Julian Huppert: Trident – getting off the nuclear ladder

TridentI firmly believe that we do not want Trident. We simply don’t need the ability to blow up large parts of the globe. Frankly, the idea that we have spent decades with nuclear armed missiles cruising the oceans ready to fire on a moment’s notice seems absurd to me. I look forward to a world where we do not have such weapons, and where no one else does either.

Even those who believe that the MAD theory worked during the Cold War surely must accept that  the world has changed – I am always amazed by those who still live in the 60s.

The Tories are still wedded to that position – they seem to display some bizarrely Freudian attachment to having missiles which can explode violently.

Labour – with some honourable exceptions – are also wedded to nuclear weapons, although I can never quite tell whether this is because they really believe in them, or because the unions want to keep the jobs. I don’t think we should build missiles just to keep people employed – we can and should find them alternative employment.

I wish either of those parties would come to understand the current world, but that doesn’t seem likely. We’ve done well, given the balance of opinions, simply to stop a full-blown like-for-like replacement from going ahead – most MPs wanted it. So what now?

I am persuaded that there is a nuclear ladder, as articulated by Nick Harvey; there are various nuclear positions that one can adopt. My favourite is not to be on the ladder at all, but there are many other positions between that and full-blown four-submarine continuous at sea deterrence.

The Defending the Future policy paper at conference, argues for one of those positions – that we reduce the number of submarines we have and not add nukes on them by default.

This is not a small change. Having fewer submarines would mean that it is no longer possible to have continuous at sea deterrence – no longer would we be cruising the sea lanes, ready to fire, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This would be the largest reduction in nuclear deployment ever. We would prove to the world that we are committed to disarmament, increasing our moral authority when negotiating with other nuclear-armed countries on the subject. And it gives us flexibility in any future discussions here at home with either other party. It enables us to actually negotiate a real change, rather than just disagree impotently.

Additionally, by making sure that the subs were capable of dual use it would make it easier for us to later move away from nukes altogether, rather than being locked in for decades to come.

I want to get from where we are at the top of the ladder, to the green grass below. But the best way to get down a ladder is step by step, not just to jump off the top.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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


  • Jamie Rumbelow 6th Sep '13 - 3:52pm

    I completely agree Julian.

    It’s also important to remember the circumstances in which we’d need nuclear capability. As far as I understand the paper’s position, we’d still have nuclear capability, we just wouldn’t be able to deploy at a moment’s notice. But given that, in the event of a situation requiring something like this, there would probably be a long build-up and we’d have enough time to deploy a deterrent anyway.

    We don’t need a deterrent; that much is clear. But if we must have some nuclear capability, what possible reason does it need to be continuous available, 24/7/365?

  • If you don’t have nukes, and you want them, it will take decades to procure them without a war economy, or someone you can buy them from.

    This should always be remembered when arguing we don’t need them *now*.

  • jenny barnes 6th Sep '13 - 4:32pm

    Unfortunately, having one less submarine as proposed does not significantly reduce the cost. If you want a nuclear deterrent, there are no sensible alternatives to having it available all the time. But there are still no circumstances where a nuclear power is capable of a nuclear attack on the UK AND has the ability to deter a counter strike from the USA, which was the reason for the UK wanting a deterrent in the Cold War. Well, the only rational reason, no doubt there were a lot of status type things: Empire, seat at top table, punching above weight, yada yada. The arguments against nuclear cruise on Astute look convincing, so really the choice is spend many billion £s on Trident, or not. 3 subs instead of 4 is a difference that makes no difference.

  • a quote “we can and should find them alternative employment”

    That is easy to say but the current position of the Lib Dems favours austerity, rather than job creation.

  • If I seriously believed that it was likely that we could go down the nuclear ladder step by step, then it might be a position worth supporting.

    However, politicians – including many in our own party – just won’t do it. It’s always got to be multilateral or not at all. I’ve been active in the Liberal and Lib Dem Parties since 1964 and we are no nearer nuclear disarmament than we were when I was born in 1950. If anything, the position is worse with more countries acquiring nuclear capability. The risks of such destructive capability falling into terrorist hands grows with proliferation.

    I firmly believe that unless one country starts the process and renounces nuclear arms, the position will continue to get worse and no serious steps will be made towards ending nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war.

    I will be supporting an amendment to scrap trident and abandon ‘Successor’. This will not leave us defenseless just unable to annihilate other countries. If such an amendment is not forthcoming, I will speak and vote against the policy being brought forward, because it makes no sense for a radical Liberal party to support the continuation of nuclear arms, when everyone knows we will never use them.

    The only reason Labour and Tory (mostly male) politicians want these bombs is because they’re still with their mates in the playground saying mine’s bigger than yours.

  • David Allen 6th Sep '13 - 5:57pm

    In principle the idea of starting down the ladder step by step is attractive. It’s how Gorbachev ended the Cold War. However, we’re not in the same league here, and as many have pointed out, fewer boats save little money but considerably reduce the capability.

    Also, once you’ve decided to deploy your new reduced line-up, you don’t retain any bargaining power over everybody else’s deployment.

    Given that, your potential coalition partners from either side will probably just say “thanks Lib Dems for a bit of meaningless posturing, now we’re going out and buying four boats, aren’t we?”

    Things were more fraught during the Cold War and its aftermath, but there was a positive side – the US and Russia did accept that they needed to keep on talking to each other and negotiating seriously. That has rather fallen out of fashion, and Syria shows how harmful that is. (Incidentally, Gorbachev in his 80s is still active – see the interview on Newsnight last night – and he still makes Obama and Putin both look like pygmies in platform shoes, each bombastically trying to strut their stuff!)

    Could we adopt a policy, not that we unconditionally buy 2 boats or 3 boats or 4 boats or 0 boats, but that what we do will be conditional on what others do? For example, that we will postpone any purchase if a disarmament conference is held, and/or, we will buy fewer boats if Russia and the US substantially cut their own stocks?

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Sep '13 - 7:49pm

    So Lib Dems now want to risk starting World War Three, provide indirect support to the US during it and then get rid of our nuclear weapons?

    We need to make our minds up, we can’t be a state getting involved in proxy wars against Russia and other nuclear powers then get rid of our own nuclear weapons.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 6th Sep '13 - 7:59pm

    I’m just going to do the peace loving hippy thing here. And you will all probably laugh at me and tell me I’m not being grown up or something, but I am sure that if we spent the money that we spend on weapons of mass destruction on humanitarian aid, then it would pay us major rewards. I just can’t reconcile in my head spending squillions on something that we say we’re never going to use just because a few other people have them and some nasty people might get their hands on them.

    If we would never want any government to use these things, which are, after all, targeted at innocent civilians and even one would kill tens if not hundreds of thousands, why would we want our government to waste so much of our hard earned taxes on them?

  • @David Allen
    Do you think that Russia is likely to pay much attention to our capabilities? Could they not simply ignore us, in favour of looking at what the US is doing?

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Sep '13 - 8:52pm

    I just checked the strike Syria voting records and notice that Julian Huppert voting against. Personally I think this is an admirable position and such an attitude could go alongside nuclear disarmament; however my problem is that I think other people would still get us involved in wars (rightfully or wrongfully) and having no nuclear weapons would threaten our security (in my opinion).

    Caron makes a good point in that there is no point having nuclear weapons if we aren’t willing to use them, where I disagree is that I think there are very limited circumstances (self defence in a total war scenario) where we could use them.

    Ultimately, I’m interested in multilateral disarmament, but not unilateral.

  • Richard Dean 6th Sep '13 - 9:38pm

    We could certainly choose to continue on the path of being a little island that no one listens too, yes. Is that what we want? If not, shouldn’t our decision should be on the basis of some form of defence review?

    The evidence from Iran is that governments that newly acquire nuclear technology are not all willing to accept international monitoring. The evidence from Syria is that there are people on this earth willing to use any weapon at their disposal to further their aims. The evidence from the G20 is that half the world will be able to find an excuse not to react firmly. And the Middle East is far from being the only global trouble spot. All of which seems to bode ill for nuclear non-proliferation.

    Mad though it seems, there may well be some future nuclear states whose rulers are willing to use nuclear bombs. In the context of a dysfunctional UN, how else would a country resist other than by mutually assured destruction?

  • Liberal Neil 6th Sep '13 - 11:21pm

    I really don’t understand Julian’s argument here.

    If we want to get rid of nuclear weapons we can just do so.

    The analogy of jumping from the top of a ladder only works if you believe some major injury will result from doing so.

    Nobody has yet explained what that would be.

    We don’t need nuclear weapons, and we can’t afford nuclear weapons, so let’s just ditch them.

  • Melanie Harvey 7th Sep '13 - 2:36am

    And become the next Gaza Strip ? Thanks but no thanks…

  • JOHN TILLEY 7th Sep '13 - 8:45am

    All Liberal Democrats need to do is just keep repeating what Liberal Neil says at the end of his comment;-
    “We don’t need nuclear weapons, and we can’t afford nuclear weapons, so let’s just ditch them.”

    If the logic of this is not immediately obvious, then you should just keep repeating ;-
    We don’t need nuclear weapons, and we can’t afford nuclear weapons, so let’s just ditch them.

    If you did not get it straight away, just remind yourself;-
    We don’t need nuclear weapons, and we can’t afford nuclear weapons, so let’s just ditch them.

    Continue until it sanity prevails.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 7th Sep '13 - 8:56am

    Jedi, where’s your evidence for that? And have you factored in those who might come to us? This is a very different world from the 1980s and a world where the biggest threats can’t be beaten with a few nukes.

  • @Neil, I believe Julian is making an argument for pragmatism. An uncompromising policy of unilateral disarmament is not something that parliament is going to look favourably on any time soon. But it would be possible to take a step down the ladder then leverage that step to create the political conditions necessary to take a further step down the ladder and so on…

  • UK must lead 7th Sep '13 - 10:19am

    Could we ever justify the UK detonating a Nuclear Weapon ? Not only the initial destruction, when the Syrian gas attack would seem like a tiny blip. How many would die ? How many millions would suffer the long term effects (only recently have animals in Uk been cleared of the effects of Chernobyl) How much of the world’s agricultural land would be poisoned for decades and what would be the extent of starvation on the human race ?
    There must be other nations who share our horror of the consequences of nuclear warfare. Is it not time for the United Kingdom to give a moral lead ?

  • Dave G Fawcett 7th Sep '13 - 11:27am

    jedibeeftrix: ‘the party should be seeking to represent the common ground on issues country wide. like the big boys do, and why they get into government’. Using that argument would result in us supporting capital punishment amongst other things.

  • Geoffrey It has always been my view (slightly, but only very slightly tongue in cheek), that it will have to be Britain and France which negotiate to take their nuclear arms out of the equation. It is mostly about relative status and prestige between the two neighbouring countries. Neither country has enough to take on the big players if there were a serious war – USA Russia or China, and arguably Israel. The smaller players, if there were a threat, would be relatively easy to counter with our, or combined conventional forces. We do not, FOR MILITARY REASONS, need nuclear weapons.
    And who is to say that an EU seat on the Security Council would not be a good idea, or that permanent places on the Council should not be abolished (in the latter case, apart from the realpolitik of binding the US mainly, but Russia and China also, to decisions and respect of the UN).

    I sympathise, John, with your idea of gradualism on this issue, but frankly, the whole idea of “we can’t persuade other parties to do this” was what led us into the mess of Tuition Fees, and does not work. Independent parties have independent policies. Traditionally, the Liberals and Lib Dems have identifiably separate policies, and radical ones at that. The junior partner in coalition needs identifiably radical policies even more than others, or it easily becomes absorbed. I am afraid this middle road stuff just demonstrates why Clegg’s “centrism” is such a busted flush.

  • Richard Dean 7th Sep '13 - 11:44am

    Does Trident really cost the UK any money? If the cost goes into UK jobs, and the jobholders buy mainly British goods, then we’re just circulating money amongst ourselves. Which is what money is for.

    If a fella comes at you with a gun, you could run away, or you could try jawjaw, or you could show him your gun and say “Do yah really wanna do this?” It’s a defence that can save both your lives, but not if your gun is visibly rusty!

  • I agreed with Julian Huppert until the end ” I want to get from where we are at the top of the ladder, to the green grass below. But the best way to get down a ladder is step by step, not just to jump off the top” – where I entirely disagree (read the CentreForum paper “Dropping the bomb). We must be much bolder than that. I agree with Mickft, if we do not get a sensible amendment on trident, I will vote against the policy.

    We don’t need nuclear weapons, and we can’t afford nuclear weapons, so let’s just ditch them!

  • I think the first issue is to identify where the likely threat is coming from, and then to assess if the MAD approach works. It probably did have a sobering affect during the cold war, but if the most likely threat is from, for example, Islamic terrorism, who do we destroy in retaliation?

    Of course those who would be leading that particular threat also suffer from the delusion that death at our hands would be an honour (even for those poor unfortunates who would be incinerated, irradiated or otherwise killed there care as little about those lives as their own). Then MAD becomes illusory as a principle. Instead of “you blow us up we’ll blow you up”, it becomes “you blow us up, we’ll send thousands of you to paradise as heroes and martyrs” it’s just not got the same ring to it…

    Therefore for some threats MAD is just plain mad. Now if there was a more rational (if that is possible) likely threat then there may still be a logical argument for keeping them. For me personally, and with the info available at this time, I would bin them and share the savings between conventional forces and the general purse.

  • I want to see us dismantle Trident to a much greater extent than what is currently proposed, but we are being scared by the supposed threat from rogue states – Iran in particular. A serious addressing of Middle east problems – Israel plus militant Islam and immature democracies in Egypt, Iran and Iraq, not to mention Syria etc – is needed to reduce the level of anxiety in the pro-nuclear lobby. Will someone tell me what Tony Blair has contibuted into this field as representative to the area of the ‘quartet’?

  • @peter tyzack
    Do you have any evidence that financial bankers have a big influence on the election of MPs?

  • Cllr Colin Strong 7th Sep '13 - 4:06pm

    @Steve Way and others
    The Trident Alternatives review was very useful in bringing clarity to the debate.
    I support Trident as is and a successor.

    Why? I argue that the alternatives are not attractive. Fewer boats will result in the UK no longer having a continuous-at-sea deterence. As the first duty of a nation state is the defence of the realm any move down the ladder is in my view foolish. It brings to mind a sketch with Ronnie Barker concerning defence cuts where the cuts will mean a part-time defence force: “so unless the Russians attack on a Monday we’ll be closed.”

    Ronnie Barker sketch:

    So why do we need continuous-at-sea deterence? Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is still viable with nations such as North Korea. I still remember North Korea’s threat earlier this year to launch a pre-emptive strike. Then it was against the USA , in the future it may be us.


    North Korea is a reminder that the world is an inherently unstable place. Nations change and their leaders change. We cannot forsee future changes but the United Kingdom should continue to have nuclear weapons. North Korea’s ability to strike further will increase as they develop their launch technology.

    For those arguing to get “off the nuclear ladder” I respect your views but I disagree. I firmly believe that the defence of the realm is non-negotiable.

    Cllr Colin Strong

  • Gareth Jones 8th Sep '13 - 2:12pm

    @ Cllr Colin Strong – North Korea is not the best example for keeping Trident/CASD.


    Better to keep the nukes in storage and use the missile carrying sub’s to carry conventional cruise missiles until they’re needed.

  • Trevor Smith 9th Sep '13 - 9:59am

    I entirely agree with Julian and, indeed, I suggested abandoning Trident in my Liberator article exactly a year ago. I thought we’d got rid of Imperial Liberals a century ago! In any acse Trident is NOT independent.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Sep '13 - 11:30pm

    “In any acse Trident is NOT independent.”

    Oh trevor, but they are:


  • Sue Doughty 10th Sep '13 - 9:47am

    As someone who has been on the working party, and also having done my fair share around Greenham Common in the past I agree with all of those who feel that nuclear weaponry is repellent. But, we have to accept that we want to persuade others and this is why I and others who have in the past been strong unilateralists are taking a fresh look at stepping down the ladder. We need to start by persuading others that there is a strategy which can work and having seen only limited progress in previous years we need to start by taking those essential first steps. Abandoning CASD is the first step and although whatever we do the opportunities for financial savings are not brilliant, in climbing down the nuclear ladder we are signalling a fresh approach. In any case I’m not convinced that you have a nuclear strategy which is solely based on financial cost – there are deeper issues too. In practice most wars, even nuclear, do no not need an instant response, and the ability to assemble a weapon, if needed, continues. Right now we are not running the country and we need to use all the powers of persuasion available to stop the reliance on CASD. In practice we don’t even need to specify that Trident is used, What we still want is a nuclear free world and our hope is that we can show the way with a real de-escalation.

  • nuclear cockroach 10th Sep '13 - 10:55am


    “Cathartic as that exposition may have been, i just watched 100,000 potential voters walk in the other direction.”

    Nuclear deterrence is of little concern to most voters, way down the list of their priorities. And polling for the last decade shows that the public would prefer the government to spend the money on something else. Populism seems to be the main thrust of your argument here, today. The populist answer would be scrap the whole bally thing.

  • In getting off the nuclear ladder, surely a first step is to create some space and some perspective on timescales.
    My understanding is the pressing issue is the service life of the Vanguard submarines, which largely is considered to be over in the 2020’s. The Trident missiles themselves are expected to remain in service until the 2040s.

    So I would suggest that whilst some may want to jump off the ladder now, we actually have 10~15 years in which to plan and prepare the path, since come 2030 we will need to begin making serious decisions about replacing the missiles, which will be tricky given (we hope) continued adherence to the nuclear test ban treaty.

    Hence the best strategy is to plan for 2030 so that we are in a good position to enter negotiations with a credible decommissioning strategy and a civilian nuclear power program that doesn’t rely on uranium and plutonium…

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.

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

  • Nonconformistradical
    Mary - that doesn't answer the question of why focus on GP shortage for a local eleciton campaign?...
  • Nonconformistradical
    @theakes "There is always someone close by who can act, family, teachers, social workers etc" Evidence? Suppose the one person close by is themself a dange...
  • Mary ReidMary Reid
    @Jenny Barnes, @David Raw - of course, we can't produce new doctors instantly (although the Tories did promise 6000 more in 2019). But then, thanks to the Brexi...
  • Gordon
    Mel Borthwaite – I agree. Doubly so because ‘local’ is where LibDems are strongest. How to create a credible national party has remained an unsolved mys...
  • Jenny Barnes
    Take a step back. Why is it any concern of the state what gender you identify as or who you find attractive?...