Delaying the decision, on whether or not to replace Trident, until 2016, has been the best bit of news to come out of the coalition government. This was announced, to the delight and relief of many, in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) last October.Of crucial importance, it makes Trident a general election issue – a fact, as Nick Harvey has stated, ‘of huge political significance’. Indeed, it holds out the possibility of defeat for a new generation of nuclear weapons. Given that the majority of the population has for some time backed scrapping Trident, this is not a utopian fantasy but a graspable reality.
Many assume that the delay is due in no small part to the presence of the Liberal Democrats in government. At last year’s annual conference an emergency motion made the party’s position abundantly clear: that Trident should be included in the SDSR. While this fell short of the disarmament position held by many members, nevertheless it was a clear indicator that there could not be business as usual on nuclear weapons while the Lib Dems were in the government. Indeed, the party’s president was moved to state that: ‘Trident will not be renewed this parliament – not on a Liberal Democrat watch’.
In this light, yesterday’s revelation that the MoD is already planning to order the steel to build the first submarine is not going to go down well. A number of questions on Trident have been put on behalf of Parliamentary CND including from Tessa Munt and Julian Huppert. One queried whether “steel for the substantial construction of the hull structure of the first boat of the Trident replacement programme will be made as a long-lead purchase prior to main gate [the 2016 decision point]”, to which Dr Fox replied in the affirmative.
How can this development be interpreted? It seems like a piece of double-dealing of the worst sort – that the government is saying one thing and doing another, pulling the wool over the eyes not only of the public, but of its Liberal Democrat supporters. There is also another possibility: that the MoD is pursuing its own track, irrespective of the political agreement and process set out by the coalition government. After all, Liam Fox strongly backs Trident replacement despite being angry about the MoD having to pay for it from the Defence budget.
Whatever’s happening behind the scenes, the fact is that the government has stated that the decision point is 2016. That must be held to – and we must all play our part in ensuring that it is not ridden rough-shod over by pro-Trident forces. We cannot and will not have Trident replacement through the back door. But one thing is abundantly clear: the role of the Liberal Democrats in ensuring a democratic and accountable process is absolutely crucial.
Kate Hudson is General Secretary of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.