Conference controversy guaranteed – Renewal of Trident to be debated

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Full details of the agenda for Autumn Conference will be released in due course, but reports on social media say that a motion calling for Trident not to be renewed at all will be debated.

If passed, this would mean an end to a succession of fudges on the issue in recent, and not so recent, years.

Way back in 1986, the Liberal Assembly angered David Steel by supporting an amendment which did not commit the party to supporting the renewal of nuclear weapons. The Journal of Liberal History has Simon Hughes’ speech to that debate:

Fellow Liberals, we could change the direction of British defence and disarmament policy. But we are a party. Many of us joined this party because of its aim and its goal: a non-nuclear Europe in a non-nuclear world. We have never voted to replace independent nuclear deterrent. Not only must we not do so now, but our policy must be to do so never – and to replace an independent British nuclear deterrent by a European nuclear deterrent – even if that concept was workable – is not an acceptable alternative. [applause]

As recently as 2007, Conference rejected a proposal to reject the replacement of Trident by just 40 votes. I was heartbroken, having decided not to go as it was the run-up to the Holyrood elections but admired then leader Ming Campbell’s guts in speaking in the debate.

Two years ago, an amendment calling for Trident not to be replaced was defeated in Glasgow – but the result, like many votes there, relied heavily on the payroll vote – parliamentarians and peers. With a diminished presence, Conference representatives will have more say.

This latest motion was, I understand, accepted against the advice of the representatives of the parliamentary party. It reads, simply:

Conference notes that the go-ahead for building Successor submarines for the Trident system is scheduled to be decided upon in 2016.

Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs.

Conference rejects the projected spending of £100billion on the system over its lifetime, believing the money could be better spent.
Conference therefore calls for the plans to renew the Trident system to be scrapped,and for the earliest decommissioning of the existing Trident force.

There will no doubt be much campaigning in the two months leading up to the debate. One thing we have consistently managed, despite being relatively evenly split, is to have debates of incredibly good quality. Let’s hop that we live up to that standard.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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42 Comments

  • Great news. The current policy requires us to abandon continuous at sea deterrence, but to be prepared to launch armed submarines should international tensions rise. It pays no attention to what impact said launch would have on the international situation. The current policy is ridiculous – a halfway house that makes the world more dangerous – either complete backing for Trident or a call for the non-renewal would be safer.

    It is the worst example of the party’s recent descent into putting together a manifesto and policies suitable for coalition forming – with the view that this was a policy that the Tories or Labour could sign up too. Like many of these Cleggite policies, the position was not particularly liberal, and meant we abandoned our principles as a party. However, unlike the other bland, beige, managerialist policies of recent years, which simply impacted our standing as an independent, radical, campaigning party, this one actively places international security in jeopardy in any crisis.

    Hopefully conference can sort this policy out one way or another.

  • A Social Liberal 12th Jul '15 - 11:45am

    So, apparently we ARE going to debate this every two years until the Disarmers get their way. Amazing, simply amazing. We castigate the SNP for threatening to revisit Scottish independence so soon after losing the argument and yet we do exactly the same thing. It is much worse though, the SNP were defeated by the Scottish nation – the Disarmers were defeated by the party and yet are still coming back for another go.

  • I agree with the motion; I suspect there are many who will just as vehemently disagree with it, which is fair enough. As long as we get rid of the stupid part time submarine policy, though, which just leaves us ripe for mockery…

  • >”Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs.”

    The inclusion of this line isn’t a great idea – there are probably a lot more people that disagree with Trident specifically than regarding the “British possession of nuclear weapons” as a wholly negative thing.

  • I echo everyone in saying that we really can’t be having the “part-time Submarine”. We need an end to the fudge, and nail our colours to one of two masts: renewal or disarmament; diplomacy or force.

  • Steve Comer 12th Jul '15 - 8:29pm

    Chris B: sounds like you’ve drafted an ammendment – get it submitted!
    I agree with Sarah Noble and William, the current policy is the sort of fence sitting that pleases neither side of the srgument. As for this being debated again, surely this IS the right time to debate Trident as the decision will be made in 2016.
    The 10th anniversary of 7/7/10, and the tragedy in Tunisia have shown how useless Trident is in tackling the real threats we face to our security. I would want the UK to invest in its conventional forces and military intelligence, and possibly contribute more to UN peace keeping forces around the world, but Trident is yerterday’s weapon for a bygone age.

  • At a time when welfare is being slashed and £8billion is needed to fund the NHS, it would be absurd to spend a single penny on replacing Trident. I welcome this motion and hope it is supported without amendment.
    we can’t afford the luxury of an expensive weapons system we do not need.

  • Adam Robertson 12th Jul '15 - 9:43pm

    I like Caron, welcome the fact that we will be discussing Trident at Conference (although I won’t be there). I don’t believe there is a simple choice between unilateral disarmament or full nuclear weapons, as some are suggesting. I think Joe is right to ask for a clarification on what the motion is actually going to be about. This is because I support multilateral disarmament, which seems to be completely negated in this debate.

    I have two issues with the particular unilateral disarmament argument. Firstly, how can you negotiate with Russia and China, when you have no nuclear force/diplomacy to back you up. As Classical Realists will argue, having a nuclear bomb puts you in a strong position diplomatically within the world. Now I agree with disarmament but only if others are prepared to disarm. How I can trust Russia or China, to fully disarm their nuclear weapons. How do I know that they are not to going put one “under the kitchen sink”, as my lecturer said in my module, International Relations in the Nuclear Age.

    Secondly, we would still be part of a nuclear alliance in the shape of NATO. Under Article 4, if a NATO state gets attacked, immediately we are all at war. What about if this leads to a short nuclear war, as President Eisenhower and John Dulles, Secretary of State in the US, during the 1950’s played out – if a limited nuclear war happened between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It seems those who support this motion, are trying to create a ‘Veil of Ignorance’ because although Britain would not have nuclear weapons, it would still be associated with an intergovernmental organisation, which still believes in Nuclear Weapons. Therefore, a contradiction. Perhaps an amendment needs to be made to this motion – for Britain to withdraw from NATO, a nuclear organisation.

  • Yet another thing to protest against, maybe someone will tell us what the party is in favour of.

  • Laura Gordon 13th Jul '15 - 12:45pm

    “maybe someone will tell us what the party is in favour of”

    How about diverting some of the money saved on not renewing trident into building up the kind of nimble, flexible forces that are more suitable to what we actually use the army for – responding to the Libyas and Da’eshes of the world, rather than flattening Moscow.

    We shouldn’t conflate non-renewal of Trident with being peaceniks – some people will be both, some favour non-renewal as a means to more effective liberal interventionism, most people are probably somewhere in between. Incidentally a clear policy on the lines I outline above would have a high degree of credibility with the military establishment, many of whom are worried about the impact of Trident renewal on their (already strained) operating budgets.

  • Jonathan Pile 13th Jul '15 - 12:57pm

    Likewise hope we can avoid a unilateralist stance in this uncertain world. Nobody sane likes nuclear weapons .A multilateralist approach to nuclear arms reduction has achieved in last 20 years in arms reduction.Think that Trident replacement is looking too costly in terms of conventional force reductions and we do need to find a cheaper more strategic option minimum deterrent second strike weapon – perhaps land based silo based in England or cruise missile on SSN. £100bn too much.

  • Martin Hunt 13th Jul '15 - 1:45pm

    I think the true question is ‘what is Trident and the money spent on renewing it useful for?’ It was always believed that it was a deterrent, but the people we face threats from now will not be deterred from what they want to do because by doing it they go to a wonderful life (actually not, but it’s what they think that counts) in their version of Heaven. So the only use for one of the things before we get rid of them is dropping one on IS. But IS or the IS belief isn’t in a single place, it’s everywhere. So the conclusion is that Trident is pointless and we should spend the money on one of the many other important things we need money for.

  • @Martin Hunt given the life-cycle of Trident is 30 years, it’s pertinent to look back over that timescale at what the threats were then and what threats there have been in the meantime, and reflect on the fact that the threats of today are unlikely to be the threats of 10 years’ time, or even 5 years, let alone 30.

    That said, were we to decide to not replace trident then a considerable beefing up of our conventional forces would be required. Fully equipping our two aircraft carriers with a full compliment of aircraft, expanding our amphibious capability and providing the troops and additional shipping to ensure deployable force mobility (Falklands. anyone?) would strike me as the most prudent use of the money.

  • Part of the problem is that, it would seem, too many people don’t understand the consequences of the different types of nuclear deterrent.

    For a deterrent to be truly effective, it has to be able to deter in all situations. The only way this can happen is that any potential nuclear aggressor has to know that their first strike will be met by unstoppable and massive retaliation. And this deterrent has to be available at any time and in any circumstances.

    In practice this means a four-boat ICBM defence posture. Four boats are needed to enable one to always be on station, undetected, somewhere in the world. One is always in refit; one is required for training, and the fourth is the “spare” that is needed in case the on-station boat becomes u/s.

    Cruise missiles are not effective because they can be shot down (ballistic missiles can’t – at present)

    Aircraft-launched systems require runways and are therefore vulnerable to attack on the ground, especially in a small country like the UK, and the aircraft are themselves vulnerable for the same reason as cruise missiles.

    Silo-launched systems are equally vulnerable unless you have a huge land area like the US, Russia or China.

    In short – if you want always on deterrence it has to be submarines.

    Any “deterrence” that isn’t always on brings its own problems – not least in the time spent to deploy making it vulnerable, or that any change to defence posture sends an aggressive and potentially escalatory signal to a would-be aggressor.

  • Mick Taylor 13th Jul '15 - 4:18pm

    The whole of my life and the 50 plus years I have been a member of the party, people have said that we can’t disarm unilaterally and that we must wait till everyone agrees to do it together. What a farce! We are one of a few countries to have a nuclear bomb and we have had one since before I joined the party in 1964. No-one has ever provided a scenario in which we might use the bomb – other than as revenge – and the wise heads say that it is a deterrent and that we must keep it. No rational person can justify spending billions on a weapon we will never use for a world in which nuclear deterrence is a cold war policy when we no longer have a cold war. Someone has to start disarming and maybe others will follow. The policy being pursued by the two old parties will beggar our country and provide not an iota of security. It’s time to call a halt to the madness and scrap our nuclear weapons.

  • @Mick Taylor “nuclear deterrence is a cold war policy when we no longer have a cold war”

    Looks like someone forgot to tell that to Mr Putin.

  • peter tyzack 13th Jul '15 - 6:00pm

    well said Mick Taylor.. Certainly other countries will feel able to follow our lead, if we have the courage to take the necessary first step… Anyway, how on earth can we justify telling other countries that they can’t have nukes whilst we still have them.?

  • Has the Party recently asked our serving submariners what they think?
    If not why not if our defence policy is to make any military sense?

  • Keep the subs and scrap the Admirals

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Jul '15 - 8:56pm

    @ Alistair – “Keep the subs and scrap the Admirals”

    And there I was thinking that Defence Diplomacy would be the kind of Defence activity that lib-dems would be [most] approving of:

    http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/what-have-2s-ever-done-for-us-apart.html

  • Martin Veart 14th Jul '15 - 7:07am

    Let’s be clear: doing away with Trident will not do away with the need for submarines or other military hardware. Nuclear weapons though can barely be classed as military weapons anyhow . The Israelis call their own nuclear system Sampson and the allusion is sound: their use would only come after a defeat and it would the the final act of a nation perishing along with their enemies. Thus it is also with Britain’s nuclear weapons. A last act of mass murder.

  • I love Paul Walter’s ‘ Yellow Submarine’ pastiche.
    The Part time Sub policy is a complete nonsense. The time has come to recognise facts and accept that Trident is going to be renewed, like it or not.

  • A Social Liberal 14th Jul '15 - 9:01am

    Old Jock

    Why ask submariners, they do their job and follow orders. The strategy will be decided by those in charge of defence, not the units on the ground.

    For the record, I voted to not renew at all at the 2013 conference. However, since then the Russian Bear has come out of hibernation and is once again destablising Eastern Europe and therefore, given their stock of nuclear weapons we need the nuclear deterrent. The three boat solution is not fit for purpose and so, despite the cost, we will have to renew with like for like.

  • ASL – agreed.

  • If we get rid of our nuclear submarines are we really expecting the Americans to provide our nuclear deterrent? i would be all in favour of getting rid of trident if I thought that America was giving us nuclear protection as it does Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada, Australia and many countries. we could spend more money on conventional defence which is more likely to be needed. The treat of nuclear war kept the peace from 1949 to the end of the cold war. Without these weapons Russia would have occupied western Europe. That is why Russia was so keen for us to disarm in the 1980’s.
    The movers of this motion will have a lot clarify. What about Putin’s nuclear threats, therei is no movement in Russia to lose their weapons. There was no CND in the Soviet Union

  • Martin Hunt 14th Jul '15 - 3:20pm

    I didn’t think anyone still swallowed that nonsense Mr Jones, let alone a Liberal.

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Jul '15 - 8:29pm

    I’m not and am unlikely to be a conference rep, but I would support any amendment to clarify the position away from abhorrence of nuclear weapons in principle (although I share that abhorrence) towards the ‘nukes in the cupboard’ option sketched out by Dr Mark Wright on this site recently. No to renewal, yes for using the remaining warheads as bargaining tools in multilateral disarmament / limitation talks.

    Putin will not be stopped with nukes and he will never give us the opportunity; he does not (as far as I can see, at this stage) want to invade countries en masse, he wants weakened, pliable, divided, unstable neighbours or frightened client states (as he is creating in the Ukraine conflict) – not an empire and certainly not a nuclear war.

    And anyone who thinks ICBMs have any impingement on ISIS’ thinking is barking.

  • Matt (bristol) 14th Jul '15 - 8:48pm

    Any excuse…

  • We lost some excellent MPs thanks to the fear and pessimism of the electorate just over 2 months ago. Please, fellow Liberal Democrats, do not let us lose the NO TRIDENT/NO NUCLEAR WEAPONS argument through the fearand pessimism of our own members ie that we would lose our place at the top table(???); we would lose an essential insurance against war;we would lose votes. None of these are true. Nuclear weapons cannot deter conventional wars nor can they tackle terrorism. There is no reason to believe that a country without nuclear weapons would be asked to leave the UN Security Council – indeed the UN would be delighted to have a member of the non-nuclear majority at the top table. Most importantly for some, we would win rather than lose votes as we re-emerge as the party which cares more about welfare than weapons.So let’s return to being the brave,sensible, radical party I joined; the party, which voted against Trident replacement and this time let’s mean complete replacement not just like for like.

  • Jonathan Brown 15th Jul '15 - 6:33pm

    @Matt (bristol) – that’s roughly my position too. I think that nuclear weapons may have contributed to preventing the Cold War turning Hot, but certainly the world has moved on, and although I think Putin is a threat (more so to our allies than to us directly), Trident doesn’t have the slightest deterrant effect on him or anyone else we might be worried about.

    I would like to keep some ‘nukes in the cupboard’ or something similar, not because I think we’d every use them (and therefore have to worry about their lesser effectiveness) but precisely so that we have something to encourage others to disarm.

    @TCO “Fully equipping our two aircraft carriers with a full compliment of aircraft,…” Quite. If ever we needed an example which proves the distracting and distorting effect of Trident on our defence priorities, this is it!

  • Whilst I am not in the least thrilled that the UK has nuclear weapons, only mitigated by the fact they are virtually unusable, I can see that unilateral disarmament would sideline the EU and increase the dominance of the US.

    I would prefer to see the UK to collaborate with France as stewards of a unified nuclear capability that takes on the mantle of representing the interests of the EU. I do not see that the UK and France need both to have a 24 hour continuous operation. Coordination could mean that one submarine from either would always be operative.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '15 - 8:46pm

    Matt (bristol) Thank you.
    Useful to remember that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
    During the Cold War we were told that if the Soviet Union mounted a massive tank attack westwards
    (in line with their previous policy/aspiration/comminist theology of including the whole of Western Europe to Gibraltar)
    NATO would use “tactical” nuclear weapons in (communist controlled) Poland.
    After 1989 we were told, that we would not have done.

  • Martin, your suggestion for a shared French/UK nuclear weapons submarine system was suggested to the Labour Government by France and Gordon Brown turned the offer down. Do you think the present Governments would now agree to get together?

  • Neil Sandison 16th Jul '15 - 10:48am

    NATO is supposed to be a shared defence capability to discourage military aggression on our borders .So should Great Britain be carrying an unfair burden in maintaining that alliance at the cost impoverishing our conventional and much used armed forces ? Have we forgotten the arguments regarding the lack of suitable equipment and helicopters to defend our troops on the ground in Afghanistan ? If Trident forms part of a nuclear umbrella should all those under that umbrella be putting their hands in their pockets as well ,or is this really just about military status with those who just hark back to Empire days when GB ruled those waves. Submarines can have many operational uses so the number of boats we have should reflect the functions we wish them to carry out. Interesting to note a recent report that has come out that recognised GB as one of the most able countries in delivering soft power .
    We should all be worried that a new arms race has already started and be pushing for refreshed multilateral nuclear disarmament talks .I hope we can see amendments come forward rather than heading down the my bombs bigger than your bomb route .Surely reducing the number of war heads internationally is better than developing systems that destroy targets many times over .We need to pull back internationally from the “hot rock strategy “because our human race has no where else to go under mutually assured destruction.

  • Janet King:

    Thank you, I could not remember such a proposal, but found this link: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/mar/19/france-britain-shared-nuclear-deterrent . That such an idea was floated by Sarkozy shows that this could be a runner.

    I very much doubt the present government would entertain a proposal of a joint nuclear defence system, but see no reason why this could not be the aim for Liberal Democrat policy.

  • @Martin @Janet King there’s a reason why we don’t have joint nuclear deterrence with the French:

    Hacker: I sometimes wonder why we need the weapons.
    Sir Humphrey: Minister! You’re not a unilateralist?
    Hacker: I sometimes wonder, you know.
    Sir Humphrey: Well, then, you must resign from the government!
    Hacker: Ah, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m not that unilateralist! Anyway, the Americans will always protect us from the Russians, won’t they?
    Sir Humphrey: Russians? Who’s talking about the Russians?
    Hacker: Well, the independent deterrent.
    Sir Humphrey: It’s to protect us against the French!
    Hacker: The French?! But that’s astounding!
    Sir Humphrey: Why?
    Hacker: Well they’re our allies, our partners.
    Sir Humphrey: Well, they are now, but they’ve been our enemies for the most of the past 900 years. If they’ve got the bomb, we must have the bomb!
    Hacker: If it’s for the French, of course, that’s different. Makes a lot of sense.
    Sir Humphrey: Yes. Can’t trust the Frogs.
    Hacker: You can say that again!

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jul '15 - 7:07pm

    When there was a disaster at a Soviet nuclear energy plant in the Ukraine the pollution went downstream to Sweden.
    If France used nuclear weapons too near home they might get the same effect, as happened with chemical weapons in World War I.
    De Gaulle is dead, nuclear weapons are expensive, undermining GDP growth, do they really need them?

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Jul '15 - 7:36pm

    If we wish to maintain our activist foreign policy, in support of our wider obligations to the UNSC, FPDA, NATO, etc, then yes. Yes we do.

    If Britain is to use both its wealth (to fund a Defence capability), and its will to deploy it (for elective warfare), then it is important it has the absolute security at home that permits it engage the sum of its military capability in projecting military force into remote corners of the world.

    This security is had by the following means:
    1. A friendly region (europe) in which we remain a (pre-eminent) military power.
    2. A network of military and civil alliances into which all parties have surety that co-signitories accept their responsibilities.
    3. A geographic advantage of our island nation which means we need not fear neighbouring tanks rolling across the border on a Friday afternoon.
    4. A Continuous At Sea Deterrent that means it matters not if our military capability is stuck in a landlocked desert on the far side of the world.

    Unlike our continental neighbours, who remain unable to call upon all of these advantages, our Armed Forces are almost uniquely configured for power projection not territorial Defence: No massed tank divisions. No endless ranks of conscript infantry. No thousands of artillery pieces. Instead, we’ve blown our cash on the strategic enablers that us to project power at a distance, so although it looks rather weedy in top-trumps terms we can plan, initiate, insert, prosecute, and conclude a theatre-level combined-arms operations wherever we are needed.

    There is no other nation on this earth besides the US that can do this, and it requires:
    The Naval and Air force logistics tail to support this. The Air force C3 assets to control the battle space. The Army logistics tail to support this on the ground. The Carriers to kick the door in, and secure the the ground war thereafter. The Navy to sustain Strategic Lines Of Communication. The division level assets able to operate from beyond Northwood. This army would not be much use against the Third Soviet Shock Army in the Fulda Gap, but it is not expected to succeed in that.

    In part, this risk is acceptable because Trident means no one would dare, so we can carry on doing the difficult jobs in international relations. That is why £2-3 billion per annum is justified.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Aug '15 - 8:21pm

    1986 was before 1989.

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