Trident: the Grand Old Lib Dems have lost this war already

110301-N-7237C-009Yesterday the Lib Dems published The Trident Alternatives Review. According to Danny Alexander, “it is the most thorough review of nuclear systems and postures the UK has ever made public. It is ground-breaking – thanks to the Liberal Democrats and our insistence that Trident alternatives must be examined.” That may be: but this is a war the party will not win.

Here’s the party’s sound-bite version of the policy:

We oppose the like-for-like replacement of Trident. We believe there is a ‘nuclear ladder’ of capabilities. Alternative systems or postures could bring Britain down that ‘nuclear ladder’. We believe Britain is ready to step down the ladder, but not off it.

I wish you luck trying to sell that on the door-step.

“Hi, I’m from the Lib Dems and was wondering if you would vote for us on Thursday.”

“Well, I’m not sure. Could you tell me more about your policy on nuclear weapons?”

“Sure. In a post-cold war era we think Britain can scale back its nuclear deterrent.”

“But doesn’t that mean we would sometimes be unprotected?”

“Sometimes, yes. But not all the time.”

“Isn’t that the worst of all possible worlds? We don’t have a Continuous-At-Sea deterrent, but we’re still on every mad dictator’s target list?”

“But this way we’ll disarm gradually, making the world a safer place.”

“Only if every other country with weapons potential — y’know, stable democracies like North Korea or Iran — does likewise, though?”

“You’re forgetting that this will save us money.”

“Okay, I accept there may be a trade-off. What’s the saving?”

“An estimated £50m a year over the lifetime of Trident.”

“That doesn’t seem like much given what’s at stake.”

“Well, that’s not why we’re doing it. We want to step down the nuclear ladder.”

“Oh, I see. So now you’re stuck in the middle. Thanks. I think I’ve made up my mind: you should try it some time.”

I’m being facetious, maybe unfairly. The review is a perfectly sane, rational piece of work. (You can read it here.) And in a perfectly sane, rational world we could expect the argument to get a decent hearing. After all, polls suggest the British public is split on this issue: one-third (34%) support a like-for-like replacement of Trident, and roughly one-quarter each want a scaled-back nuclear deterrent (24%) or to disarm unilaterally (23%).

But the UK carries a lot of historical baggage. As the plucky little nation that stood up to Hitler, there is a little bit of us Brits seemingly hard-wired to believe that at some indefinable point the world will need us to save them again. Perhaps Kim Jong Un will get trigger-happy. Or perhaps the Arab Spring will descend into a nuclear winter. Then we’ll be grateful we maintained a vastly expensive nuclear fleet, always ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. As with all insurance policies, the nuclear deterrent trades on our ‘worst case scenario’ insecurities. And who’d insure their home on a part-time basis?

The party leadership has sought to triangulate its way through the Trident review, determined not to sign up to a hard-line Tory policy of beggar-the-costs, and equally determined not to be painted as hands-in-the-air unilateralists. If Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander could’ve secured cross-party support, this Goldilocks not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold-war approach might have worked.

But with both the Conservatives and Labour fixated on a showy-off, muscle-flexing arms-race to prove who’s got the toughest, bestest defence policy, the Lib Dems risk ending up with a strategy modelled on the Grand Old Duke of York, “only half-way up the nuclear ladder, neither up nor down”.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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61 Comments

  • Surely the fact that we maintain such a huge conventional military is more evidence of “us Brits seemingly hard-wired to believe that at some indefinable point the world will need us to save them again.” Trident is a purely defensive weapon.

  • This seems appropriate. LOL http://youtu.be/qGFR3zz12p0

  • Graham Evans 17th Jul '13 - 9:54am

    When it suits them, politicians of all political parties claim to believe in evidence based policy formulation. There is plenty of evidence that this is nonsense, and, more importantly, as any marketing manager will tell you, very few of the population adopt an evidence based approach to coming to a view on an issue. Indeed people tend to search out “evidence” which supports their pre-existing prejudices. Over time, it is sometimes possible to move public opinion, but rational analysis seldom produces quick results. So I’m afraid that on Trident the reality is indeed that the Lib Dems on a a hiding to nothing.

  • The leader in the FT has given the party a right kicking over the position.

  • It seems to me we are at a crossroads on our nuclear deterrent. We either replace with a constant presence or we cease to have one. Personally I would bin them and plow at least 75% of the money into conventional defence. We needed to keep the carriers and harriers far more than a weapon that just ensures everybody loses.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jul '13 - 10:49am

    I agree that talking about “one day stepping off the ladder but not yet” is confusing. You either believe in nuclear weapons or you don’t. Any talk about scaling back the deterrent should be for financial reasons only.

    I believe in nuclear weapons because I think without them there is a significant enough chance that they would be used against us. Pacifism is useless when diplomacy fails, you just get killed.

  • @ Cllr Mark Wright
    Two points:

    1. Is the policy to completely ditch nuclear weapons?
    2. When the potential voter worries we will no longer be protected, I would point out we never were as these are revenge weapons that only provide protection through MAD when dealing with fairly stable opponents who care about their own destruction. At risk of re-opening the Iraq WMD debate, if Saddam took on the west knowing he was going to lose in 2003, would Trident have really stopped him pressing the button had he actually been able to hit us within 45 minutes?

    I believe these weapons played an important role during the cold war but am entirely unconvinced we need to retain them now..

  • The problem with the doorstep conversation example is that a party aiming for 25% of the vote on a 70% turnout will run into non-supporters about 84% of the time.

  • plow?

  • Hi, I’m from the Lib Dems and was wondering if you would vote for us on Thursday.”

    “Well, I’m not sure. Could you tell me more about your policy on nuclear weapons?”

    “Sure. We don’t think we need to keep our nuclear detterent on a hair trigger and on patrol 24/7.”

    “But doesn’t that mean we would sometimes be unprotected?”

    “Well, no-one is preparing to launch an all out nuclear strike on us at the moment, so patrolling 24/7 serves no purpose.”

    “Well why don’t you get rid of it then?”

    “Because with the future of proliferation unclear, its probably best we keep some capability as an insurance policy against a future threat.”

    “Sounds sensible”

    “Have I got your vote then?”

    “Nah, I’m more worried about immigration”

  • Mike Falchikov 17th Jul '13 - 12:07pm

    Steve Way is quite right – bin them. Our tiny little deterrent (the lowest capacity of any nuclear power, as Danny puts it) is just a bit of macho pretense at being the Great Power we no longer are. Some of the savings from this vastly expensive project should be spent on the right kind of conventional weaponry and forces,so that Britain can play its rightful role in peace-keeping operations around the world. We can continue to play a full part in NATO without nukes – only three countries out of 28 have their own nukes and most NATO countries do not even allow them on their soil (e.g.Canada & Germany). And, of course, in the last resort, the countries most at danger from nuclear weapons are countries which themselves possess nuclear weapons.
    Please let us remember that until the Alliance in the 1980s and Dr. Owen’s macho posturing on nuclear weapons, we had a perfectly good policy – play a full part in NATO and the defence of the West, but without an independent British nuclear deterrent. Danny rightly points out in his speech that the time for cold war thinking is over – all the more reason, then, to revert to the policy which Jo Grimond spelt out so simply and forcefully in the 1950s (when I was a National Serviceman in the RAF stationed at a nuclear bomber base). And a final thought – would we really be allowed to launch our own wee set of Tridents without the say-so and participation of the USA?

  • jenny barnes 17th Jul '13 - 12:09pm

    We are supposed to be signed up to the non proliferation treaty, which says we are committed to not having nuclear weapons sometime (make me chaste, but not yet?)
    Most of the rest of the “West” relies on the USA for nuclear deterrence. Why don’t we? In the cold war era, the idea was that the Soviets could nuke the UK, and deter a US retaliation by threatening nuclear Armageddon on the USA, so we needed our own deterrent to make sure that they never thought that.
    Now? Where’s the risk? Who’s going to attack us that we might need to deter?
    Iran? It’s just possible that in the next several decades they will acquire both nuclear warhead capability and missiles capable of reaching the UK; remotely possible that they would acquire missiles that could reach the USA. But could they possible nuke the UK and deter a US retaliation? I don’t think so. And what’s the motive? They must be more interested in deterring external regime change than gratuitously attacking a middle size European power.

    Pakistan? Further away, so the missile tech is harder. Same arguments, and there is a large Pakistani diaspora in the UK – would they really nuke their relatives? Pakistan has nuclear weapons to deter India, not to hold the UK at risk.

    North Korea? Look at a globe. They would need full scale ICBM technology, which doesn’t look likely, and working nuclear warheads ditto, and they are a very long way away.

    China? Russia? I don’t think so.

    Non state actors? Now they are much more likely to somehow explode a nuclear weapon somewhere in the “West”. Assume we have Trident 2. Which state are you going to flatten in revenge for losing – say- the centre of Birmingham?

    If it’s an insurance policy, then there are better things to spend the premium on. More plausible risks that can be mitigated against.

    I think the conclusions are just silly. If you want a deterrent for whatever mad reason – makes you feel better, seat at top table, yada yada mid-life crisis, then have at least 4 and preferable 5 boats. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.

  • The idea that cutting back Trident would leave us ‘unprotected some of time’ holds no water. What are we ‘unprotected’ from? China, Russia, the US?! Are they just waiting for their chance to get at Blighty the moment we let our guard down?

  • So the much vaunted alternative to Trident is … erm … Trident!

    It could not be clearer now that a no vote in next year’s independence referendum is a vote for Trident. Only a Yes vote in September 2014 can rid Scotland of this WMD from its shores.

    It is interesting to compare the opinion polling above with Lord Ashcroft’s own polling on the issue in Scotland. In Scotland, when asked “In principle, do you support or oppose the United Kingdom having nuclear weapons?” only 37% were found to support the UK having nuclear weapons. There was found to be even less support for the hosting of nuclear weapons when Scotland becomes independent. The message is clear – Scotland does not want to play host to WMD. I wonder how Stephen’s polling figures would differ if Trident were based at Tilbury?

    The famous UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has urged the UK to get rid of Trident saying that it would be a huge gain for Britain if it did and questioned whether the desire to keep it was more about national pride than defence value. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/26/hans-blix-trident-abandon-britain-nuclear

    The Westminster-led no campaign’s Project Fear has been scaremongering that decommissioning Trident would cost tens of billions of pounds. But as with so many unionist scare stories, it has been quickly found to be untrue. The Sunday Herald revealed that the MoD themeselves estimated the cost of decommissioning to be £150 million. This contrasts with Scotland’s share of the annual running and replacement cost of Trident of £250 million.
    http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/the-real-cost-of-getting-rid-of-trident-from-scotland-150m.21592242

    Gaining the freedom to follow our own diplomatic and foreign policies, the ability to remove Trident from the Clyde, in the vicinity of our most populous city and the money it would save are part of the strong positive liberal case for Scottish independence.

  • “Because with the future of proliferation unclear, its probably best we keep some capability as an insurance policy against a future threat.”

    But the intelligent question in response to that would be:
    “So if a future threat develops, will this option allow us to return to 24/7 patrols?”

    And the answer will be no, won’t it? So what’s the point?

  • Richard Church 17th Jul '13 - 1:41pm

    This is a policy driven by a new politics of fear, fear of striking out with a distinctive policy that makes a break with the 50 years of consensus, but still desperate to justify the party’s existence by saying yes we are a little bit different.

    Danny Alexander completely fails to make the case for Britain retaining an independent nuclear deterrent. The Tories have said we need it to keep our seat on the UN security council, so when are they admitting North Korea? They say it’s all to do with Britain’s prestige in the world, and Danny says its all about protection against unforeseen consequences 60 years hence. So when are Germany or Japan, Brazil or Italy developing their nuclear deterrent?

    If we go into the next election confidently saying that there is no sound case for Britain to spend billions replacing trident we can expect to win credibility and support, and we can expect some stick. As it is, we’ll get little credibility and plenty of stick.

    Still, I suppose having two pointless and expensive WMD’s is better than having 4. In 60 years time perhaps we’ll halve the number again, and then in another 60 years we’ll just share one with France.

  • Peter Davies 17th Jul '13 - 2:06pm

    It is no longer possible to stop mad dictators from developing nuclear weapons. We can, however, help prevent countries from developing mad dictators. The money we spend on aid is far more effective in reducing the risk of nuclear attack than Trident.

  • Perhaps a scenario where Trident could be useful is if the UK leaves the EU and the EU decides the Channel Islands and various regions of the North sea actually belong to it. ie. the UK – EU relationship becomes a bit like Japan – China over the Senkaku and Nansei/Ryukyu islands.

  • jedibeeftrix 17th Jul '13 - 2:46pm

    ah peter, there goes another hundred thousand votes! 😀

  • “Perhaps a scenario where Trident could be useful is if the UK leaves the EU and the EU decides the Channel Islands and various regions of the North sea actually belong to it. ie. the UK – EU relationship becomes a bit like Japan – China over the Senkaku and Nansei/Ryukyu islands.”

    Or, more realistically, we may need nuclear weapons to fight aliens from outer space.

  • David Allen 17th Jul '13 - 3:17pm

    This is all about the principle of compromising, splitting the difference, going down the middle. It is what the public identify us with. We have often done it. And often, it has been a reasonably sensible, appealing thing to do.

    This time, it isn’t. If we could have saved 90% and cut effectiveness by 10%, it might have been. However, it looks more like the other way round.

    By advancing this idea, therefore, we’re mainly acting to discredit our own modus operandi. We’re making splitting the difference look pathetic. And then we’re saying that it is our key sales pitch to do it.

  • @Chris “So if a future threat develops, will this option allow us to return to 24/7 patrols?”
    And the answer will be no, won’t it? So what’s the point?

    Actually the answer will be yes – depending on what form of posture change you adopt. In the context of the Review (not what Lib Dems will adopt at conference) you can return to CASD with a three boat successor for focussed periods if required.

  • If people want to help put an end to the Trident nonsense, then please click on the following link:

    http://act.cnduk.org/lobby/70

  • Bob Browning 17th Jul '13 - 3:46pm

    This whole discussion is nuts. It may have marginally been worth-while to have a deterrent during the cold war, but many successful countries did not. Post cold war there is absolutely no justification. None whatsoever.

    Attacked by North Korea. Kripes! they are a basket case. Is that really the best anyone can come up with.

    This whole debate is nuts nuts nuts. Dump Trident.

  • greg

    I had in mind the situation in which a threat developed and persisted for some time, rather than magically evaporating after a ‘focussed period’ – whatever that may mean.

  • Bob Browning 17th Jul '13 - 4:12pm

    And by the way
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t19kvUiHvAE

    Are you really going to vote for this.

  • “But with polling figures showing roughly equal support for all three options: replacing like-for-like; disarming totally; or scaling down, Lib Dems making the case for a smaller deterrent than we had at the height of the cold war is perfectly viable.”

    You really would do better looking at the intrinsic merit of the policy, rather than at opinion polls. If the policy is demonstrably without merit, public support for it will evaporate very quickly.

    No wonder the party’s doing so badly, if this is the way its parliamentarians think.

  • “But with polling figures showing roughly equal support for all three options: replacing like-for-like; disarming totally; or scaling down, Lib Dems making the case for a smaller deterrent than we had at the height of the cold war is perfectly viable. If we make a bold and clear proposal – pointing a clear route to the exit door, but leaving a foothold for the future just in case – there is an audience out there willing to listen to that.”

    Surely if polling figures show roughly equal support for all three options then there is an audience out there willing to listen to all three options.

    There is a chance though that the third which support the scaling down option do so on the basis that it results in significant savings – a line which various party spokespeople have been bandying around since the mindless debated in the 2007 leadership election. However this report shows that the idea of a cut-price, cut-down Trident replacement doesn’t exist.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jul '13 - 6:45pm

    I said earlier that pacifism just gets you killed. The more likely result of pacifism, or getting rid of nuclear weapons, is that you have to give into someone else’s demands, which can be very extreme such as becoming a communist or Islamist state, or more likely to give up physical assets, territory and natural resources.

    The violence wouldn’t stop at giving into enemy demands either, because violent revolutionaries would continue to fight eachother, even if liberals decided not to fight. We could hope that one day all the violent revolutionaries will disappear and leave us to live in a liberal democracy, but I think that is very unlikely and it certainly isn’t now.

  • I think the real problem with Trident (ignoring the specific’s around it being a nuclear weapon) is creating credible scenario’s that can be used to justify the investment. Jedibeeftrix (17th Jul ’13 – 2:01pm) makes a good case for maintaining Trident against unspecified aggressors. Trying to make a case against specified aggressors and you’re soon in the realms of fantasy (see my comment about UK-EU and Chris’s response concerning aliens). So either you are confident that we can stand ‘naked’ and face the future or feel the need for some protection even though such protection may prove to be of limited use, The only third way I can see is to fast track further European co-operation on defence and effectively create an Anglo-French navy.

  • The problem with the idea of agreed mutual disarmament is that no-one is prepared to start it and there has never been an agreement to do it all together.

    Time to step up to the plate.

    Trident is an expensive cold war weapon. It’s replacement will cost billions. It’s something we can’t afford and it’s morally wrong.

    I say dump it. There’s a perfectly respectable case to be made for that and we should make it.

  • Do the Germans, French, Dutch etc have Trident? If not why not?

  • Mike Falchikov 18th Jul '13 - 12:47pm

    Brian D. “the Germans and the Dutch don’t have Trident” – indeed, they don’t ,like all other European nations except us and the French, as I said in my earlier post (nor do largeish powers like the Canadians and the Australians). So what are these strategic geopolitical aspirations that we Brits are supposed to have that make nuclear weapons a must-have?
    AS for membership of the Security – is that really such a big deal? In any case, there are now moves afoot in the UN to
    make South Africa a permanent member – the only country to bring to an end its nuclear weapons programme.

  • most middle sized European countries like Britain have no nuclear weapons e.g Germany We must get rid of all nuclear weapons too and set an example of peace to the world and not hypercritically spend millions on weapons of mass destruction – that money can instead go to schools and hospitals to educate and heal people not kill them!

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jul '13 - 8:59pm

    Jedi the best thing you could do to move the Lib Dems into becoming a political party seeking a majority rather than a protest movement looking to sway opinion is to join the party. I joined because I believed in Nick’s vision for the party, not because I liked where it currently was. We need to make sure the protest wing of the party doesn’t get back into power in the next leadership election. People won’t like me for saying that, but it’s clearly true given the hugely unpopular ideas often suggested. This criticism is also relevant to the right of the party who think we should privatise everything even if the public don’t want to.

  • Jonathan Brown 18th Jul '13 - 9:52pm

    I agree with Stephen – and with Chris and Hywel on rapid disappearance of the ‘support for a middle way’ option once the (lack of) savings becomes apparent.

    I favour arguing that we should scrap it altogether, and there are a few things that make this politically something that we can win with rather than just lose votes on:

    – We can talk about our pride in the capabilities of our conventional armed forces – which are already being gutted by cuts. We can go on to the attack over this issue: scrap trident and put 100% of the savings into the armed services that we use and get some benefit from. We can argue that the other parties are effectively abolishing our Army to pay for Trident (or at least abolishing our ability to deploy our army abroad). And if they say they’ll find the money from somewhere else, then they can’t win that either. It’s not a small amount of money to find down the back of the sofa. Keeping Trident means deep cuts to SOMETHING people care about. In purely political terms, I think it’s probably more damaging to be seen as weakly defending an indefensible position than strongly attacking from a position that actually your audience may have doubts about. And I’m sure there are more ‘disarm’ voters to be had than ‘half way house’ voters.

    – We can use our disarming to give some impetus to global disarmament talks. I’m not suggesting that we disarm ‘because the world is disarming’. We should do it anyway. But as we’re doing it, we can encourage others.

    – We could commit explicitly to maintaining a ‘break out’ capability – the industrial capacity to rearm at short notice. Obviously this isn’t something you do in response to being nuked by the Soviet Union, but we’re mostly agreed that’s not likely to happen now. If we can see ourselves heading for whatever reason into another Cold War type scenario, where a nuclear deterrent becomes useful, then we could rearm relatively quickly.

    I thought the Centre Forum’s pamphlet on Trident was very good, and I like the ‘nuclear ladder’ picture. We just need to step down enough of the rungs for it to make a difference.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jul '13 - 10:31pm

    Jonathan you are asking for unilateral nuclear disarmament which has to be one of the most naive and dangerous ideas the left has ever come up with. We can’t do this for the following reasons:

    1. A nuclear armed revolutionary could just march the troops in and say “touch them and you get nuked”.
    2. We lose our negotiating power to encourage others to disarm.
    3. Many people in the world from Islamists to communists would jump at any opportunity to bring “the west” down.

  • Martin Lowe 21st Jul '13 - 2:10pm

    Israel – a country that is much more at risk of nuclear attack than the UK – doesnt waste money on single-model delivery systems. It uses aircraft that deliver conventional weapons and it is also building up a cruise missile launching submarine fleet.

    The Whitehall report seeks to pooh-pooh the idea that you can do this successfully, but if the Israelis can do it I see no reason why we can’t do it too.

    Seems like Whitehall is determined not to let go of the idea that submarine-launched ICBMs are what you need to be in the Big Boys Club.

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