A Critique of Liberal Democrat Defence policy, Part 2

This is the second of a series of three posts. The first part can be read here.

The following is a critique of the defence policy outlined in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto published for the 2019 General Election and presumably still extant at time of writing (June 2020).  Manifesto commitments are reproduced verbatim followed by my commentary.

Page 91: A Secure Defence in the 21st Century (continued)

  • Maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent. We propose continuing with the Dreadnought programme, the submarine-based replacement for Vanguard, but procuring three boats instead of four, and moving to a medium-readiness responsive posture. This would mean replacing continuous at-sea deterrence – instead maintaining the deterrent through measures such as unpredictable and irregular patrolling patterns. [Copied verbatim from the 2017 GE Manifesto]

Comment. I suspect this is an attempt at compromise to show that the party is essentially anti nuclear weapons philosophically but also serious about defence. This policy is neither fish nor fowl and needs radical revision.

My personal view on Trident is as follows:

  • I believe that from a moral and ethical standpoint it is so indiscriminate as a weapon – sophisticated targeting systems notwithstanding – and is so powerful that huge collateral damage to people and property is unavoidable, and that accordingly no civilised country would ever use it.
  • I don’t believe it is truly independent in that I cannot imagine the UK ever employing it without at least the tacit approval of the US (although I also understand that technically it can be used independently) nor do I think it is a universal deterrent – it didn’t deter the Argentinians in 1982, nor the Iraqis in 1990, nor the Taliban and/or Al Quaeda. Nor do I truly believe there exists a credible nuclear threat to UK interests from so-called rogue states like Iran or North Korea. (It may stop the UK being bullied by Russia in the final analysis but I’m not convinced of this).
  • I believe that Trident is essentially a political weapon, not a military weapon, whose main function is to maintain the UK in the front rank of global powers and guarantee continuing national membership of the UN Security Council, NATO etc etc, a posture supported by successive Westminster governments over the past 50 years plus.
  • Its maintenance, and eventual replacement, places an enormous burden on the MoD’s budget and soaks up vast funds which would be far better spent on the UK’s conventional forces – more ships for the RN, better equipment for the army, better pay and conditions, and better provision for ex-service personnel when they leave the armed forces, a particular interest of mine at the moment.

To summarise, I think Trident is in fact a weapons system which has no conceivable use and which is far too costly when other priorities should prevail.  Therefore I do not think it should be replaced when it comes to the end of its lifespan by anything similar.

There is an opportunity here for the party to adopt a radical and innovative approach to the UK’s nuclear deterrent and nuclear disarmament. I would strongly advocate that the best position would be to allow the current system to continue until obsolescence, argue against its replacement by the new Dreadnought fleet, and use the consequential savings (anywhere between £41-£100 Bn depending on whom  you believe) on much needed funding of our conventional forces or, indeed, elsewhere in the overall budget.

* Stuart Crawford is a freelance journalist of several years (and many publications) standing and a party member.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Michael Sammon 27th Jun '20 - 12:49am

    Good point Kit. I much prefer our current policy than your proposals I’m afraid Stuart but thank you for bringing this up. The problem with conventional forces is they are too vulnerable to attack. Unilateral disarmament is silly in my opinion. We should stay with NATO, I don’t think there is any way the British public would trust us with this and I couldn’t support it either.

  • Kevin White 27th Jun '20 - 7:54am

    Well said Stuart. LIBDEMS AGAINST TRIDENT are currently gathering signatures for a motion to Virtual Autumn Conference which would change party policy. Over one hundred signatures have already been gathered. If you wish to sign in support please click on https://www.facebook.com/groups/855017081205443/ or email: [email protected]. Apparently it is too long to be added here in comments.

  • suzanne fletcher 27th Jun '20 - 10:33am


  • Laurence Cox 27th Jun '20 - 12:42pm


    You are quite right; the manifesto pledge is completely nonsensical. There are only two options: continuous at sea deterrence, which we have at the moment, or nuclear disarmament. Satellite observations are more than good enough already to determine if a ballistic missile submarine is preparing to go to sea and I haven’t seen anyone advocating Bond villain-style underground bases.

    The one issue with disarmament is that we can’t trust Trump to come to our aid if we were attacked by another nuclear power and here I am much more concerned by Russia and China than North Korea. It will be a long time before the US Presidency can regain trust IMO.

  • Peter Chambers 27th Jun '20 - 2:14pm

    It does look like many of the paragraphs are anodyne. Let’s see if we can sharpen the debate.

    The paragraph on the deterrent is the same as the one proposed by Barbara Castle to Harold Wilson about Polaris. It is worse then useless. Either you have a deterrent with opaque operations (so opponents cannot easily ‘test’ your resolve) or you should not bother. Your stance is that you pretend that you might use it, while privately planning never to do so.
    So anything less than CASD is costly amateur tinkering.

    We should look hard at who we are saying we are deterring. It used to be Soviet Russia. Plausibly it is not the DPRK, India, Pakistan. China have a no-first-use doctrine and the PLA is not kitted for expeditionary warfare. What about a future Iran? Plausibly we provide a component of the NATO (US, UK, FR) force. Is this necessary? What are the criteria?

    Then, if it is necessary, we should look at affordability (else take the saving). Can we actually afford it? This is not clear. Will we be facing 20% loss of GDP? 10%? 30%? Can we afford it based on last year’s figures. This is not clear. Read this article for some reasons why:
    If we keep the deterrent, we have to lose something else. What ?

    If there is to be a policy study group that looks at defence, considering options for a decade of sustainable programme, with an anticipated loss of some GDP, based on justified defence needs would be a good place to start. Nebulous goals such as “British prestige on the world stage” may be deleted. The current government have already jettisoned all hope of that.

  • Mike Falchikov 27th Jun '20 - 6:47pm

    Agree with both Stuart and Peter. Trident is extremely expensive and it’s difficult to think of any situation where we might be tempted to use it unilaterally. For many years it was Liberal policy as clearly enunciated by Jo Grimond that as long as we were in a “Western Alliance” there was no need for an independent British nuclear deterrent. This position was abandoned in the 1980s for no good military reason but largely because of the merger with the SDP, where David Owen wanted to keep an independent nuclear deterrent. France, I think, is the only other NATO country with its own nuclear bomb and many NATO countries will not allow nuclear arms in their country.

  • This is a welcome discussion. I’m not convinced by the idea that cancelling the nuclear deterrent would lead to more money for conventional forces. I think the opposite would be true, especially for the navy: with no nuclear deterrent there would be less need for the minehunters, patrol craft, submarines, aircraft and Royal Marines that contribute to defending them. Survey vessels are also key to the trident programme.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Jun '20 - 4:48pm

    @William Francis

    A truly independent nuclear deterrent is more difficult than it sounds. The last time that we had one was in the early 1960s when the further development of the stand-off missile Blue Steel that was carried by V-bombers was cancelled (it had been introduced because it was apparent that the V-bombers could not get through the Soviet defences to drop atom bombs). Then we had, briefly, Skybolt (the US equivalent) before President Kennedy cancelled it and we ended up with Polaris. Trident is just an improved version of Polaris. (Formally Blue Steel was in service until Polaris took over in 1970, but there was serious doubt about whether the aircraft carrying it could ever have got in range to fire it before being shot down by the Soviet missile defences).

    The parts of the Trident system that are British are the warhead and the submarine. The missile is entirely American and the missiles in British submarines are drawn from the American stock (which is rotated for quality control reasons; like aircraft the missiles are serviced regularly and individual parts replaced). So to create a British independent deterrent we would have to duplicate the American missile stock and its servicing.

    There isn’t any alternative to a sea-based ballistic missile system as a deterrent if you want it to be effective against countries like Russia or China; submarine-launched cruise missiles won’t do it neither will aircraft; there are worrying developments that suggest that stealth aircraft are already detectable.

  • neil sandison 29th Jun '20 - 6:29pm

    I am I would suggest like many members of the party a multi-lateralist who means it .No one except the US cares about our nuclear arsenal and we should be using all the power or influence we have through the UN re-start multilateral disarmament talks to remove these indiscriminate weapons ,like chemical weapons ,or land mines which harm civilians from the military/ industrial scenario . We need more than just a feel good motion at conference we need to be leading the call for de-nuclearization across continents and not just one small island .

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • User AvatarMichael BG 4th Aug - 8:52pm
    Laurence Cox, In the Duncan Brack LDV article https://www.libdemvoice.org/review-of-federal-committee-elections-63379.html, Duncan sets out the terms of reference: • “Seek views on the conduct of the autumn...
  • User Avatarjayne Mansfield 4th Aug - 8:51pm
    I have no objection to people making choices as to whether they eat healthy or unhealthy food, providing of course they take personal responsibility for...
  • User AvatarKatharine Pindar 4th Aug - 8:50pm
    Gordon, I used to believe in the supremacy of Conference, but not any more since it was managed and misled at Bournemouth. No, give me...
  • User AvatarMarco 4th Aug - 8:43pm
    @Michael1 "The reason for the beeb is the same as that u am compelled to pay for the public library despite never borrowing a mills...
  • User AvatarNigel Jones 4th Aug - 8:39pm
    I agree with Michael 1. Many people over 75 can afford the fee and the only other way of funding the BBC would be through...
  • User AvatarMarco 4th Aug - 8:18pm
    @Phil Beesley "Have you ever run a jumble sale? Or are you making stuff up on the fly?" Haha probably the latter to be be...