Lib Dems push Coalition to abandon ‘Moscow criterion’ in latest anti-Trident move

Writing in the Financial Times, former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell has urged Britain to drop the so-called ‘Moscow criterion’ — which commits us to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent capable of obliterating the Russian capital — in order to open up the possibilities of a more targeted, and cheaper, nuclear alternative to the renewal of Trident:

Nuclear weapons have no intrinsic merit. Their significance is in deterrence. If you ever have to use them it can only be because they have failed in their primary purpose. But nuclear policy ought always to be assessed in its political context. It is unthinkable today that Britain would contemplate the destruction of the heavily populated capital of Russia – or of any other city. … when the political context provides safe opportunities to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons we should take them, if necessary by “independent” decisions.

Abandoning the Moscow criterion would inevitably affect the current debate about a replacement for Trident. It would underline the question of whether a like-for-like replacement of Trident is necessary or whether minimum deterrence can be provided in some other way. It is no longer enough to plan as if the cold war had never ended and mutually assured destruction, or a variant of it, were still necessary. The answer to the question must reflect the realities of the time.

You can read Ming’s article in full here.

Ming’s position is likely to be reflective of thinking by Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey, who (according to a report elsewhere in the FT) is ‘questioning the so-called Moscow Criterion, which some see as a relic of the cold war’:

… the abandonment of the Moscow Criterion is becoming a focus of Lib Dem policy, and a likely point of contention with their Conservative coalition partners. … “Nick Harvey is known to be pushing for the abandonment of the Moscow Criterion as part of a wider internal debate within government over whether there is a more affordable deterrent,” said Ian Kearns, chief executive of the European Leadership Network think-tank, and a leading expert on UK nuclear policy. “It’s not clear yet that it’s an argument he is winning.”

Securing agreement not to renew Trident — supported by both Labour and the Conservatives — was of course one of the Lib Dems’ major wins in the Coalition Agreement, which committed the Coalition to a through review of nuclear deterrent options:

We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.

And those alternatives are likely to become much more viable if the founding assumptions of the review reflect the world as it is and will be, rather than the world as it was.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Paul Reynolds 20th May '12 - 1:25pm

    The fact that the Moscow Criterion is still on the table is a monument to the leaden thinking and inertia at the MoD. However, it is equally inadvisable to view the question of the UK nuclear deterrent in isolation from the international political dimensions – the reform of NATO, reform of UN governance, the rise of EU defence capability, and indeed the extent to which any replacement would really be independent. On this last point, the like for like replacement proposed involvec much greater US technological content, to the extent that it would be inconceivable that the UK would be able to deploy without White House & Pentagon approval (unlike France). There is also the question of actually how much work has already been done on the like for like option, since official budgets are not always a good guide. The hard reality is that unless these wider issues are factored in, and a broad agreement reached on the general picture of the UK’s position with the UK’s allies, the debate will continue unresolved.

  • Paul Reynolds 20th May '12 - 1:36pm

    It is also worth pointing out that the longer we wait over the broader political approach within which the nuclear deterrent sits as a subject, the worse it will be for the government’s global ambitions. As the claims of India, Japan, Brazil, ASEAN and RSA strengthen, the more negative will be the UN reform outcome for the UK. The Anglo-French proposals of 2009 were too feeble, and was seen by many as a sign of weakness of the FCO.u

  • Leekliberal 20th May '12 - 2:27pm

    This is an issue we can make a difference on. The rationale for spending £34 billion on a new Trident deterrent that will not be independent in the post cold-war era simply isn’t there even to me, a hitherto consistent multilateralist , A seat at the top table simply isn’t worth the money. Let’s argue for some of it to be spent on properly equipping and supporting our superbly trained armed forces.

  • Old Codger Chris 20th May '12 - 10:45pm

    I agree entirely with Leekliberal that the money would be much better spent on equipping the armed forces for the tasks they are likely to be required to do.

    Why are we considering any nuclear deterrent for the UK? Actually the one good thing about a like-for-like replacement for Trident is that – as Paul Reynolds points out – it wouldn’t be independent. The only action more insane than launching a nuke with US approval would be launching a nuke without it.

    On a purely domestic point, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking a manifesto promise to scrap these appalling weapons would lead – in today’s world – to the electoral meltdown suffered by Labour in 1983. It might even provide the Lib Dems with a reasonably popular policy distinct from the other parties’.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th May '12 - 11:00pm

    On a purely domestic point, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking a manifesto promise to scrap these appalling weapons would lead – in today’s world – to the electoral meltdown suffered by Labour in 1983.

    I don’t think anybody really falls for that one now. In the 2010 campaign, Brown accused Clegg of putting the country at risk by wanting to scrap Trident, and Clegg’s poll ratings showed no damage. I’d expect to see a “no Trident replacement” policy of some form in the 2015 manifesto.

  • ‘srap Trident’ is quite a popular thing to say, it should be front and centre of our security policy, closely followed by further SALT talks aimed at finding a route to global multilateral disarmament. Around the modern world we have much better things to spend the money on and much more worthwhile projects for those scientific minds to be turned to.

  • The problem I see wiht the position being reported is that there is no credible alternative being proposed.

    Nobody is talking about what our “requirement” is. If the requirement is deterrent then we need to have a deterrent capability, if the requirement is for a lower level of effects delivery then an alternative approach may be appropriate.

    Many LDs now reflect the paper by the former Flt Lt Fenwick propounding his view that the deterrent should be disposed of, however that is very much a question of situating the appreciation.

    The key really is, if we see a need for a trategic deterrent, then we need a strategic deterrent and an operational level solution will not cut it. If we see a need for nuclear capabilitis at the operational level then that can be developed. We don’t currently have operational level nuclear munitions, so I’m unconvinced that there is a convincing argument for inventing them.

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