pro-Trident arguments in the Progress article don’t make a convincing case. The suggestion that non-renewal would be irreversible can’t be right: we would retain the know how and the technological capability, as do other countries like Japan. Is it really true that ditching Trident is now a “vote loser”, and that keeping it is “Labour’s settled view”?

The pro-renewal case is stronger on this point: Labour must be trusted on defence. But UK defence policy has to address an increasingly complex and sophisticated world, where the main dangers to Britain come not just from other nation states, but from terrorist organisations and instabilities caused by transnational financial systems, global economic imbalances, climate change and material shortages. None of these problems can be solved by a nuclear weapon. I think it is a mistake to equate a commitment to nuclear weapon renewal with a reputation for military soundness.

The other issue facing a Labour Party committed to non-renewal would be an economic strategy for the Barrow shipyard and the town of Barrow itself. This could be done at a fraction of the cost of carrying four new Vanguard class submarines.

Our country’s future is in the skills, the talents and enthusiasms of its people. Bringing down the costs of higher education, so that university remains affordable for the less well off, is a better investment in our country’s future than a weapon system that is ultimately too dangerous to use. This is not an academic argument, this is a 21st century choice.

Nick Brown is the Member of Parliament for Newcastle East. The CND public meeting will take place on Tuesday evening from 6:30-8pm in Committee Room 9 of the House of Commons

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514409408 Colin McCulloch

    Trident will be renewed as it’s our nuclear capacity that keeps our permanent seat on the UN Security Council. No government will throw away such influence for trifling matters like education and new housing.

    • http://twitter.com/johnringer John Ringer

      That’s a complete and utter lie, and I cannot stand that seemingly sensible people keep spreading it around.

      Britain’s place on the UNSC is in no way contingent on having nuclear weapons. The reason it’s called a ‘permanent’ seat is because it’s practically impossible for the UK to lose its place. I mean, it’s theoretically possible it’s never going to happen in reality, and even if it were to happen it would not be because Britain unilaterally got rid of its nuclear weapons.

      Indeed, given that it is the UN’s official policy (via the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) that Britain (and all other “official” nuclear powers) must make efforts to disarm, unilateral nuclear disarmament would actually strengthen Britain’s position within the UN. Maybe not among NATO countries, but certainly among the vast majority of UN member states, all of whom, let’s not forget, get to decide on amendments to the UN charter (including any amendment to the composition of the UNSC, such as kicking Britain out of the P5) and most of whom have repeatedly voted for a global ban on nuclear weapons.

      You only need to look at the fact that non-nuclear countries like Brazil and South Africa are serious contenders for new permanent seats on the UNSC to realise that the idea that nuclear weapons are necessary to qualify is completely stupid.

      I mean, for god’s sake, the permanent seat structure was created before anyone but the US even had nukes!

      Gahhhhhhh… This misunderstanding of such a simple concept annoys the hell out of me.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514409408 Colin McCulloch

        John,

        Calm down.

        Without nuclear weapons, the UK is no more than a medium military power. It has a smaller standing army than Germany and France. It has less war planes than Turkey. It has no functioning aircraft carriers to fly jets from. It cannot support military operations without US/NATO support.

        The days of France and the UK having this reserved position are numbered. Whether they are removed or more nations come to the “permanent” table is a moot point; their influence is waning and will be challenged by rising powers like Brazil and India.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

    • robertcp

      Are education and housing trifling matters? More importantly, people never seem to argue that Trident is vital for our defence but come up with silly arguments about seats on the Security Council. Trident was a waste of money in the 1980s but the case for it has been idiotic since the Cold War ended.

      It is also worth making the point that not renewing Trident is different to the unilateralism that lost Labour votes in the 1980s. That policy involved removing American nuclear weapons from the UK and not just Trident.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514409408 Colin McCulloch

        Robert,

        You obviously missed the irony in my original post. I have no support for nuclear weapons in this country, but I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that both the Tories and Labour will commit to renewing Trident, even if it is totally unfunded and comes at the cost of depriving of resources critically important areas like education, housing, welfare and even conventional armed forces.

    • John Ruddy

      Thats interesting. Did you know, that of the 5 permanent members, only the US had the bomb when it became one? And if having nuclear weapons determined your status at the UN, why isnt India, Pakistan and Israel on the security council?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514409408 Colin McCulloch

        I didn’t say it gets you in the P5 as the original council was of the victorious Allies. I said that the UK is unlikely to get rid of it as nuclear weapons are useful to gain influence and (for the likes of North Korea) useful to keep US forces from bombing your country.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=677742204 Steven Syme

    The most straightforward way for a Labour party member to quickly shuffle Trident into obscurity, is for Labour to support the movement towards Scottish Independence, as we’ll see a start to moving weapons of mass destruction from our waters in the short term at least. They’ll move to English ports, but its a start…

    • http://twitter.com/johnringer John Ringer

      That’s a terrible idea. Without the strong Scottish voice for disarmament within the union, we’ll have an even harder time getting rid of Trident.

      • John Ruddy

        I totally agree. And the Nationalist idea that somehow Scottish Independence will eliminate Trident (when in reality it will shuffle it a few miles down the coast) has been blown out of the water – now they claim that because there is “nowhere for Trident to go except the Clde, the rUK will be forced to disarm”. Even that is a risible idea, as there are plenty of alternatives – the problems are merely financial and political – not technical.
        If those who want to rid these islands of Trident – and indeed of all nuclear weapons – then Scottish independence is a dead end – and maybe even self-defeating.

  • AlanGiles

    A good article Nick, and totally sensible, however, Labour 2012 is so frightened of daring to offend floating and disaffected Tory voters who MIGHT just vote for them in 2015, I doubt they will break away from the “us, too” mindset, which, so often means you can’t get a sheet of Bronco between the two main parties on major policies

    • Forbes92

      My involvement in protest and politics began with CND in the 50′s. What we now know is how absurd the arguments for UK nuclear weapons were and doubtless will continue to be in the forthcoming debate. Was it credible that the Soviet Union had the capacity / capability to overrun Europe? Yet the military, serving and retired, were rolled out to support continual rearmament safeguarding their role and employment in the name of liberty, democracy and other nostrums. In a rational world there was never a case for “military soundness”.
      Now, who or what threatens the UK? Are nuclear weapons sufficient to deter aggressors?
      Military involvement by the UK in recent years has been against civilian populations, some armed and ferocious in relatively small and underdeveloped nations / states. Without going into a debate on justifications these have been “police operations” serving short to medium term interests.
      Discussing nuclear weaponary without reference to foreign policy is empty.
      The cost to our social fabric is just too great. We have other spending prioirties and squandering resources on such waepons is now beyond us.

  • brianbarder

    The UK’s nuclear deterrent is not “independent” — we depend on American technology to keep it in existence and we wouldn’t be able to use it without US government agreement. There is no country in the world that threatens Britain’s security but would be deterred from attacking us by fear of our ‘deterrent’ — which couldn’t be used against a non-state enemy. The irrational primacy given to expenditure on this useless but absurdly expensive weapon system starves the three armed forces and the rest of the economy of funds and thereby actually undermines our security. Germany, with no nuclear weapons, is every bit as secure as Britain and much stronger economically, at least in part because of not having this financial albatross round its neck (nuclear France is in dire economic trouble too). Britain would have the power and right to veto any move to deprive it of its permanent seat on the Security Council (actually it’s debatable whether our permanent membership of the Council serves any UK interest), but that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. The sole reason for keeping Trident and nuclear weapons is to satisfy the amour propre of a bunch of posturing politicians, generals and (especially) admirals, plus the usual terror of incurring the wrath of the Sun and the Daily Mail.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Brian,

      I will start by saying that actually I agree with all of your sentiments. I wish we did not have the very expensive thing, that also costs time and political capital.

      But you repeat some of the arguments against it that I do not believe actually work in reality. In particular, this argument that we could not use it without American “permission” is often put forward, particularly by opponents (of which I am one, but not one using that argument).

      How so? Is there some secret “over-ride” key the Americans would press if a British missile was launched, to de-activate the missile in flight? Some believe so, but it seems technically difficult to achieve that (a time of flight of less than 6 minutes, a ballistic trajectory taking it well beyond any communications devices, and even upon re-entering the atmosphere only a few seconds to de-programme it – a most interesting article I read once). Alternatively, some Government agreement with the Americans that requires an American code to be entered before it is fired? That is also debunked by logic: we would not have it at all, at this insane cost of billions if that was the condition.

    • charles.ward

      “The UK’s nuclear deterrent is not “independent” … we wouldn’t be able to use it without US government agreement.”

      Nonsense, “we” have the ability to launch our nuclear weapons not only without the say-so of the US government but without the say-so of the UK government (which may not exist when the decision needs to be made).

      • brianbarder

        I have always understood that there is some kind of technical trip-switch that requires Washington’s assent before the UK could launch a nuclear attack. Now that you question it, I acknowledge that I can’t quote any authority for the belief, so I must withdraw it, although I certainly think that as a matter of politics and diplomacy, no UK government in its right mind would even think of pressing the nuclear button without first getting the OK from Washington. (Of course if London or Washington or both were a radio-active ruin following a totally unexpected and un-planned-for nuclear attack, heaven knows what the submarine commander on Trident patrol at the time would decide to do — nothing, probably, if he had any sense.)

        I have certainly read many times that we need US technical help to keep our nukes in working order. But perhaps that’s a myth too?

        However all this belongs in the realms of fantasy. Which country on earth in any imaginable circumstances would take it into its head to launch a nuclear attack on Britain if we were to get rid of our own? Which government would take the risk of American nuclear retaliation by attacking one of the United States’ major NATO allies?

        • PeterBarnard

          Brian,

          In his “Muddling Through,” Peter Hennessy writes about Polaris : “Since 1960, the Union Jack* has faded into the background somewhat with the increasing reliance on American technology. Indeed, in the short term, dependence on the United States has been near total since Polaris came on station in 1969.”
          Prof Hennessy also quotes Sir Hermann Bondi (a pretty – if not very – senior scientist involved in our nuclear deterrent) : “If the Americans were to tell us at one stage, ‘We will go on for another twelveyears but not a day longer,’ we can adapt. If the Americans say tomorrow, ‘All we do for will stop,’ then it won’t be many months before we don’t have a weapon.”

          Prof Hennessy is, I believe, the sort of bloke who is very careful in what he says and writes.
          * a reference to Ernest Bevin’s remark at a Cabinet meeting in 1946 discussing the atomic bomb, “We have got to have this thing whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”
          Attlee proceeded to develop the atomic bomb. According to Hennessy, Churchill was astounded, on assuming office in 1951, to find that £100 million of development costs had been completely hidden from Parliament …

          • brianbarder

            Thanks v m for that. It certainly seems to bear out my impression that we depend on US technology for the maintenance of our nuclear ‘deterrent’ even if we don’t formally depend on American approval for a decision to launch a nuclear attack on someone. I agree that Professor Lord Hennessy is a serious historian who chooses his words with care.

  • brianbarder

    The UK’s nuclear deterrent is not “independent” — we depend on American technology to keep it in existence and we wouldn’t be able to use it without US government agreement. There is no country in the world that threatens Britain’s security but would be deterred from attacking us by fear of our ‘deterrent’ — which couldn’t be used against a non-state enemy. The irrational primacy given to expenditure on this useless but absurdly expensive weapon system starves the three armed forces and the rest of the economy of funds and thereby actually undermines our security. Germany, with no nuclear weapons, is every bit as secure as Britain and much stronger economically, at least in part because of not having this financial albatross round its neck (nuclear France is in dire economic trouble too). Britain would have the power and right to veto any move to deprive it of its permanent seat on the Security Council (actually it’s debatable whether our permanent membership of the Council serves any UK interest), but that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. The sole reason for keeping Trident and nuclear weapons is to satisfy the amour propre of a bunch of posturing politicians, generals and (especially) admirals, plus the usual terror of incurring the wrath of the Sun and the Daily Mail.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

    The vote loser argument is the least convincing reason to keep Trident I’ve yet heard. It relies upon it still being 1983 and there being a real fear that the ageing and slightly senile gerontocrats on the Soviet Politburo might decide that they could get away with nuking a non-nuclear power.

    That was never going to be the case anyway, but now that the Cold War is over it isn’t even the public perception. It’s a zombie argument, and like all zombies it needs to be hit with a shovel.

  • brianbarder

    Jaime, please read my penitent reply to Charles Ward, above.

  • brianbarder

    I have no doubt that neither the present French or British government would hesitate to veto any proposal to remove them from the UN Security Council. Such a proposal would require the yes votes or abstentions of all the permanent members of the existing Council plus a majority of at least nine votes: so a No vote by a permanent member would kill it even if it otherwise had enough votes to pass (most unlikely). Whether it would be sensible for us to veto such a proposal is another matter, although if we were going to stand down, it would be better, obviously, to do so on our own terms and of our own free will. I can’t imagine any French government agreeing to step down or to be expelled.

  • Serbitar

    No British government will ever agree to retire Britain’s nuclear virility symbol any time in the foreseeable future. It’s pointless even talking about it. We all might as well move on.

  • uglyfatbloke

    John Ruddy…not the case I’m afraid. There are no really practical sites for Trident in England or Wales, whatever the Welsh assembly leader may say. The issues could be overcome with massive spending, but the real problem is a political one. Nowhere in England or Wales will accept Trident because it is unsafe in itself and it makes the location a target area…which is why people don’t want it on the Clyde either. Imagine the outcry is it were to be located to the Thames!

    Trident is one of those areas in which politicians of all stripes are allowed – even encouraged – to lie through their teeth…just look at all the nutter claims about how Trident is worth 5,000 or 6,000 or 8,000 jobs. Sheer nonsense – and even the Commons Library says so, but that will not stop the nuclear loonies from repeating it. with or without Trident, Britain is a minor military power and successive governments (both sides) have undermined everything of military value but kept chucking billions at Trident so that they can feel important. It’s not just Trident of course; Blair, Brown and Cameron have committed us to spending billions more to replace our existing useless tank with another useless tank. What next? A new top-quality hi-tech battle axe?

  • robertcp

    Sorry Colin. People come up with such silly comments on Trident that it is hard to tell when someone is being ironic.

  • robertcp

    Sorry Colin. People come up with such silly comments on Trident that it is hard to tell when someone is being ironic.

  • robertcp

    Sorry Colin. People come up with such silly comments on Trident that it is hard to tell when someone is being ironic.

  • David F

    Completley disagree, I am not going to list all of the arguments for renewel as they are well documented. The truth of the matter is there are plenty of reasons th renew trident, nuclear proliferation is spreading further and further. It would be just plain foolish to give up our capability.

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