Opinion: How can we advance nuclear disarmament?

To many the answer to this question is simple: de-commission Trident and don’t replace it. But this only leads to the next question – how do we get a British government to do this ?  It is a common mistake, and one that I have made too, to believe that passing a motion at our conference changes the world.  Trident

Of course, all we need to do then is win an election on the basis of policies agreed at conference and form a government.  Our brief current experience in government tells us that it may be a little more difficult.

The recent Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) and leaked versions of the party’s Defence Report to conference have become muddled and people are taking positions either before or without reading either document.  Certainly the speeches of Labour and Tory front and backbenchers in the Commons debate on TAR on 17th July revealed a depressing combination of wilful ignorance and prejudice. Both sides fell over each other to praise the need for a full Cold War system of nuclear deterrence and to denounce the Liberal Democrats for challenging it.

A couple of facts may bring some light instead of heat.  Firstly, all options including moving straight to no nukes would save nothing in the next parliament. Even decommissioning is expensive in the short run. As it is we still have old Polaris submarines awaiting safe removal of nuclear material. No option has a significant impact on the country’s current financial problems.

Secondly, the key element in the working group’s proposal is that for the first time in over 50 years Britain would stop deploying nuclear weapons.  Journalists led by the Tory and Labour spins have focused on the idea that the Liberal Democrats would reduce the number of submarines required. This is not important. What really matters is that the submarines would NOT carry missiles with nuclear warheads. These would be kept in port against the possibility of a nuclear crisis arising and crews would be trained to use them. This would be the most significant measure of nuclear disarmament by any nuclear power ever.  But why not just get rid of them ?

As with many issues, we find ourselves confronted by the innate conservatism of the Tories AND Labour. Both parties currently maintain that the UK must have the ability to launch a nuclear attack on a target anywhere in the world at a few minutes’ notice.  With the Tories this is an article of faith; with Labour it’s an article of fear, fed by the memory of losing elections in the 1980s when they favoured nuclear disarmament.  Yes, we could fight an election promising to remove all nuclear weapons.  What would the voters say if we found ourselves negotiating a new coalition, perhaps with Labour this time, and failed to deliver on that promise.  Would they show their understanding for the necessity of compromise ? Did that work well for us over the last three years ?

The problem goes beyond the comfortable benches of Westminster.  Years of propaganda have convinced most people that Britain needs nuclear weapons.  In the years since September 2001 governments have played on fear of terrorism to restrict liberty and to justify military intervention. You and I know that nuclear weapons have no part to play in making us safer, but we can only overcome fear by building hope.  If the policy recommended to the conference in Glasgow became the policy of the next government, year after year the public would see that not deploying nuclear weapons had not diminished our safety at all. Maybe then politicians would find the courage and the mandate to say we don’t need them at all.

* David Grace is a Lib Dem living in Cambridge and a long standing campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He is the Head of Office for the Social Liberal Forum,

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16 Comments

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Aug '13 - 11:48am

    “UK must have the ability to launch a nuclear attack on a target anywhere in the world at a few minutes’ notice”

    In that case, the UK probably does not have that capability.

    The Trident II D5 SLBM, if Wikipedia is to be believed, has a range of 11,300 km. The earth’s circumference is a little over 40,000 km, half of that is 20,000km. If for some reason, the British government were to wish to nuke Auckland, the subs would need to travel quarter of the way around the globe to carry out their orders.

    Of course, Wikipedia may well be wrong. I have seen elsewhere a range given of 9,000 miles, rather than 7,000. The fact that the range is classified, would tend to suggest that the missiles do not have the range to reach any target on the globe. They were originally developed to reach the Soviet Union, so they wouldn’t have need such a range anyway.

  • Peter Davies 9th Aug '13 - 12:51pm

    The public might find it easier to accept that we started with a sensible policy and accepted a silly compromise with Labour than starting with a silly compromise and accepting a sillier one.

  • We shouldn’t overlook the importance of the nuclear test ban treaty and the role it has to play in preventing the development of new nuclear weapons, ie. the replacement for Trident etc. As the problem the UK has with Trident, it shares with all other major nuclear powers and signatories to the test ban treaty, namely: to replace the existing nuclear weapons systems requires (some) real world testing (of new warheads) which will effectively breech the treaty and who wants to be the one to start a new arms race?

    Also we shouldn’t overlook the role of our nuclear power R&D and industry – explicitly designed to support the military use of nuclear weapons – hence why it is uranium and plutonium based. Switch this to Thorium say and we start to move further away from having a nuclear (weapons) capability. Whilst also showing/leading the path for others.

    As I’ve said and implied elsewhere, why attack decommissioning head on when we can begin to move down a path that makes it inevitable. Hence a key question would seem to be how long can we keep the current Trident system running before we actually have to do something about it? as if we could delay making a decision for 10 years say, we could perhaps greatly increase the case for wholesale decommissioning.

  • It could be said that David Grace is advocating the need to reduce our nuclear deterrent so that it is not available all the time as a step towards getting the public to accept that we don’t need it.

    If this is what we want to achieve and we accept that it is likely we can only achieve it in a coalition government then maybe we should have a policy of having two nuclear submarines so that in any future coalition we can compromise on three.

  • Kevin White 9th Aug '13 - 4:35pm

    Sorry David, we have to campaign on what we believe in. If, as seems likely, the Party’s members are willing to say “no replacement” then that is what we should campaign for. None of this wishy washy nonsense of second guessing the outcome of the next GE as being an inevitable coalition where we are the junior partner again. Time to be bold and take the lead.

  • By having a world where the rule of international law applies to those countries without nukes as much as those with.

    Unfortunately the LDs proved in Yugoslavia, Libya and now Syria that you support countries that don’t have WMDs being bombed. A lesson North Korea can hardly be blamed for taking to heart.

  • Clear Thinker 9th Aug '13 - 8:59pm

    By persuading people including the electorate that it’s both the right thing to do and the safe thing to do. That is essentially what allowed the treaties that allowed the US and Russia to reduce their nuclear stances – electorates and governors on all sides all realising that being less armed was less dangerous and less costly than being armed to the teeth, and all realising that the other sides realised it too.

    Even if we were to form a government, it seems unlikely that we could disarm against the will of the British people. You cannot take away a defence that people believe they need and not expect a lot of trouble. It probably can’t be done in a single parliament anyway, but if we tried, we might be out of office even quicker than that. Remember too that a nuclear deterrent equates to jobs, many relatively highly paid, and to innovation in defence that might be commercialised and even help with a balance of payments.

    Another side of the coin is, of course, that a policy to disarm while others don’t is a policy that many voters today would likely find foolish, particularly in view of the perceived threats from the Middle and Far East. Such a policy stance may even ensure that the electorate won’t vote us into government in the first place. Good bye Libdems, hello UKIP?

  • I agree with Peter Davies and Kevin White … let us start with a bold defensible policy. My main concern is the way in which a Trident replacement will undermine our ability to adequately finance the rest of our required armed forces. I reproduce my comments from another recent LDV article on Trident replacement

    I agree 100% with Jonathan Brown. The range of security threats we have is enormous – 10 years ago we would not have imagined the re-emergence of piracy, threats of cyber attack, biological warfare, internal terrorism, impact of global climate change and rising sea levels, R2P (responsibility to protect) which can require a global projection of power … the list is endless. We have already cut many of our conventional forces to the point that they are barely credible … and the situation is only likely to worsen,
    We have a perfect storm brewing in military procurement over the next 10 years and simply can not afford a Trident replacement (it is the subs that cost the lion’s share). We need a bold & distinctive Lib Dem policy on that:
    shows that we are deeply committed to and respect our armed forces and determined to serve them well in return;
    determined to counter all threats to our security in a sensible manner, including adequate procurement for the navy and RAF;
    support a joint NATO nuclear deterrence (I suppose this means the USA, where France fits in needs reconciliation);
    strengthen our bilateral military cooperation relations outside of NATO to enable us to counter global threats – strengthening our historical ties with Commonwealth countries comes to mind here – we have lots of positives to build on!; and
    maintain a low cost reserve of the possibility of rebuilding a nuclear capability … we would still have weapons grade nuclear materiel after all.

  • It’s 1981 all over again (and many other dates in between).

    To espouse nuclear deterrence you have to be deranged enough to believe that everybody would in the end be sane enough not to press the button… or to be happy with the idea that we might be wiped out but at least we’d take millions with us.

    Our biggest problem is that the electorate, and specific constituencies which used at least to question nuclear policy, have been browbeaten into the habit of believing that disarmament is weakness. You can certainly make that case when it concerns “conventional” but flexible (and therefore more modern and relevant) forces, but Field Marshal Richard Michael Power Carver, Baron Carver, knew that nuclear weapons had no military utility. Unfortunately the top soldiers only say this when they’ve retired. Maybe chipping away at the idea that nukes are in any way useful would be the right medium-term campaigning emphasis.

    But to push non-deployment, or two subs, would be to say “we’ll spend the same, huge amount of money required by a policy we disapprove of on a policy which wouldn’t achieve the things it pretends to achieve and would turn off the voters. Sorry, but if you depart from simple principles in this area then arguments get that convoluted (and in the end, stupid).

    We’re unlikely to lead a government next time round but it’s pretty likely we’ll have a chance to contribute to a coalition. Our manifesto should state “this is our aim, and if we have the opportunity (coalition or otherwise) then these are the steps we would negotiate to approach that aim”.

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Aug '13 - 1:13am

    A very well written article I thought… And having previously argued for disarmament (but retaining a breakout capability, or even some nuclear weapons in storage) you do make me think again. I don’t think I’ve changed my position, but I’m certainly more willing to hear the opposing argument at conference.

    However, I think that as a country we’re going to renew Trident. Both of the other parties will obviously commit so heavily to it that even if we’re in a position to negotiate a new coalition with one or both I can’t see us making this one of our red line issues when there are other things we (and the public) care far more about. That I suppose does argue for a policy that makes it easier to negotiate with either of the others. For me, it comes down to what we can most credibly argue for. Although i’d prefer to disarm, and would be willing to do so unilaterally, I don’t believe most of the public support that, and it’s not an issue I would prioritise over many others. What is important is that we can put forward a credible argument, and for me, i think it’s easier to say ‘we’ll cut Trident to allow us to keep the rest of our armed forces’ than ‘we’ll reduce Trident a little and not really make very significant savings’.

  • Nuclear weapons give us zero protection from modern threats. We may as well spend billions on a trebuchet programme.

  • Renewing Trident is roughly as useful as investing in SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and the level should be the same if not significantly less.

    In ‘private’ polls, most libdems seem to think we should drop it.. it’s a tremendous waste of money and a terrible message to send internationally.

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