Opinion: We need meaningful discourse on Trident, not playground politics

I have spent much of the campaign so far wondering when issues of foreign policy would be discussed. This open question soon morphed into a desperate cry for someone, anyone to talk about what goes on beyond the shores of these islands and what Britain can or should do about those events. The 7-way debate that we were graced with by ITV proved to be as devoid of these questions as the rest of the campaign, for even when issues such as immigration floated in, they were stripped of an international context.

So it was that I had essentially resigned myself to a campaign devoid of hard questions about big problems, until today’s news headlines sparked a moment of hope. Trident had risen from the depths to push itself, and surely with it bigger questions about Britain, onto the agenda. At last, I could have almost cried, we can have the debate!

But it seems it is not to be. Most of the quotes given to the media on this have reduced Trident to an item of expenditure devoid of any foreign policy context, or have shown a woeful misunderstanding of basic nuclear strategy. We have had the Defence Secretary trying to somehow line up Ed Miliband’s beating his brother to be Labour leader as impairing his ability to make good security decisions. We have had Conservative MPs tweeting about how Vladimir Putin would prefer Ed Miliband in Downing Street. We have had Owen Jones accusing Michael Fallon of being anti-Semitic for using the phrase “stab in the back”. None of this, of course, is actually meaningful discourse of any kind. It’s the sort of playground politics most of the people involved in this argument have likely loudly denounced at some point.

What we are facing is, essentially, an existential question – what is Britain for in the world? Any good strategy must start with the end, and then work out the means. It is essentially meaningless to debate Trident, for example, without first being absolutely clear as to what you think Britain should do in the world; such a massive commitment of money, manpower and industrial effort needs to be placed in that sort of context. It is equally meaningless to debate Britain’s relationship with the EU without first deciding what Britain’s role in the world should be. If this is not an easy question to answer, it is partly because we have become adept at scuttling away from it in recent years.

After the election, we are meant to have a new Strategic Defence and Security Review; we will also, as a party, have votes to face on Trident and on the events that govern so much of foreign policy practice. As a party, to have any hope of a coherent answer in any of these debates, we need to first of all understand and clearly articulate what Britain is for in the world. Without that, we are left with an argument as impoverished as today’s squabble over Trident.

* Tim Oliver is a party member in Leeds, who has recently submitted a PhD on British foreign policy at the University of Hull.

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34 Comments

  • “have shown a woeful misunderstanding of basic nuclear strategy”

    Perhaps because there is not and never has been any such thing.

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '15 - 4:37pm

    I agree with david-1. If you want to look at basic nuclear strategy you just have to look at what the Rand Corporation puts out – it was wonderfully satirised in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, which is as relevant today as it was when it first came out in 1964.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Apr '15 - 4:41pm

    I get more moved by the question “What is in the UK’s national interest?” than “What is the UK’s role in the world?”.

    I worry that once you start talking about an idealised role then it leads you to do things against the national interest, just because you believe it to be morally right. It opens up a number of dangerous options that I think should be locked away.

    I’m genuinely undecided on Trident, but if we got rid of it I would probably want the whole lot ploughed into the Defence budget. Getting rid of Trident and cutting the defence budget would weaken the UK too much. I believe.

  • There seem to be several options between no nukes and a four boat I CBM System.

    The question is whether we’re prepared to settle for less than Trident.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Apr '15 - 4:42pm

    One thing that I might add is that I’m just pretty irritated by this Conservative assertion that the SNP and Miliband are going to do a deal and get rid of Trident. There is absolutely zero chance of anything like that happening. Labour’s policy is actually pretty close to the Tories.

    From my personal perspective, and you can call me an old-fashioned hippy if you like, is that we would do a lot more good in the world by spending the Trident money on international aid. I don’t like having weapons of mass destruction whose only purpose is to kill innocent civilians and for me getting rid of them is an important point of principle. I realise I am in the minority though.

  • Denis Mollison 9th Apr '15 - 4:59pm

    Not too much of a minority, Caron. The last conference vote on this (was it in York?) was close; it was probably decided by the “pay-roll vote”, leaving me with a suspicion that quite likely a majority of Lib Dem members are against renewing Trident.

    For me it’s a no-brainer, not because of happy memories of Bertrand Russell speaking for CND in Trafalgar Square but because Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” is a delusion; what it really amounts to is that we’re paying for part of the US’s nuclear submarine fleet.

  • Andrew Emmerson 9th Apr '15 - 5:07pm

    I think its pretty obvious in an ideal world that very few people would choose to have or support the idea of nuclear weapons.

    Its just unfortunate we don’t live in an ideal world, and where there’s lots of policy options where we can afford to be radical to our very core, playing with an existential threat like this, is one where I think it is perfectly reasonable to be practical and pragmatic.

    Which leads me to a similar policy position as Tim , we eed to ask what our place in the world is, and respond accordingly, the right position I hope is international power that wants to keep influence.

  • “Existential threat” is a risible phrase that can be employed at will to justify all manners of evil. It is a very easy business for politicians and “strategists” to ratchet up paranoia until every blown nose abroad sounds like la patrie en danger.

    Mr Oliver, Mr Emmerson, and people like them cannot trot out these words and expect others to stand in awe. If they think they have a case, they must say in specific terms:
    1) What is the threat?
    2) Where does it come from?
    3) In what respect are nuclear weapons an answer to the threat?
    4) What scenarios do they see in which that threat would be met by them?
    5) How realistically likely are these scenarios?

  • There’s another side to this which I think is taken pretty seriously in arms controls circles, though you’d need to find an expert to make sure.

    If the UK gave up nuclear weapons it would still be able to make them fairly quickly.
    In some imagined future an enemy looking at us would have the choice of waiting for us to get nukes, or nuking us before we got them. As construction can be carried out essentially secretly they would never know in advance when it would be too late to send their nukes over, so there’s a strong incentive to initiate and get in a strike without retaliation.

    Usually people against trident say a situation where they could be needed is very unlikely, which is true enough. But the argument above shows that not having them makes it much more likely, the enemy has to fire their nukes before they really want to in order that they strike before the UK has built a response. Not having nukes is one thing, not having them but being able to build them quickly makes you a bigger target.

    That said, the article is right. This is sort of irrelevant if we’ve not decided on what britain should be in the world.

  • Denis Mollison 9th Apr '15 - 6:31pm

    Jedibeeftrix
    You set out some clear thinking on why we might want Trident:
    ” it is important it has the absolute security at home that permits it engage the sum of its military capability in projecting military force into remote corners of the world” / “doing the difficult jobs in international relations”

    This need to guard our backs seems premised on our continuing with military adventures that do not command wide support. If we restricted ourselves to joining in United Nations peace-keeping the need would be far less pressing.

    So I think the big divide is between those who think our military adventurism (e.g. in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) is something we will want to repeat, in which case yes perhaps we need Trident; and those, including myself who believe it has been immoral and counter-productive, and that we should instead do all we can to support a more consensual international approach to peace-keeping.

  • Alex Sabine 9th Apr '15 - 7:11pm

    A good article and interesting comments, especially from jedi. From my (limited) understanding of the logistics I agree that reducing the submarine fleet to three would not provide continuous at sea deterrence and is not a sensible alternative.

    To those who support unilateral nuclear disarmament as a matter of moral principle (which is one if the two main arguments put by the SNP, the other being cost), I cannot see how it can be immoral for us to have Trident but morally acceptable for us to shelter under the nuclear umbrella of NATO. Although most NATO members are non-nuclear states, they have all signed up to a defensive alliance which has nuclear deterrence at its core. A number of them host US nuclear weapons on their soil and carry them on their aircraft. The SNP’s old policy of renouncing NATO membership as well, while fundamentally ill-judged, at least had the virtue of consistency. Their current one does not reject nuclear defence so much as subcontract it to the Americans and French.

  • A Social Liberal 9th Apr '15 - 7:22pm

    If we are going to replace Trident then I believe that the only means of delivery that should be considered is the ‘continuous at sea’, 4 boat solution. Toby Fenwick argues well for an airborne delivery system based on stealth technology but there are vulnerable areas – from airfields and silos open to a ‘Pearl Harbour’ first strike scenario to the point where stealth aircraft have to air to air refueling with non stealth tankers. I asked him about the ability for our future F35s being able to carry Trident in a ‘clean’ configuration and whilst I accept his assurance that they can do so, I am still uneasy.

    I have no confidence in Lib Dem policy on this matter. Three submarines holds us open to the same first strike operations mentioned above,

    So, if we are to have a nuclear capability then a four submarine option is the only viable option. However, whilst foodbanks are prevelant, whilst austerity is continuously visited on the poor and whilst our armed forces are suffering their cuts to the bone we cannot afford a nuclear option.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Apr '15 - 7:33pm

    @ Denis – “So I think the big divide is between those who think our military adventurism (e.g. in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) is something we will want to repeat, in which case yes perhaps we need Trident; and those, including myself who believe it has been immoral and counter-productive”

    Nothing wrong with that view, but public opinion is returning to the historic norm in supporting an activist foreign policy capable of sovereign and strategic power projection:

    http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/internationalism-or-isolationism-chatham-house-yougov-survey

    Post Iraq/Afghan support dipped to about half, unsurprisingly, but it has now recovered. Fortunately AFAIC.

    Also, in a similar vein to Alex’s point about subcontracting our NATO nuclear umbrella out to the French and the US; the job still needs doing, and I think it would be immoral of us to do the same vis-a-vis our UNSC responsibilities.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Apr '15 - 8:06pm

    @ David-1 – “Mr Oliver, Mr Emmerson, and people like them cannot trot out these words and expect others to stand in awe. If they think they have a case, they must say in specific terms:”

    May I direct you to the National Security Strategy:

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61936/national-security-strategy.pdf

    And this section in the forward:

    “In order to protect our interests at home, we must project our influence abroad. As the global balance of
    power shifts, it will become harder for us to do so. But we should be under no illusion that our national
    interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs. It requires our economy to
    compete with the strongest and the best and our entire government effort overseas must be geared
    to promote our trade, the lifeblood of our economy. But our international role extends beyond the
    commercial balance sheet, vital though it is.
    Our national interest requires us to stand up for the values our country believes in – the rule of law,
    democracy, free speech, tolerance and human rights. Those are the attributes for which Britain is admired
    in the world and we must continue to advance them, because Britain will be safer if our values are upheld
    and respected in the world.
    To do so requires us to project power and to use our unique network of alliances and relationships –
    principally with the United States of America, but also as a member of the European Union and NATO,
    and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We must also maintain the capability to act well
    beyond our shores and work with our allies to have a strategic presence wherever we need it.”

  • “What we are facing is, essentially, an existential question – what is Britain for in the world? ”
    A very good question

  • Denis Mollison 9th Apr '15 - 9:13pm

    Jedi
    That National Security Strategy has fine words – “Our national interest requires us to stand up for the values our country believes in – the rule of law, democracy, free speech, tolerance and human right”
    – but as the Chatham House survey you linked to shows, they’re a minority view: “While more than two-thirds of Liberal Democrats and half of Labour supporters say they support an ethical foreign policy, only one-third of Conservatives and just 17% of UKIP voters do “.

    Like the majority of the public I support those values – though I prefer to rely on the UN Declaration of Human Rights rather than calling them “British values” – and I’m in favour of “an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role”.
    It’s just that I don’t see our recent violent history as promoting either.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Apr '15 - 9:51pm

    Denis, it also says:

    “It is in this context that this edition of the Chatham House–YouGov survey explores attitudes to
    international affairs among the British public and opinion-formers. The results indicate that there has
    been no clear movement towards isolationism: in fact, in some policy areas the reverse appears to be
    true. Overall, there is support for an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role.

    Majorities of the public and opinion-formers say that the UK should aspire to be a ‘great power’
    rather than accept that it is in decline. 63% of the public and 61% of opinion-formers support
    this view, the highest level since the survey was first conducted.

    A majority of the public says that the UK has a responsibility to maintain international security,
    provide troops for peacekeeping missions and help lead the global response to climate change.
    At the same time, the public’s attitudes are marked by a degree of caution and defensiveness. They
    are sceptical of intervention in support of uprisings overseas, think foreign policy should focus on
    protecting the UK at its borders and remain unsupportive of development aid spending.

    For the public, border protection and counterterrorism continue to be the most important
    international issue, as has been the case in the past two editions of the survey. Opinion-formers,
    meanwhile, think promoting British business and trade should be the main focus of foreign policy.

    Among both the public and opinion-formers, international terrorism is most widely identified as
    a threat to the British way of life.

    Only 17% of the public say that the UK has a moral responsibility to support popular uprisings
    against dictators.

    The proportion of the public who think that the armed forces do the most to serve UK interests
    abroad has fallen from a peak of 53% in 2011 to 38% in 2014

    A mandate for Greater Belgium it is not.

  • The other options I’ve heard mentioned are SLCMs and ALCMs.

    The former are mounted in submarines so the same logic as CASD applies to the boats; four guarantees one is always available. The issue then becomes one of the relative cost of a ballistic missile vs a cruise missile and their relative effectiveness. AIUI ballistic missiles are best because they can’t be shot down. However am I correct in thinking SLCMs can go in cheaper boats?

    ALCMs are much cheaper but much more vulnerable and are range limited.

  • Denis M “This need to guard our backs seems premised on our continuing with military adventures that do not command wide support. If we restricted ourselves to joining in United Nations peace-keeping the need would be far less pressing.”

    If history teaches us anything it us to expect the unexpected when it us least expected.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Apr '15 - 11:50pm

    the biggest black mark against nuclear cruise is that it increases uncertainty, and therefore increases risk that the principle that MAD fails to [deter]. the need to ready a unit, and possibly to preposition it, is a signal that others will look for and respond to in their own readiness preparations. accidents happen, and with nukes that could be catastrophic.

    escalation in military-speak.

    if people detect a seaborne cruise missile launch they’ll be a lot less twitchy if they have certainty that we just going to park 500kg of high explosive in some dictators office, if they think it might include nukes…

    the same can be said of fighter/bomber launched cruise missiles. it would be from a dedicated squadron, will people get twitchy if we deploy that unit to Cyrpus, or onto a carrier parked off the Norwegian coast.

    much as I like the idea of ballistic conventional weapons for global strike, a version of the kinetic harpoons if you will, the fact that they too would create this uncertainty vis-a-vis trident rather takes the shine of them.

    we get an extremely cost efficient deterrent courtesy of the yanks, using their missiles and missile compartment with our warheads and boats, and i’m not at all convinced it would be cheaper to create our own cruise based deterrent.

    certainly less effective, and less conducive to deescalating a crisis!

  • The issue (which is not just for Liberal Democrats) is one of democracy.

    It is summed up by Denis Mollison in his first comment –
    ” …Denis Mollison 9th Apr ’15 – 4:59pm
    Not too much of a minority, Caron. The last conference vote on this (was it in York?) was close; it was probably decided by the “pay-roll vote”, leaving me with a suspicion that quite likely a majority of Lib Dem members are against renewing Trident.”

    Similarly, a majority of general election candidates for Liberal Democrats, SNP, Labour, PC, Greens, SF, SDLP, Alliance are probably also against renewing Trident.
    Even some Conservatives such as former SofS for Defence, Michael Portillo, are opposed to renewing Trident, not to mention several golf clubs full of Generals and Brigadiers who think it is militarily barmy to spend money on renewing Trident.

    A small minority of front benchers from two other parties persist in the delusion that Trident renewal would be worth £100 Billion. The pay-roll vote does the rest, immune from logic or rational debate.
    They are whipped up by media moguls whose interests diverge from our national interest, indeed whose willingness to support wars and armaments over the last twenty years has created ISIS.

    A small minority is imposing its views on the majority.
    This mania is given support from the BBC which seems to be stuck in a time-warp of 1950s Labour Party Conferences, when the Dimbleby brothers were new to TV.

    As Denis Mollison sums up —
    “…Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” is a delusion; what it really amounts to is that we’re paying for part of the US’s nuclear submarine fleet.”

  • Thanks Jedi, interesting and informative

  • I’m with Michael Portillo, the former Tory defence secretary, on this one. Trident serves no military or security purpose. There are no conceivable circumstances under which we would use it and there is no enemy we face or will face that is deterred by it. It is purely a symbol. I doubt any serious, senior politician really believes we should be spending 100 billion purely for reasons of national prestige but they fear puncturing the electorate’s illusions. We are no longer a ‘great’ power. It’s time to grow up.

  • Joh illey – “As Denis Mollison sums up —
    “…Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” is a delusion; what it really amounts to is that we’re paying for part of the US’s nuclear submarine fleet.””

    Howcome? Genuine question.

  • Denis Mollison 10th Apr '15 - 7:02pm

    Tabman – we are reliant on US technical support –
    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/defence-and-security-blog/2014/jul/01/trident-nuclear-weapons-uk

    I have also read that firing Trident requires access codes which the US could refuse; even if that’s untrue, it’s close to inconceivable that we would use Trident without US consent.

  • Dennis M. Thanks. Our missiles are part of a pool with the US but that is through choice. The French have their own ICBMs si I’m sure we could develop them if necessary

  • Tabman 10th Apr ’15 – 7:26pm
    “………Our missiles are part of a pool with the US but that is through choice. ”

    Oh really? Who made that choice? Are you suggesting that the USA had no opinion on the matter ?

    I

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Apr '15 - 11:49pm

    Good article – I’ve also been very sorry to see so little public and media interest in international affairs.

    I’ve written about Syria a fair amount (such as currently here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-the-humanitarian-catastrophe-in-syria-and-the-need-for-a-nofly-zone-45405.html) and a question I have constantly been asking of decision makers is ‘what are we trying to achieve?’ How can we expect to have a useful policy on Syria if we don’t take enough interest to work out what outcome we’d like to see?

    As for the nuclear / Trident issue, jedibeeftrix writes very well on the subject. Personally I think we should go with a ‘nukes in the cupboard’ strategy, although Toby Fenwick’s proposals have merit too. I come to that conclusion after thinking about ‘what Britian is for’. And in fact, although I want Britain to remain able to project power abroad, I actually see Trident as being a hiderance to us doing that, as it sucks resources out of more useful bits of the armed forces. There have been some really interesting articles in recent months by US generals basically writing the UK off as a useful ally because of the weakness of our conventional armed forces.

    Putting aside arguments as to whether or not we should have gone into Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, there’s no getting around the fact that our military strategy was a failure in the first two examples, and our military weakness prevented us from seriously considering anything besides an air war and some special forces in the third. (Again, leaving aside whether or not it would have been wise to have deployed troops to try to keep the peace in the aftermath of Gadafi’s overthrow, we didn’t have the forces to even contemplate doing so.)

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