Entente Nucleaire?

We have had a lot of articles about Trident in the build up to conference. Now the motion has now passed with amendments, conference has commissioned a working group on what to do without Trident. The group has been asked to assess strategic threats; how best to promote non-proliferation and disarmament; the implications for Britain’s defence commitments to both NATO and our European alliances; and the scope and implications of other kinds of nuclear deterrent. Here is a proposal to consider.

In his article, George Cunningham argues that the international situation has changed enough that we should retain our nuclear capability after a broader re-evaluation of defence policy.

And George Potter writes that our stockpile is overshadowed as a deterrent by America’s NATO-wide umbrella, but enough of a threat to hostile nuclear powers to single the UK out as a target.

My sympathies are with the unilateralists. The reports and rumours I have read about outdated protocols, lax discipline, and the resulting almost-accidents are enough to make the blood run cold. The presence of nuclear weapons and their destructive force is a permanent risk to all of our lives. In an ideal world, we would use the scrap to plough our furrows. (In an ideal world, the radiation would make the crops super-big.)

But when Russia casually reminds EU states that their support of particular policies might raise the Sword of Damocles above their heads, while North Korea actively extorts the world with the threat of gaining a nuclear capability, and where American diplomacy with Iran is at risk of being held back by a Republican veto, I do not have enough good faith in some members of the international community to decommission what might be our last resort.

The old policy of reducing the number of Trident subs by one to save costs would make the deterrent part-time, and might save money overall but reduce the efficiency of each pound spent on what would otherwise be a 24 hour umbrella: an unhappy halfway house.

George Potter admits that global nuclear disarmament might be an unachievable goal, and suggests that we rely on protection from our French and American allies in NATO to deter those who would threaten us on our behalf. I do not believe that a good partner in a defence alliance would decline to maintain a standing commitment to the collective defence: unilateralism seems like poor teamwork.

I believe that we should negotiate a shared nuclear deterrent with France to reduce the absolute number of warheads in the world while splitting the costs, thereby reaffirming our goal of a nuclear-free world while protecting ourselves from those for whom a nuclear weapon is not a last resort. This is an option I would like the working group to consider.

France has maintained its deterrent using technology it has developed independently. It has the third largest stockpile in the world. Like the UK, France is in NATO and the EU and is facing a large reduction in its national budget. We have cooperated on defence provision before in the Lancaster House Treaties.

Our proximity (and mutually assured co-destruction in a nuclear conflict), shared commitment to what can broadly be called European democracy, and attitudes to international peacekeeping make France an appealing partner. While the nitty-gritty details such as budgets, delivery systems, button privileges, service personnel, initial investments, and the strategic hotspots would all have to worked out by treaty, a commitment to negotiation on this policy would be a welcome cooperative effort to save money and step down the nuclear ladder by reducing the total number of warheads between us.

After all, why keep the combined stockpile of both France and Britain when there are a finite number of threats in the world, but where the most pertinent is the accidental loss or detonation of a nuclear device? Together, we can step down the ladder and step up to the international community as a partnership committed to non-proliferation and mutual self defence.

* Toby MacDonnell is a Lib Dem member. He is a graduate in history from Sussex university reading Keynes and Baudrillard in preparation for postgraduate studies.

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12 Comments

  • Richard Whelan 30th Sep '15 - 5:08pm

    This is something I could support. I look forward to seeing the detail of your proposals when the working group reports.

  • As a history graduate you should realise that having French and British fingers hovering over the button is probably the worst option of all.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '15 - 12:59am

    It’s a decent idea, but the way to sell it to the public is to bang on about saving money. A poll conducted by the Huffington Post recently said the public preferred a cheaper nuclear deterrent over abolishment or full renewal of Trident:

    “29% of all those polled agreed that Trident should be reformed to make it cheaper, 26% that it should be renewed in full, and 18% that it should be scrapped. 27% did not know.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/25/jeremy-corbyn-poll-trident-security-labour-conference_n_8195562.html

    Of course, people shouldn’t give up making the case for their preferred option, but this shows that a cheaper nuclear deterrent, either this or possibly the land based one suggested by Toby Young, is not the disaster policy that some seem to think.

    You have to also factor in the reaction of allies. Let’s just not get obsessed with it like Labour. As Putin shows, sometimes speed of movement is just as powerful as what you move and sometimes “unacceptable damage” can be surprisingly little. The Taliban have arguably won back Kunduz because rightly or wrongly, “the west”, experienced unacceptable damage and decided to pull out.

  • Well, I endorse Toby MacDonnell’s conversion to keeping the nuclear deterrent and remaining a good member of the NATO team in the face of a very unpredictable world. I don’t expect much good to come from the Lib Dem working group – at least it shouldn’t come up with such asinine proposals as last time when it argued for a ‘part time’ deterrent. In the meantime we should expect that like for like renewal of Trident will take place anyway.

  • Neil Sandison 1st Oct '15 - 10:57am

    Thoughtful piece .Strong argument for Europe as a whole to think more collectively about its own defence and stop relying upon Uncle Sam.

  • Denis Loretto 1st Oct '15 - 2:21pm

    We Lib Dems really must stop talking as if we were in power. Our conference resolution (rightly) mandates our 8 MPs to vote against the maingate decision to build and deploy a successor system to Trident including continuous-at-sea operation but noises from the Labour Party, even under Corbyn, indicate that the decision to renew will indeed be taken by parliament. So our working group (reporting in March 2017) will not be about ” what to do without Trident.” It will be about deciding the right position for our party to adopt in a United Kingdom which in effect will retain Trident for a long time to come. If we intended to argue for some further de-escalation – beyond our current policy of retaining a submarine-based deterrent but cutting the number of boats and ceasing continuous-at-sea operation- the time to formulate that and put it forward was before the maingate decision. By referring it to a working group reporting in 2017 we have ensured that we will have no influence on events whatsoever – probably for decades to come.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Oct '15 - 4:07pm

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Baudrillard
    The UK uses American technology which France refused to do, so there may be technical difficulties and consequent needs for nuclear testing. The UK may not be genuinely independint of the USA, France may be.

    Denis Loretto 1st Oct ’15 – 2:21pm ” By referring it to a working group reporting in 2017 we have ensured that we will have no influence on events whatsoever – probably for decades to come.” Perhaps, but just imagine the problem posed to Labour’s shadow cabinet members on the Daily Politics, who are mostly unable to answer, Suppose the Tories proceed as they intend with their majority of 12 in the Commons, plus Labour rebels, plus maybe some support from DUP, etc, then imagine a hung parliament in 2020, should we have a policy or not?

  • David Allen 2nd Oct '15 - 10:13am

    Yes, thoughtful piece, but as Denis Lorettto says, it will be overtaken by events. In 2020 Britain will already have renewed Trident. Our opponents will then be a gung-ho Tory party which will probably have added more military disasters to Iraq, Libya and Afhganhistan: and (probably) a Corbyn-led party offering to carry on wasting £100bn on a weapon they promise never to use.

    Roy Jenkins, thirty years ago, answered the Corbyn question by saying (if my memory serves me well) that he would not rule out use of nuclear weapons, but could not conceive of any circumstances under which he would actually do so. I still think that was a better answer than anything we are hearing from either side today.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 2nd Oct '15 - 4:36pm

    Simon Jenkins http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/01/trident-corbyn-shadow-cabinet-labour?CMP=fb_gu states my view – Trident will never be used and is ‘about diplomatic clout, global posturing, domestic grandstanding and huge sums of public expenditure’. But the money is spent every year and the rest of the defence budget has to suffer constant cuts – and soldiers left ill-equipped – to pay for it. IMO it means that we can never have boots on the ground again while we pay for Trident.
    But Toby gives us an option we should consider, if we can negotiate it with France. In recent years we have looked for a cheaper option for Trident [Danny Alexander et al] while keeping boots on the ground with our military, including the SAS, who have served the country more clearly than Trident ever will.

  • john Stevens 4th Oct '15 - 10:20pm

    Working with France is the way forward. A pity the party did not support this in 2005, when it was proposed by pro-Europeans and when it might have made a difference to the real world.

  • A European nuclear shield funded by all the NATO countries of the EU and operated by the UK and France under a new defence treaty is the only way forward. The time has come to ensure Europe has an independent capability and is not dependent upon the US.

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