Liberal Democrats vote against like for like Trident replacement

Yesterday the House of Commons voted 472-177 in favour of the like for like replacement of Trident.

While much coverage has focussed on the split in the Labour Party, which voted 141-48 against its leader, to renew, Liberal Democrats, who are also reviewing policy on nuclear weapons, voted 7-0 not to renew like for like.

The 177 includes unilateral disarmers, and multilateralists who want to take a step away from the maximal deterrent that a continuously at sea submarine represents.

Liberal Democrat policy, agreed last year at conference is to vote against trident renewal at the ‘Main Gate’ and a working group has been established with a remit to consider the implications of both a non-nuclear defence posture, and of a reduced nuclear deterrent. Previously policy was for a reduced submarine-based ballistic missile deterrent. It is not clear (see page 45) what status that policy now has.

A good guide to the reduced deterrent options can be found in the Center Forum publication Retiring Trident (pdf) by Toby Fenwick, which recommends an aircraft-delivered free-fall capability at a considerable cash saving even with very significant gains in conventional capability delivered in support.

On the critical question of whether a reduced deterrent will be effective, Fenwick observes

Insistence on “very high confidence” of a successful UK strike is problematic because as we have already seen, it is unnecessary to deter an aggressor state by leaving the defender with a little or no hope
of preventing unacceptable loss. “Very high confidence” is therefore a gold-plated requirement overmatch, and should be replaced with the requirement that a potential aggressor has a low certainty that they will be able to prevent unacceptable loss.

In other words a deterrent will be effective if an aggressor believes they very probably won’t survive, and it is not necessary to make them almost certain they won’t survive. For me this is the central question – can a reduced deterrent support an effective and reasonable military doctrine?

The other option, besides, renewal and reduction, would be unilateral nuclear disarmament. This has significant support in both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, though not sufficient to make party policy in either. This brings us to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday, reported in the Guardian as follows:

Corbyn said the UK should follow other countries such as South Africa, Libya, Ukraine, Argentina, Brazil and Kazakhstan, which have shown they are serious about disarmament by giving up their nuclear programmes.

The example of Ukraine seems particularly ill-chosen, though it is doubtful that Ukraine’s deterrent was ever sufficiently independent. What he actually said (from Hansard) is

At the end of the cold war, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, although they were under the control of the former Soviet Union and, latterly, of Russia. Kazakhstan did the same, which helped to bring about a central Asia nuclear weapons-free zone.

For me, peace and stability is more important than a nuclear weapons-free zone. If you like Central Asia so much, why don’t you go and live there?

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • I am happy the parliamentary party took the decision they did.
    I am not at all in agreement with @joeotten. There are precious few if any arguments to retain Trident or to replace it.
    I recommend that Joe and people who think like him read
    Wallis, Timmon Milne (2016): The Truth About Trident, Disarming the Nuclear Argument, Luath Press Ltd [ISBN: 9781910745427]
    It totally demolishes the arguments for Trident and should be compulsory reading for anyone speaking on the subject of nuclear disarmament.

  • I assume Greg Mullholland was paired, or absent for some other valid reason?

  • Toby Fenwick 19th Jul '16 - 12:50pm

    Thanks for this Joe. The key is to recognise that the decision on nuclear weapons is not binary- though both pro-Trident and pro-unilateralist find it convenient to make it so.

    There will be a consultation session on an options paper from the working group at September conference which I’d encourage everyone who is interested to come along too.

  • Glynn Quelch 19th Jul '16 - 1:07pm

    GP Purnell

    Greg posted this yesterday as to why he abstained

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Jul '16 - 1:29pm

    Why I didn’t support the Lib Dem conference motion to scrap Trident (even though I’m not a member), is because there was no provision for the funds to be put back into the military. I’d want most of the money to be put back into the military. In my opinion we need to stop moralising about “death robots” and build more things that allow us to launch precision strikes from a safe distance without putting lots of civilians into harms way. So many times throughout history it is the nations with the best technology that have succeeded, even if at times they have unfortunately abused their advantage.

    On another point these imaginative debates are good for the party. I’m often attracted to the Conservatives, but on too many issues, Trident, electoral reform, poverty, they show no imagination and just function as the backup when other parties have gone too far.

  • Stephen Yolland 19th Jul '16 - 2:02pm

    The assumption in Joe Otten’s last sentence that the possession of nuclear weapons provides peace and stability is highly contentious.

  • Brogan Savage 19th Jul '16 - 2:36pm

    Great round-up, Joe.

    I’m a unilateralist but do understand the multilateralist stance. Especially after discussing it with Paddy Ashdown at conference last year!

    Pleased our party voted almost unanimously against like-for-like (if you exclude Mulholland’s abstaining).

    I’ll be interested to see what happens to the location of these WMDs now that 58 out of 59 Scottish MPs voted against like-for-like…

  • @ Joe Otten “If you like Central Asia so much, why don’t you go and live there?”

    Rather disappointing to see such a comment from Councillor Otten. It’s the sort of thing one would expect from a Brexiteer. Not one of his better efforts.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 19th Jul '16 - 3:02pm

    I believe the lib dems are being unprincipled opportunists again. Trying to make it look like they’re against trident when they are in favor of keeping nukes. They can tell those in favor of the U.K. Having nukes as a deterrent that they believe in that too, whilst telling the green pacifists that they voted against trident.

    The truth is they’re in favour of nukes and to spineless to plainly support trident. It’s like when they were saying they favoured a referendum on eu membership but didn’t mean it.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Jul '16 - 3:07pm

    I would be a little concerned about placing too much weight on the Centre Forum report. First, as Tom Brake rightly points out above, one of the four main threats is technological development and both the Russians and Chinese have had nearly 20 years to develop countermeasures to stealth technology, since the F117A was shot down in Kosovo in 1999. The point about stealth is that it is not a silver bullet. The energy from the radar beam incident on the airframe is not mainly absorbed, but is reflected in directions away from the radar transmitter.

    It is well known that stealth does not protect against bistatic radar where the radar transmitter and receiver are not co-located. Relying on the F-35C as a delivery system may not be effective against Russia (or China), although it should be against the smaller nuclear powers.

    We need to look back into history: the V-bomber force was originally developed with the intention of bombing from high altitude. The development of Soviet missile defences forced a change to low-level attacks, which resulted in serious fatigue problems for the airframes (IIRC the Valiant was particularly affected). From that we went to standoff weapons (Blue Steel and then Skybolt). It was President Kennedy’s cancellation of Skybolt that took us down the track of a submarine-launched deterrent: first Polaris, then Trident.

    The difficulty that we have in making policy is that anyone who can make an analysis of the threats to our deterrent capability to a level that would satisfy the military leadership in the UK will already be operating under the Official Secrets Act. We may pass a new policy to abandon submarine-based deterrence, but when the next Liberal Democrat Secretary-of-State for Defence, says to the Joint Chiefs: “Here is our policy” they may very well say “These reports show that it will not work”.

  • Having visited here, I now understand why our MPs chose to vote against, but their reasoning was false, given the choices. They should have voted for Trident, as honest multilateralists. Those who don’t visit here will get the impression that LibDems are Corbynista-type CND members. We can’t go on playing the two-faced game for ever, conning one lot (left-leaners) that we believe one thing and conning another lot (right-leaners) we believe something else. Vote LibDem to beat the horrible Tories here; vote LibDem to vote the horrible Labour lot there. I’ve had enough of delivering leaflets with this two-horse race stuff with ‘X can’t win here’. Let’s grow up and have some long-overdue honesty in the party, Mr Tim! Very disppointed.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 19th Jul '16 - 4:45pm


    You have a nukes or you don’t. You appeal to those who support the UK having this deterrent or you appeal to the green/pacifist/corbyn cnd types.

    To try and be all things to all people with a proposal to have nukes, but with a half assed delievery system that’s not always at sea will appeal to nobody and get you no where. And I mean no where.

  • Anyone attending the Bournemouth conference last year will recall there was some pretty heavy arm twisting going on to retain Trident (in a watered down version).

    And it’s curious how the supporters of renewing Trident always assume the general public are on their side. Yet, poll after poll shows that a consistent majority of the British population are against nuclear weapons. Here is a selection of polls from the last few years:

    A Survation poll in January 2015 showed 47.2% of Scottish people opposing a new generation of nuclear weapons being based on the Clyde, with 31.6% in favour.
    79% of respondents to a Guardian poll in April 2014 did not think the UK should replace Trident.
    In a February 2014 ComRes poll, 65% said they would feel uncomfortable living near a nuclear weapons base and 64% think there should be an international convention banning nuclear weapons.

    63% of the public said they’d back scrapping Trident to reduce the deficit in a BPIX survey for The Mail on Sunday in June 2010.

    58% of people say that ‘given the state of the country’s finances, the Government should scrap the Trident nuclear missile system’ in an Independent/ComRes poll of September 2009
    54% of the public say Britain should ‘no longer have any nuclear deterrent’ in a Guardian/ICM poll of July 2009
    Only 30% of the public would spend £20bn on Trident when offered alternatives of spending on nurses salaries or affordable homes, in a YouGov poll for The People newspaper from July 2009
    72% of the British public, in a poll in March 2007, did not support the government’s plans to replace Trident – More4/Populus poll.
    64% were against nuclear weapons being based in Scotland for another 50 years. ICM poll, January 2007

  • Policy for single issues based on surveys/referenda may not be such a good idea, eh? I dare say the majority of the population might want Brexit (oh they do!) and capital punishment? We usually have government by representation not delgation. Need I say more?

  • Toby Fenwick 19th Jul '16 - 9:18pm

    Laurence Cox: The points you make are valid, but you also need to think about the supporting COMAO elements, as well as the fact that the US forces are placing an awful lot of eggs in stealth and we leverage their investment now and through life in keeping it operational. I’m the first to accept that it is less capable and less certain than Trident, but it is much, much cheaper – and more disarmament friendly (in that the delivery platform is multirole.)

    Happy to discuss as ever.

  • Sandra lawman 19th Jul '16 - 9:24pm

    The lib dems ridiculous posturing on trident is one of the main reasons I left the party.

  • “Labour Party, which voted 141-48 against its leader”

    The emphasis is all wrong. Labour policy affirmed by its conference is in favour of Trident replacement. What we have, incredibly, is a party leader and his cohorts rebelling against his own party. He tries to weasel his way past that by claiming that it doesn’t matter because he’s commissioned a policy review which unilaterally nullified the Labour Conference decisions. Whilst complaining about his party colleagues seeking to oust him. You can rebel against your party’s policies when you sit on the backbenches, not when you lead that party.

  • Trident has been a pointless waste of money, it has deterred nobody. The USA stockpile has deterred, the USSR years ago.

    The Ukraine example is particularly relevant, if Trident deterred anyone, why didn’t the UK threaten to use it on Russia? Trident can be used against an ‘enemy’ it can be used against the planet on which we a live, it was called Mutually Assured Destruction for a reason. Is Joe Otten is so in favour of Conservative party policies, why doesn’t he go and live there ?

  • Tony Greaves 20th Jul '16 - 9:59am

    The word “multilateralist” means “We will pretend we want to get rid of nuclear weapons, we will do everything possible (including going to war) to stop any more countries getting them, but we won’t give up our own within our own lifetime (and probably never)”. Trident is a ridiculous and useless waste of a vast amount of resources. (And for much of the Labour Party the biggest ever useless job creation scheme).

    Tony Greaves

  • I agree, well done to the MPs, and hopefully something to rescue us from the hopeless fudge our conference made on this issue.

  • Not fair Tony. There is a difference between not wanting and not expecting great progress towards worldwide nuclear disarmament. I don’t expect it to happen until the world is a lot stabler than it is today, but I very much look forward to that day.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jan '17 - 12:38pm

    Front page stories in papers such as the Sunday Times can usually be researched over a long period. The story about Trident goes back to David Cameron’s period as PM.
    Any country that has satellites can see missile launches. Successful launches are publicised. Even unarmed missiles can damage innocent civilian shipping, so announcements are made. Greg Clarke’s vagueness today appears to follow precisely the PM’s vagueness yesterday and although he answers as a member of the cabinet but this is not his department, therefore there may be sins of omission, rather than commission. Did either PM lie to the Commons? we await clarification.
    The current MP for Berwick has pursued loyalty beyond credibility, perhaps because of inexperience.

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