Amid the brouhaha of the Budget, and the drama of Leveson, it would be easy to let other, lesser, news slip you harmlessly by last week. The Financial Times carried a little noted article last Monday on the Labour Party and serially tricky issue of Trident. For the cynics amongst us, the timing was curious, given that the political parties were on the cusp of concluding their grubby negotiations on Leveson, the Budget was sure to preoccupy the week and, lest we forget, it was the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For a party who has long been uncomfortable with its relationship with nuclear weaponry, and wary of public and partisan scorn, last week signalled an ideal opportunity to subtly shift its stance on an issue of totemic importance.
Ever since Operation Hurricane detonated Britain’s first atomic bomb off the Australian coast in 1952, which was commissioned and sanctioned by the previous Attlee government, nuclear weaponry and the Labour Party have shared a troubled past. The FT headline, thundering ‘Miliband set to ditch Trident stance’, at once gave hope to those that share doubts over current policy. As with most salacious headlines, the journalese did not quite cover the reality. The Labour leader is no more calling for the full removal of Britain’s nuclear-tipped Trident II submarines than he is calling for the bombing of Moscow. The nuance is more restrained than that, but no less revealing.
The anonymous briefings provided to the FT appear to endorse the absolute minimal option for change – three submarines instead of four, with an end to round-the-clock North Atlantic patrols. This is, nonetheless, an important step. But potentially at odds with many within the party, including, it would seem, Labour’s very own Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy. Murphy gave a series of hard-hitting interviews to the New Statesman a few weeks ago, one of which said:
“Ed [Miliband] and I have spoken about this quite a bit and we’re in the same place, which is that we’re not a unilateralist party and we’re not about to become a unilateralist party.”
A couple of weeks later, however, and Miliband’s inner circle appear to be briefing that they’re not in the same place at all. One can note the thoughts of Miliband’s chief advisors from an article written back in January that detailed a “roadmap to nuclear abolition”.
But the case for downgrading our nuclear arsenal deserves to be heard, and heard seriously. At present the overriding political debate in Britain is that of our spending. The pressure on defence spending is especially acute. And the effects can already be seen. The number of soldiers in the British Army is at its lowest level since the Napoleonic wars. The Royal Navy won’t have an aircraft carrier for the next six years. In this climate, is spending at least £30bn on Trident renewal an overriding national priority? Not to even ask the more fundamental question about whether Britain actually needs its own nuclear weapons programme.
The danger is we agree to a parade of Generals fighting the last war but one. So we buy EuroFighters to duel with Russian MiGs and pledge to renew Trident so they can continue cruising the deep, deterring none-existent threats. The critical argument against Britain’s continued nuclear deterrent is that Britain’s use of nuclear weapons in any such aggression would be unthinkable. Trident will not deter, and will never be used against, what are now Britain’s enemies. Its value as a deterrent depends on a coherent, readily identifiable, enemy with a leadership structure capable of being deterred. This applied in the Cold War. But that is where it belongs. Wars fought today are post-conventional, post-nuclear and asymmetrical. They are not against states but against stateless individuals, regional insurgencies and political and religious beliefs.
Increasingly Trident should be viewed as not even remotely a national priority. Blair was a continuum in the defence establishment’s myopic faith in its nuclear weaponry, Brown was never prime minister long enough to see through his conversion on the subject. Miliband just well might be. The consensus in the political and defence realm is that little will change on this matter; political prestige, and timidity, trumps all. But as Labour started Britain’s nuclear programme, so too could it well signal its subtle end.