I recently revisited an article that I wrote ahead of Autumn Conference in 2015. My article opened with the line, “Another Lib Dem conference and we find ourselves talking about our nuclear deterrent once more.”
And they say politics has changed in the last eighteen months!
In York this week, we will again debate the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. At conference’s request, the FPC has commissioned a policy paper on nuclear weapons (pdf). The paper, written by party members after long consideration, advocates a step down the nuclear ladder by moving to a medium-readiness posture, and proposes an end to continuous at-sea deterrence. It also calls on the UK to become a leader in the disarmament and control of nuclear weapons. This position reflects the UK’s continued need for a minimum nuclear deterrent, suitable for the 21st century, which sits alongside the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to working for a world free of nuclear weapons, working within international institutions, particularly the UN.
Eighteen months ago, I asked those advocating a one-sided UK nuclear disarmament to answer a series of questions. Those questions are still relevant today, and I’ll be backing the policy motion at conference, because it provides credible answers to them.
In that article, I wrote, “We need to be absolutely sure that neither our security, nor that of our neighbours is compromised.” We are living in a world that is more volatile than in 2013, when the party’s current policy was written. The challenges the UK faces include Putin’s aggressive build-up of the Russian military, a potential fracturing of the European Union, and a volatile and unpredictable President in the White House, to name just a few.
NATO is an avowedly nuclear alliance, and the policy paper argues, correctly, that now, more than ever, the UK needs to be a fully committed member of NATO. President Trump has already said he considers NATO to be irrelevant. I’m sure Putin would be delighted if the UK were to get rid of its nuclear weapons, but our allies, and in particular the Baltic states, would be dismayed.
However, I do not believe that “like-for-like” replacement of the Trident programme, as the government is now pursuing, is needed to address all the threats the UK faces. Lib Dems have been arguing against a continuous deterrent for many years, and last autumn, our MPs voted against the government’s planned Successor programme.
And what about the UK’s international obligations? As the policy paper states, the UK has a legal responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to reinvigorate international nuclear disarmament initiatives.
So I was delighted to see that the paper advocates a leading role for the UK in the creation of a nuclear weapons-free world and strengthens our commitment to using international institutions to promote global security and stability. If we genuinely want a world without nuclear weapons then we will only do so by taking other nuclear powers with us. Otherwise the British people would feel their government is making them vulnerable whilst not actually making any real steps towards peace and a world free of nuclear weapons.
The paper sets out a range of measures the UK should take, including strengthening the legal framework around nuclear weapons, using the UK’s expertise in verification to build confidence between states.
As an outward looking, internationalist party, Liberal Democrats want the UK to work closely as part of the UN, NATO and the EU to reduce global weapons stocks. We don’t want to walk away from our international commitments.
I am under no illusion about the seriousness with which we as a party must treat the question of the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons. I want us as a party to have a credible policy which keeps the UK safe, but which also makes the world safer. This policy paper, and its motion, does that.
Liberal Democrats are internationalists, and the proposed policy sets out a progressive framework for making the world a safer place.
At this Spring Conference we have an important opportunity to lay the foundation for a vision which all Liberals can support: a nuclear weapons-free world. Let’s take it.
* Tim Farron is Leader of the Liberal Democrats, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and a former President of the Liberal Democrats.