Trident and the “doctrine of unripe time”

In his brilliant book on academic politics “Microcosmographica Academica” , F M Cornford wrote that there was only one argument for doing anything – that it was right. There were, however, many arguments for not doing anything, of which “the doctrine of unripe time” is one of the most common. This applies perfectly to the Liberal Democrat Conference debate on Trident. On the surface, the question seems simple – replace Trident or scrap Trident – but the waters have been muddied by an amendment from Baroness Jolly which says neither. It says we should set up another working group to consider options.

Over the last eight years conference has debated Trident no less than five times, sometimes alone and sometimes as part of a portmanteau motion. There have been two working groups which have taken evidence from senior civil servants, generals, academics and defence think tanks. In addition Ming Campbell conducted a review of options before we went into coalition. Finally in government we forced an official review of options by defence specialists. What can any party group possibly learn that will add to all that? What indeed! There is nothing new to learn. It’s just the “doctrine of unripe time” again. There is no reason whatsoever to kick this can down the road. There is a very good reason to make our minds up now. Some time in 2016 parliament will vote on the “Main Gate” decision committing over £100 billion pounds to Trident’s successor. Our working group would probably report back after that decision and all its regurgitation of old information would be utterly irrelevant.

It is also argued that the time is unripe because Jeremy Corbyn has just been elected leader of the Labour Party. This is no basis for making Liberal Democrat policy. Jeremy Corbyn will be still be leader for some time to come and I bet the Parliamentary Labour Party will fight tooth and nail to keep Trident. The appeal of Corbyn to his electorate is not so much his policies such as they are but his authenticity – he says what he believes. We could learn from that. Setting up a working group does not convey belief, values or authenticity. It says these soggy Liberals don’t know what they believe and can’t make their minds up.

The third argument about time is the multilateralist one. It says the only time to give up nukes when we can use them as a bargaining chip to get someone else to give up theirs. Never mind that over the least five years we have unilaterally given up ships, planes, whole army units and massive conventional capacity without getting anything in return from anyone, we mustn’t unilaterally give up Trident! Never mind that no-one can ever suggest which other country would give up nuclear weapons because we did – the French? Israel? North Korea? Pakistan? No, there is no multilateral option available. It’s just kicking the can down the road again.

A very, very senior retired civilian who had spent his whole working life around nuclear deterrence doctrines gave evidence to one of our working groups (Chatham House rule, so I can’t name him) He was asked what should we do and replied, “Get rid of it, but like all politicians you don’t have the guts to do it “. The time is ripe. Let’s have the guts.

* David Grace is a Lib Dem living in Cambridge and a long standing campaigner for nuclear disarmament.

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  • Kevin White 21st Sep '15 - 7:21am

    Spot on David. Great article !

  • Mark Blackburn 21st Sep '15 - 7:31am

    Like the Labour establishment, it seems our own party hierarchy is loath to give up Trident – but I suspect it’s for reasons that have little to do with finance. More to do with forgoing £100billion of economic activity and not upsetting the arms companies and their legions of financiers, lawyers and lobbyists. Let’s invest in our economy and spend the money, but spend it instead on things we really need, like affordable housing, transport infrastructure and green energy.

  • Mark Blackburn 21st Sep '15 - 7:36am

    Sorry, it’s early – “little to do with defence”, not ‘finance’

  • Simon mcgrath 21st Sep '15 - 7:49am

    The trouble with this argument is that the motion is trying to impose unilateralism on the party under the guise of a motion about Trident.

    They are two different issues and if we are to go unilateralist we should have a proper debate not bring it on on the back of something else

  • I hope conference does vote to scrap Trident today. Don’t be cowed because Tim Farron is putting forward the amendment. I dare say it was a servile attitude to Clegg’s leadership amongst party members (certainly the parliamentary party) that brought the party to its knees in the first place, or at least made it worse. Leaders should be challenged and disobeyed! We are Lib Dems, not tories (although some may have forgotten this)!

    However, I guess if we get rid of Trident we will be wiped out. Someone should tell Germany this as they might want to get them themselves soon. And Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Portugal …

  • Ian Hurdley 21st Sep '15 - 8:11am

    @ Simon McGrath
    I am a multilateralist in favour of not replacing Trident. Please explain why that is contradictory.

  • Toby Fenwick 21st Sep '15 - 8:23am

    David, good morning

    It’s not so much as the time is unripe, it is that the unilateralist motion in the form pushed by Kevin White and Gareth Epps is unripe. As you know, I’ve consistently opposed Trident, and you’ve been very kind in reading my CentreForum papers on the subject, most recently this one in March:

    The motion has nothing to say about the broader impact on foreign and defence policy, it cannot tell us what it would do as part of a coalition in 2020, does not explain what will happen to the UK’s nuclear infrastructure (what happens to AWE?), and it doesn’t make any proposals of what to do with some substantially constructed submarines if we inherit the SSBN programme in government in 2020. Fundamentally, we need to recognise that Main Gate will be approved in next year’s vote with at least a 30 vote margin, and potentially a lot more depending on how many Labour MPs back Trident.

    In contrast, Judith Jolly’s amendment:

    – Commits the Parliamentary Party to voting against Main Gate next year, establishing our anti-Trident credentials;

    – Ensures that we have a full defence and international policy review to discuss options;

    – Brings the issue back to our sovereign Conference to decide the matter.

    This is a vast improvement on our existing policy that I described as the most strategically incoherent policy ever when it was adopted ( I note with interest that the existing policy enjoyed the vocal support of Julian Huppert ( against George Potter’s amendment in 2013.

    But, the Jolly amendment is also far, far, better than the unilateralism position of the motion precisely because it does allow us to reject Trident at Main Gate and then craft a measured, and I hope multilateralist, policy to bring back to Conference next year.

  • John Tilley 21st Sep '15 - 8:40am

    A debate brought about by a groundswell of opinion from ordinary members of the party is being presented by some as — “….. trying to impose unilateralism on the party …”

    Is this an attempt to re-frame the question by those who are keen to follow the Conservative policy of spending £Billions on Trident replacement?
    Are they trying to re-frame the question because know that they cannot win the abolish Trident debate in a Liberal Democrat forum?

    In this article David Grace has set out why —
    “There is a very good reason to make our minds up now. Some time in 2016 parliament will vote on the “Main Gate” decision committing over £100 billion pounds to Trident’s successor.”

    Tim Farron has already said he will “lead the charge” against spending on the replacement of Trident. He has said Liberal Democrats in Parliament will vote against the Conservative dogma of spending on Trident whatever the cost.

    Side arguments about outdated and now meaningless language such as “unilateralism” are a distraction.

  • Paul Kennedy 21st Sep '15 - 9:37am

    I would rather the motion said ‘orderly’ or ‘phased’ rather than ‘earliest’ decommissioning, but I have to say I dislike the halfway house in the manifesto which just sits on the fence and wins nobody’s votes.

    Looking at Willy Rennie’s article warning about the impact on our international allies, I wonder where there is perhaps some underlying reason for the leadership’s ambivalence on this motion, such as:
    a) a threat by Obama and/or the Democrats to withdraw support for Connect if we become unilateralist, or
    b) impact on negotiations with disillusioned Labour MPs?

  • paula keaveney 21st Sep '15 - 9:43am

    Great article David. Very much hope conference will vote in favour of the motion and against the amendment. The “time is not right” argument was one of those regularly used by Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister.

  • Mick Taylor 21st Sep '15 - 9:54am

    Either we are serious about disarmament or we are not. For the whole of the 51 years I have been a member of this party the hierarchy have given lip service to getting rid of the bomb, but the time is never right, we would go ‘naked’ into the disarmament talks, we must be multilateral, the list of excuses is endless. At the same time the UK lectures others about not getting the bomb, whilst keeping our own.
    What the proponents of either of Today’s amendments must answer is
    1. Who will we bomb and when?
    2. Why do we continue to advocate a policy that has manifestly failed to achieve disarmament? When I joined the party in 1964, five countries had the bomb. All of them still do and quite a few more have got one since.
    3. why do we need a bomb when Germany, Canada, Australia and most o the rest of the world do not?

    We gave a chance as radicals to set a standard today. Let’s not throw it away.

  • Toby Fenwick 21st Sep '15 - 10:27am

    Paul, we can agree on your questions and I’d still conclude that we should pass the amendment and them the motion.

    There is much heat but very little light in this debate, and the proponents if this motion gave singularly failed to answer the questions I pose above.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Sep '15 - 10:31am

    Toby Fenwick is very interesting on this topic. He, like me, prefers the Judith Jolly amendment and he also has a plan to save £4.8 – 13.1bn to re-invest in conventional forces by scrapping the submarines and having capability to drop them from planes instead.

    The current motion says nothing about conventional forces and the current policy fudge seems inefficient too. Knock it back to a policy working group and check out Toby’s Centre-Forum paper:

  • @Paul Walter “2. “North Korea could launch a nuclear weapon any time” the ask “Are you serious? – what chance have they of making a weapon which can reach Watford service station?””

    Given the in-service life of the Trident Replacement will be until c2060, can you guarantee that North Korea, or some other as yet unknown aggressor nation, will not develop this capability within the next 45 years?

  • Eddie Sammon “scrapping the submarines and having capability to drop them from planes instead. ”

    Aircraft-based weapons delivery systems are vulnerable to first-strike, as aircraft need a land or sea base to operate from. Even with an always in-flight nuclear capability, the aircraft are vulnerable, as are the bombs.

    Only ballistic missiles with multiple warheads can penetrate all defences, and only submarines can guarantee first-strike survivability.

  • Toby Fenwick 21st Sep '15 - 11:14am

    Thanks ks very much, Eddie

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Sep '15 - 11:28am

    Excellent article and spot on. The time is right to pass the motion.

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Sep '15 - 11:29am


  • Toby Fenwick 21st Sep '15 - 12:13pm

    TCO, I’d encourage you to look through my paper which models the credibility of an air launched weapon. We don’t need the levels of capability and survivability offered by Trident today or in the foreseeable future.

  • I am only interested in getting the Lib Dems back in the news. Whether we vote for or against Trident does not worry me provided it gives us publicity, something we are in short supply of. Probably a vote against wouild generate more.

  • David Murray 21st Sep '15 - 10:39pm

    The ability to strike back is pointless if we have to get vaporised first. I agree entirely with Julian Huppert’s summing up in the debate, and it was sad that the not-so-Jolly amendment was passed. I am one of those who can’t afford to attend the autumn conferences, although I am a voting rep, and would have voted for the original motion to scrap Trident. David Grace’s article is spot-on, and a pity more people didn’t read it before the vote.

  • nigel hunter 22nd Sep '15 - 12:14am

    We should get rid of one trident sub put that money into conventional weapons and planes for those aircraft carriers and escort ships for our trade security seeing we have only 19 this is clear precise no waffle. I have no ‘ soggieness’ just a clear definate idea. in my mind!

  • Simon mcgrath 22nd Sep '15 - 6:19am

    @yolly ” the right wing cabal that runs the party”

    Oh dear. You did get the news that Tim is now leader ?

  • Jefferson Horsley 22nd Sep '15 - 8:39am

    I am with Theakes. We need publicity of any kind and scrapping Trident would have achieved this. I am a unilateralist anyway and this would have been a step towards radicalising our party and preparing it for a realistic role in the world in the 21 st century .

    The party is on the brink of irrelevance and yet the establishment (our unelected peers) is still congratulating itself on how it acted as a restraining influence and still has not come to terms with our lack of power from May 7th. T hat is the size of the task facing Tim Farron .

    I am forward looking and hopeful that a new broom will sweep the cobwebs away . Our Liberal values are too precious and we should be proud of being the originators of policies which are ahead of their time even if it means we don’t immediately return to power. This requires a fundamental move away from “gradualism” and evolutionary tacticsand approach which the public is fed up with . We are too boring and too conventional in our approach.

    Go for it Tim!

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Sep '15 - 10:19am

    The real problem with the motion was its wording .If it had stuck to just not renewing Trident and it scrapping it would have sailed through .But sneaking in lines on unilateral disarmament was its undoing .poor drafting never ticks any boxes with our members .it did not demonstrate any pathway from the unilateralist position to our international obligations with regard to NATO and how we would tackle non proliferation and arms reduction .This is too complex an issue to be dealt with in 9 short lines.

  • It is madness to spend so much money on something that is totally useless. As they say they will never have to use it – someone will have to attack first!- end of story!!
    Unilateral disarmament is obvious to me. It may change nothing apart from making other countries wonder why they are spending/wasting so much money. The other fear-driven countries will never give up the mind-set together-; that mass death and destruction gives them power. Perhaps they will become enlightened!
    The NHS is on the verge of collapse, the biggest battle for the balance and future of life on this planet is actually taking place NOW!
    We should be spending every possible penny on renewable energy. Apart from helping to slow down climate change
    it would really help in bringing peace to this planet, taking away the power of the oil countries and helping to stop mass migration to come.
    It wasn’t this madness that stopped war in Europe – it is common sense, education and communication. The later has increased incredibly.
    I could say more but I am wasting my time with the Tory/fearful and imagination-less mindset.

  • By the way – Getting rid of Trident would get many more votes than losing them ,and show that we are human beings.

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