This week the Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced a £1.1 billion contract with Rolls Royce for building nuclear submarine reactors. This has caused quite some controversy and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was immediately called to answer an Urgent Question in the Commons on the implications of this spending and whether it preempts a future decision on whether or not to replaceBritain’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
The contract itself will see £500m spent on the refurbishment of Rolls Royce’s Raynesway plant in Derby, while £600m will go on building new nuclear reactor cores to powerBritain’s submarines. Most of these will be used in ‘Astute Class’ (conventionally armed) submarines, but Hammond has stated that they will also be used in the first of the proposed ‘successor’ submarines toBritain’s ‘Vanguard Class’ (nuclear-armed submarines). MPs were right to remind him that parliament is yet to vote on whether or not to replace these subs.
But for the Lib Dems and their supporters, another crucial issue also needs to be addressed: the fate of the Lib Dem-led Trident Alternatives Review.
With party policy opposed to ‘like-for-like’ replacement of Britain’s nuclear weapons system, Nick Harvey (Minister for the Armed Forces) is overseeing a review into alternatives to Trident replacement. However, despite saying just last week that, “the review is making good progress and is on target to report… at the end of the year”, Mr Harvey has now been placed in the uncomfortable position of having to justify MoD spending which pays zero attention to the possible outcomes of his review.
Concerns have previously been raised that the much-vaunted review – which was a serious Conservative concession to the Liberal Democrats on a subject of deep concern to MPs and party members – could be a damp squib.
Firstly, the government’s assertion that there are no plans to publish either the review or the evidence which it draws upon (based on security grounds of course!) was rightly met with outrage.
But these recent developments threaten to do worse than that: to spend on the ‘successor’ submarines now is to prejudge the findings of the review de facto – or simply to ignore it. What good is a review if its conclusions will not be considered? And why would the government pursue a particular course of action ahead of those findings? These are the questions which Lib Dem MPs and activists must demand answers to.
All of this is of course compounded by the fact that the ‘Main Gate’ parliamentary decision on whether or not to replace the nuclear-armed fleet is not due until 2016.
This has placed Nick Harvey in the unenviable position of having to tell BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week: “if we decide in 2016 not to go ahead with some of these engines the government of the day would have to negotiate its way out of that”.
The Lib Dems’ party base has made its opposition to Trident replacement clear, and Lib Dem Ministers still have considerable clout on this issue in government. Translating this into government policy is the real challenge: and the fight is now on.
‘The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.
* Dr. Kate Hudson is General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner.