Trident isn’t a simplistic ‘for or against’ debate

January 29, 2013 2:41 pm

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.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    Arguably, the best deterrent is one that your enemy thinks you might actually use and will leave your enemy worse off than you. The only enemies we’d face in a nuclear war are larger than us and would have a much better chance of surviving than us.

    As for a non-nuclear enemies, you can’t nuke an insurgency and the amount we spend annually maintaining Trident is about half of what we spent each year prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

    • Jiesheng Li

      Um so whne Afghanistan ends, what Trident is great? How can it insure when the terrorists bombed London in 7/7?

  • Brumanuensis

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why it is rational, from a military perspective, to gut our conventional forces and protect a useless white elephant that exists for no other purpose than to ensure that the French aren’t the sole nuclear-armed European nation.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      Especially when we already have rail access to their capital.

  • i_bid

    Completely agree. Without being saddled with such ridiculously expensive nothings, it’ll help enormously with Labour’s costing of future policies, and if accused of being soft on defence, Labour can reply that they’ll re-employ many of the soldiers sacked under this government – although careful not to just re-direct all savings back to Defence (housing, welfare etc are in much dire need). Having said that, I won’t hold my breath.

  • robertcp

    Trident is a waste of money and we should get rid of it.

  • uglyfatbloke

    It is a simple question..do we want a costly weapon with no functionality or do we want to spend the money on something useful. From a purely military perspective it was always a simple question really, but trident makes politicians feel important, so that’s why we have it.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I do not support nuclear weapons and wish that we did not have them. I also wish that they did not exist at all and that nobody had them, but it impossible to “unconventional” something.

    So I think I am a multi-lateralist. If we unilaterally disarm, we are no safer than we were before. It seems to me to be a basic principle of negotiation that you never concede something without some measure of reciprocity: if you do you are foolish.

    I also think that it is not the missiles being replaced at this vast cost, it is the submarines that carry them, and so the new submarines will carry the old missiles. But that is possibly too pedantic, as the submarines have only one purpose.

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