Nuclear weapons are a divisive issue. In fact, in the current debate over whether or not the UK should replace Trident, there is only one point of near-universal agreement: the decision must be made on national security grounds. Does Trident meet our current and expected future security threats? That is the serious, cross-party debate which has begun to develop in Parliament in recent weeks.
While some might wish it was a simplistic ‘for or against’ debate, or one of ‘idealistic moralists versus hard-headed realists’, the debate is no longer that easy to caricature.
Recent weeks have seen contributions from former Defence Secretaries, Navy Ministers and Chiefs of the General Staff, as well as MPs from both sides of the House questioning the future of Trident.
In last week’s House of Lords debate, crossbencher Lord Bramall, former Chief of the General Staff, said, Trident ‘has not and, indeed, would not deter any of the threats and challenges – now more economic than military – likely to face this country in the foreseeable or even longer-term future’. In a measured contribution to another debate, it was fascinating to hear Conservative MP Crispin Blunt arguing that we ‘want a small pinpoint weapon, not a strategic weapon that would wreak massive and unacceptable collateral damage in the process.’
But the debate is evolving within the Labour Party as well.
Ed Miliband’s advisor Stewart Wood, said, ‘relying excessively on nuclear weapons to do the deterring is not only more hazardous, but less effective in a world where the threats we face are changing in character’ and whilst continuing to see a role for Trident in the immediate future, is keen to make progress on disarmament. He also asked the government whether it was ‘alive to making progress on defence concepts that are less dependent on nuclear weapons’.
Des Browne, the Defence Secretary when the Commons voted through replacing Trident in 2007, believes ‘relevant factors have changed’ and he has now openly challenged the frontbench position: ‘The time is now right, in my view, to change our posture and to step down from continuous at-sea deterrence. This would demonstrate that nuclear weapons are playing less and less of a role in our national security strategy’.
For others, cuts to conventional armed forces capability has brought this to the fore, as stated by candidate Clive Lewis in another article for the New Statesman. Lord Lea countered the ‘uncertain future’ justification used for Trident by questioning cuts to conventional equipment citing a ‘lack of knowledge about conventional needs and available resources so far in advance’.
These contributions clearly express openness to a cool rethink of nuclear weapons policy while remaining wary of right-wing media attempts to paint Labour as weak on defence.
So where will the party go? That it will assess the Cabinet Office’s Trident Alternatives Review is welcome, though Labour should not limit itself to accepting the Lib Dem framework of alternative delivery platforms.
Trident remains one of the few areas where goodwill remains towards the Lib Dems because they are challenging the status quo. Many of those voters are the same ones who left Labour not only over the Trident vote in 2007, but also over Iraq – which Ed Miliband has clearly addressed.
Austerity and cuts both to conventional forces and wider public services have helped provide the political space to re-examine Trident, while an assessment of the security arguments further undermines the case for replacement.
Those who support Trident are welcome to argue it – and they do so frequently – but it is time the Labour frontbench opened itself to a serious internal discussion of its policy on Trident.