Opinion: No dubious deterrent

TridentThe day after the end of Autumn conference in Glasgow, a letter appeared in The Times (£) (Sept 19) accusing the Lib Dems of having adopted a “reckless” defence strategy.

Co-signed by former Labour Secretary of State for Defence and NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former Tory Party Defence Secretary Liam Fox and 14 other politicians and former chiefs of defence, the letter lambasts the Lib Dems for “hare-brained schemes for a part-time deterrent which in reality is no deterrent at all” and that is driven “by a Lib Dem desire to scupper Trident at any cost”. News about the letter quickly spread and was reported on BBC TV as well.

I spoke in favour of retaining the full four submarine “Continuous-at-Sea” nuclear deterrent at the Lib Dem Party conference debate on defence and would have welcomed Lord Robertson’s letter with such heavy-weight support appearing just prior to the debate to give further credence to my intervention.

The fact that this letter was published after the conference is clearly too late to influence the debate. The Lib Dems are an exceptionally democratic party and the new policy on nuclear deterrence was fiercely debated and settled at conference. Such a letter appearing in The Times the day after the end of conference could however lead some to misinterpret the intervention as potentially partisan, appearing right in the middle of the British party conference season and before the conferences of the other two main parties.

Also the main point is missed. Now, the Lib Dems have aligned themselves with the other two main parties in confirming their political support for continuing a UK nuclear posture, no mean feat given the unilateralist tradition of many in the party. The design and construction of the new submarines can proceed with absolute certainty, coalition or not. And how the nuclear deterrence is actually implemented at the end of the day will be the responsibility of future UK Governments.

It should also be recalled that the Chiefs of Defence are not always lined up in favour of Trident.  Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach did not support continuing the nuclear deterrence in a letter to The Times dated 16 January 2009. Field Marshal Lord Carver – whom I had the honour of knowing personally –  wrote a book about his doubts in the eighties as well. There is in fact no consensus on the issue, whether among experts or the public at large.

I use the opportunity to encourage Lib Dem colleagues to read the submission from the Brussels & Europe Liberal Democrats to the defence working group on these and other matters: see the link to the submission at end of the webpage.


* George Cunningham is Chair of the Lib Dems Abroad Steering Committee Twitter: @GFCunningham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Martin Veart 24th Sep '13 - 5:50pm

    As an advocate of unilateral disarmament, I was naturally not happy with the outcome. But at least there was a debate and vote.

    I will make a prediction. When it comes time to replace the missiles in the late 2030s, then we will finally be rid of this useless system. But I dispair in the meantime.

  • Al McIntosh 24th Sep '13 - 6:24pm

    The ONLY way to get rid of these weapons of mass destruction from the Clyde is through a YES vote in next year’s independence referendum. A no vote is a vote for Trident.

  • The defence chiefs are right. Our new policy is not a policy. It is a figleaf.

    A part-time nuclear bomb would be much more dangerous, for both Britain and its potential enemies, than either a full-time (continuous-at-sea) bomb, or no bomb at all. A part-time bomb must be launched, effectively making a public statement that we think the situtation is grave and that we might soon need to fire our bomb. This would only encourage our enemy to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and kill us all before we have time to strike back!

    So, no government could seriously give our policy any consideration at all.

    So, why did we go for it, then?

    It’s a figleaf. It allows us to accept the bomb, while kidding ourselves that we are still disarmers in spirit.

    So our potential coalition partners, whether red or blue, can know that we will be good compliant partners. They will obviously want to renew the bomb, full scale, full time. We will make a token protest and then roll over. That is what we are about. What we are about is, not having inconvenient principles, which might get in the way of bog-standard Labservative Government.

  • William Jones 25th Sep '13 - 8:21am

    It’s Danny Alexander’s miserable compromise on Trident creating a piece of 2015 coalition policy. Either have a full deterrent or do not have it all, there is no inbetween!

  • Paul Griffiths 25th Sep '13 - 12:51pm

    While I agree that the probability of either Labour or the Conservatives agreeing to less than CASD is small, the probability of them agreeing to nuclear disarmament is zero. Given the choice between a policy that we might be able to deliver and one that we know we never could, I voted for the former.

  • Mick Taylor 25th Sep '13 - 1:17pm

    I said at conference that the amendment was not unilateralist because it held open the option of bringing back nuclear weapons if it were felt it was needed and gave conference the option of a truly unilateralist policy by leaving out reference to possible revival of nuclear weapons..

    The policy that has been adopted is neither one thing nor the other. It will be ridiculed not only by the other parties, but by many in our own.

    We had the chance to vote to get rid of nuclear weapons and yet again we funked it.

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