The Independent View: It’s time to rethink Trident

Last year, Trident was a huge debate at the Lib Dem conference. It was an open, vibrant, genuine debate where differing views were passionately put. This year, Trident is nowhere to be seen in official conference business – even though the parliament elected in just a few months’ time will decide the future of Britain’s nuclear weapons system.

This seems a glaring omission for a party which has such a strong track record of engaging with this most important of Britain’s strategic defence questions. Indeed it is the only major Westminster party that – like the majority of the British population – recognises the importance of changing Britain’s nuclear weapons posture. And it has fought hard to do so. I’m sure no active Lib Dem member needs to be reminded how the party struggled to ensure that questioning the future of Trident was part of the coalition agreement and how Nick Harvey, as Defence Minister, made sure that alternatives to Trident were actually reviewed.

The point is that the issue hasn’t gone away. Trident continues to be militarily irrelevant, enormously dangerous, hugely expensive – and it hasn’t been subject to any strategic defence review, even though state-on-state nuclear warfare was downgraded to a tier two threat in this government’s own National Security Strategy in 2010.

So why the silence? Shouldn’t Nick Clegg be making this an election issue again, as he did in 2010? After all, the majority of the population is united against Trident and its replacement. And the Scottish referendum campaign showed the strength of anti-Trident feeling north of the border – in both Yes and No campaigns.

This is an issue where the Lib Dems have a policy that is different from both Labour and Conservative, and is more in tune with what the electorate wants. This is a vote winner. So why not get it out there into the electoral arena?

There is one drawback of course. The outcome of last year’s policy debate fell short of calling for cancelling plans to replace Trident. Instead Lib Dem policy calls for what has been termed ‘Trident-lite’ – fewer submarines and an end to 24/7 patrol. Of course from my point of view this isn’t enough – it’s a fudge which doesn’t bring the economic savings or the international strategic impact that full cancellation would bring. But nevertheless it is a step in the right direction and it shows a capacity for open political thinking – attempting to address a difficult issue which the other main parties don’t even want to touch.

Maybe the party thinks that the policy is done and dusted – that the half-way house position will serve it well, and that it has been brave enough in going this far. If so, I would like to urge an end to such self-limiting thoughts. The fact is that the Lib Dems are now well-placed to look at further policy and political steps on Trident that will serve Britain better: even from its ‘Trident-lite’ position it should now commit to ensuring a review of all the alternatives to Trident – including disarmament – if participating in any coalition government. Unfortunately this option was excluded from the previous Lib Dem-led Alternatives Review. And if the party is not part of government, then its MPs should fight to ensure that Trident – and the option of disarming it – is included in the Strategic Defence Review.

This is not the time to fall silent on nuclear weapons. What happens to Trident is of the utmost significance to the future of Britain – and the majority of the population recognises that and does not want it replaced. The Lib Dems must continue the work they have started on Trident: don’t let last year’s thinking about last century’s weapons shape this year’s decision-making. How could that be right for addressing next year’s electoral reality and the needs of the country beyond that? It’s time to rethink Trident.

* Dr. Kate Hudson is General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner.

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27 Comments

  • I’ve posted before that the party’s policy makes no sense at all; the alternatives review only went to show in greater detail than ever how weak all the alternatives are, including ‘Trident-lite’ as the proportional loss in effectiveness is far greater than the savings, and no-one outside a sharp suit in Westminster talks about “taking steps down the nuclear ladder” which is up there on the list of pointless political slogans that don’t mean anything to non-insiders.

    But the reality is that, the SNP / Greens aside, there is no other party that will be open to anything less than a full replacement after the election, and I can’t see us winning in any coalition deal; the big two just aren’t open to negotiation. Our only trump card is public opinion. So if we want a radical step, I’d suggest that we insist on a referendum. Make it up to the British people to decide, in the age of austerity, whether we should remain a nuclear power. Tell any coalition partners that they can make their case to the country as they haven’t persuaded us.

    We saw in Scotland how passionate people were on this issue, and the sorts of turnout we’d get on an issue people thought would change their lives. Would Trident be the same? I doubt we’d be looking at 85% levels, but you can bet it would be more than the 40% we had this year.

  • While I am in favour of retention I really think present policy is the worst of both worlds. It either needs to remain as is or be removed completely. Otherwise we end up continuing to spend massive amounts of money without guaranteed second strike capability, the entire purpose of the system.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Oct '14 - 1:15pm

    CND encourage votes against any war regardless, so her point of view on defence matters is irrelevant.

  • Kevin White 3rd Oct '14 - 1:22pm

    Trident is a nonsense for many reasons. We had a great chance to carve out a clear and distinctive position last year by calling for it to be scrapped not renewed. Instead, Conference voted for a ridiculous nonsensical fudge, both militarily and economically. A missed opportunity and a great shame.

  • David Allen 3rd Oct '14 - 1:27pm

    Much to agree with here. However, on the “referendum” proposal, here I present an imitation Lynton-Crosby draft response for Cameron to make:

    “The Lib Dems used to say they would compromise by buying a bomb that wouldn’t work properly, just to get a few percent off the price. Now they’ve found a new way to dither, by asking somebody else to make up their minds for them. Perhaps they’re trying to seek common ground with Ed Miliband, who dithers about every question he is asked! We don’t need a referendum. We know what the vast majority of people think. We know that they will back the Tories to keep Britain strong blah de blah de blah….”

    What we really believe in, I would suggest, is actively promoting multilateral disarmament. Could we adopt the policy that we will oppose retention if, and only if, Obama / Putin meet within a specified timescale and agree a major disarmament programme?

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Oct '14 - 1:54pm

    David Allen
    ” Could we adopt the policy that we will oppose retention if, and only if, Obama / Putin meet within a specified timescale and agree a major disarmament programme?”

    Sure we could; but wouldn’t it save time just to go ahead and support retention, given that Obama/Putin obviously aren’t going to be much interested in our opinion on the matter?

  • David Allen 3rd Oct '14 - 3:14pm

    Malcolm, I think you’re rightly implying that if Nick Clegg were to wave his finger at Obama and/or Putin, dismissive laughter would ensue. It would sound a little less laughable if the policy were expressed as “Britain should use Trident replacement as a basis for negotiation, and should be prepared to defer or abandon it in exchange for major parallel disarmament by Russia together with the US”.

    I’m willing to admit that this is not the perfect policy line, and there is still an element of little Britain wagging its finger. However, I just think this approach to multilateralism is a bit less ineffectual than either the referendum idea, or the crazy botch-up that is present Lib Dem policy.

  • jedibeeftrix 3rd Oct '14 - 3:21pm

    Ah, it is that time of year again. A few months later than expected, but here nonetheless.

    The current policy is ludicrous, the thrust of this article only slightly less so.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Oct '14 - 3:39pm

    I think we’re all agreed that the present party policy is an attempt to please everyone that pleases no one (except possibly those who enjoy a little farce). Which probably makes it about right for the party as presently constituted, I suggest.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Oct '14 - 3:53pm

    I support a full renewal of Trident. The only way I would support getting rid of it would be if we supported ploughing the whole lot into conventional weapons and someone also had a strategy of what to do in the threat of nuclear war. Surrender is not a strategy.

    Regards

  • jedibeeftrix 3rd Oct '14 - 5:06pm

    110% behind Eddie.

  • Eddie Sammon, if it is not obvious to you let me spell it.

    If a nuclear threat is carried out — your role (along with everyone else resident in the UK) is to die.

    Trident does not deter anyone.
    It is not an effective use of public money to defend the UK, quite the opposite.
    It simply makes the UK a target in the event of a nuclear war.

    So your government expects you to pay for Trident and then —- just shut up and die. Is that clear enough?

  • Kate Hudson makes the sensible point that traditional Liberal Democrat opposition to Trident is popular with the voters.

    She says–“…This is an issue where the Lib Dems have a policy that is different from both Labour and Conservative, and is more in tune with what the electorate wants. This is a vote winner. So why not get it out there into the electoral arena?”

    With the party at either 6% or 4%, depending which opinion poll you are looking at, this might be a good week to follow Kate Hudson’s advice and shout about apology the voters actually like.

  • Should have read —

    With the party at either 6% or 4%, depending which opinion poll you are looking at, this might be a good week to follow Kate Hudson’s advice and shout about A POLICY the voters actually like.

    I-pad keyboard and predictive text conspiring with the military-industrial complex again!!!!!

  • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Oct '14 - 7:51pm

    I will refrain from going down the moral argument path on this as I think it is morally very difficult to justify nuclear weapons at all, however, I am surprised that my friend from the dark side (Jedi) believes we should retain or replace Trident when it is a weapon from the cold war, when it would absorb so much of the defence budget and when it almost certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t be used against anyone except perhaps Russia (in which case we would indeed be retaliating from the grave), when it is irrelevant to most of the threats likely to face the UK and Europe this century … You could go on and on.

    If someone wished to make the case to retain a smaller number of nuclear weapons held in dispersed locations and delivered from planes/cruise missiles etc, that is worth discussing but a small country playing cold war games with cold war costs and stakes is illogical in the extreme.

    France aside, how do we think the rest of Europe sleep at night? Does no one listen to the opinions of these countries? Do we think so little of the values Britain brings to the world that we think we need to hold these weapons for our values of decency to be heard?

    Eddie, you are correct “Surrender is not a strategy” but is replacing Trident while struggling to fund conventional armed forces, not to mention public services? Just what do you intend to protect?

    I’m with John Tilley: “With the party at either 6% or 4%, depending which opinion poll you are looking at, this might be a good week to follow Kate Hudson’s advice and shout about A POLICY the voters actually like.”

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Oct '14 - 3:33am

    Hi Stephen, I’m not completely wedded to the idea of having nuclear weapons, I think the war of public opinion is just as important as the military one during times of conflict, arguably even more important, but we need a strong military too.

    I just think at the moment it would be such a massive change. If we got rid of it we would need a new way of winning wars. Possibly relying more on public opinion, but we shouldn’t get rid of them before we have the new strategy in place.

    I don’t usually mind disagreeing with the United States, but on this one I really think we should consult with them.

  • Jenny Barnes 4th Oct '14 - 8:27am

    We could cancel or sell those small aircraft carriers with no or very expensive aircraft too. Nice article on Open Democracy – effectively with one SSBN and one (kinda) Carrier Battle Group at sea we will have a 2 – ship navy.

  • >without carriers our ability to project power is crippled

    Interestingly, HMG have decided that these should be conventionally powered rather than nuclear powered. I get the distinct feeling and reinforced by conversations in relevant corridors, that this decision will bedevil the operational life of these carriers, just as it is bedevilling their development and equipping…

    With a range of 10,000 nautical miles, a one way trip to an anchor off the Falkland Islands is about the limit of their ability to project power, a tad embarassing I suggest…

  • @Jedi – Yes I’m aware of the RFA. My comment was made as the choice of nuclear v. gas turbine/electric power had big ramifications, the main one being the choice of take-off and landing technologies and hence aircraft that would be able to operate. There are people who whilst looking forward to the opportunity to command these high value assets are not entirely happy with what the politicians have decided should be delivered.

  • “i dare say our square-jawed sons of neslon would jump at the chance of commanding an armada of rail-gun armed super-dreadnaughts”

    There is one thing that can be said about the Dreadnaught’s and other battleships of their era, they positively exuded power in a way that left no doubt in peoples minds about what those at the wrong end would be receiving… 🙂

    But yes I agree (and my circular conversations reinforced this) it was swings and roundabouts with respects to the new carriers and cost considerations were very much to the fore, but ultimately a decision one way or the other had to be made…

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