Trident renewal is not justified, but our policy must be coherent and multilateralist

Next spring, Parliament will debate and vote on whether to replace the UK’s ageing Trident submarines at a cost of approximately £30bn, in the so-called Main Gate investment decision. Operating the submarines and Trident through to the late 2050s will bring the total cost to more than £100bn.

I have consistently opposed the renewal of Trident, and was very disappointed with the current fudge we adopted in 2013. Indeed, at the time, I wondered whether it was the most strategically incoherent policy ever adopted?

Today, I continue to oppose Trident renewal for four reasons:

First, I favour progressive multilateral nuclear disarmament, and continuing with Trident does not represent the spirit of the UK’s obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty;

Second, the threat that the Soviet Union could mount a conventional attack through West Germany and that the USA may not respond (strategic decoupling) died with German reunification in NATO in 1990;

Third, thanks to David Owen’s demand that the MoD define minimum deterrence in the late 1970s, we have much cheaper alternatives to meet even a Cold War definition of minimum deterrence, as I outlined in my CentreForum paper last March;

Fourth, the impact of Trident’s costs on the UK defence procurement budget is sustained throughout the 2020s, just when critical conventional equipment programmes are programmed for the Royal Navy, the Army and the RAF: choosing Trident will come directly at the cost of the conventional forces.

So how do I approach Monday’s Conference motion changing our Trident policy to unilateral nuclear disarmament, opening the door to leaving NATO without considering the impact on the rest of our foreign, defence and defence industrial policy?

I think the motion is miscast.

We can and should loudly oppose Trident replacement now and in the Parliamentary vote next March. But we need to recognise that the vote will pass with Tory, DUP and potentially some Labour votes; we should expect a Government majority of 20 – 40.

As a result, our policy going in the 2020 election needs to offer a coherent plan about our vision of the UK’s role in the world, including what we would do with the existing UK nuclear infrastructure, materials and scientists, the new Trident submarines the first and second of which will be being built, and our overall contribution to European and NATO defence. Again, the motion is silent on these issues.

It’s for that reason that the amendment proposed by our new defence spokesperson Baroness Judith Jolly that Tim wrote in support of last week with the suggested change from Jonathan Brown removing the linkage to the 2013 policy has my full support.

In that form, the amendment makes clear that we oppose Trident, will vote against Main Gate, and conduct a coherent overarching defence and foreign policy review that can and should exclude any submarine based or ballistic missile nuclear options from consideration, and a firm base for the 2020 election.

I urge you to support Jonathan’s separate vote, the amended amendment, and then the amended motion.

* Toby Fenwick is a Research Associate of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has written extensively on the UK Trident programme, and served on the party’s last Trident Working Group. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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13 Comments

  • The Tories (and possibly Labour) will paint the Lib Dems as anti nucs if we don’t support Tridents full replacement, whatever we say. The Tories have done this already (our part time nucs – because of less Subs).
    You cant cross a ravine in two steps (Lloyd George I think once said) – it will end badly. This is an ideal time to state we would not replace & should disarm to lead by example. IMO a truly Liberal position – morally – politically & financially beneficial too. Will we be bold……… or bottle it (again).

  • Let’s stop chasing bandwagons, and drive this one instead.

    Create a coherent, well costed policy and campaign against trident renewal. We’re in the priveledged position where we have very little to lose as a party, so can afford to make these bold, radically liberal policies our focus.

    Let’s have it so Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon are forced to say “actually, I support the LibDems”.

  • Tony Fenwick 20th Sep '15 - 2:52am

    Greenfield

    We disagree on whether it is credible to go in a single step or not – which is fine.

    But if you want head in that direction, you need to be able to answer the questions about what we do with the partially completed SSBNs in 2020, what our policy towards NATO (and the NATO nuclear planning group) is, along with the industrial base and the remainder of our international and defence policy.

    The motion is silent on all these issues, which is reason enough for it to be rejected.

  • Good points – scrap the part built subs if they are unable to carry conventional weapons. Regarding NATO at the present time I would guess (and it is a guess as I am not an expert and have no evidence to back this), a commitment to increase our air, and army numbers would be welcome because of strained national budgets. Longer term a policy of changing the role of our armed forces by adding emergency assistance/aid under/with the UN.

  • Are we not already a long-standing “has-been” in world politics?

    The best we can claim to be is no more than a loyal partner to the USA.

  • @Alex, in my opinion, if the International Community only listens to us because we could destroy their countries with a nuclear missile, then we are doing diplomacy, politics and peace all wrong.

  • Are we not already a long-standing “has-been” in world politics?

    You can go to the voters with that message if you want, but somehow I doubt it will get you elected.

  • Toby Fenwick 20th Sep '15 - 4:45pm

    Alex,

    Trident has nothing to do with our role in the Security Council – to get kicked off it, we’d have to vote for our own exclusion. You’ll see from my March paper that I propose a minimum deterrent that is much cheaper and more flexible than Trident.

    The capability Trident offers is far in excess of the UK’s current or likely future needs – if we stay in the nuclear game (and I believe we should pending a further round of disarmament cuts) then it should be with a cheaper, less capable system.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '15 - 5:47pm

    I don’t believe that Trident boosts our standing in the world that much. We’ll always have a big military due to the size of our economy. We need a smarter defence policy. Russia is boosting its influence not by having the biggest military in the world, but by simply being quicker at deploying it. At the moment anyway.

    As Krauthammer said the other day: who would you want in your corner at the moment? Putin or Obama?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11873813/In-Syria-Vladimir-Putin-is-the-arsonist-playing-fireman.html

    I’m against getting rid of nukes without seriously strengthening the military elsewhere, though.

  • Toby Fenwick 20th Sep '15 - 11:15pm

    Eddie, hi

    This balance of NPT, cost and capability is that the centrepiece of my CentreForum paper last March: http://www.centreforum.org/index.php/mainpublications/719-retiring-trident

    Key in the debate tomorrow is ensure that we have a process that allows the full implications of policy change to be worked through, rather than a feel good motion that is unimplementable.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '15 - 11:32pm

    Thanks Toby. I knew you were informed on this topic, but I need things simplified to understand sometimes. I’ll check out your paper!

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