Trident, justified on the basis of its protection of national security, is possibly the biggest threat to the integrity of the Union
The defence lobby is out in force seeking protection of the defence budget whilst government spend across the board continues to be slashed. David Cameron’s pledge to protect troop numbers appears hollow. Even with a ring-fenced budget (highly unlikely), troop numbers would fall by 15,000 over the next five years.
We will get a sense of parliamentary opinion when the Commons votes on the issue on Thursday this week. Public opinion generally shares a weak attachment to defence spend, one that dissolves when faced with the challenging opportunity costs elsewhere. Yet the Trident project enjoys absolute protection from cuts.
The debate is dominated by the narrative that nuclear weapons are necessary for national security and to stand tall in the world. To advocate disarmament is to demonstrate weakness and lack of moral fibre. Those defending the status quo swagger with confidence around Westminster, knowing that whatever the voracity of the arguments deployed by opponents, they have the protection of a simple, psychological weapon.
Today our attention is being directed towards Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Surely it would be irrational for the British to show signs of ‘weakness’ just as Putin is issuing blatant nuclear threats? Irrational, yes, if British nuclear weapons have any relevance in the unfolding crisis. But nuclear weapons offer incredible threats that could only have relevance to end-of-the-world scenarios.
Britain’s nuclear weapons have more to do with domestic politics and the manipulation of narratives, rather than any genuine international strategy, heavily marked by the 1940 experience when Britain stood alone against the Nazis. It is no coincidence that Vladimir Putin has been compared to Hitler or more ancient despots. But there is no credible scenario in which Britain would face alone an overwhelming invasion of Europe by Russia.
It depends upon the domestic context, and that is now on the move, something worrying to those who thought this a done deal. The Sun ran a pre-emptive strike last week by an unnamed colleague in the Shadow Cabinet, on an adviser close to Ed Miliband, that sought to neutralize any potential efforts to change the party’s commitment to like-for-like replacement of Trident. This showed a certain level of desperation.
The anti-nuclear Scottish Nationalists have been focusing minds – could they apply pressure on a prospective prime minister Miliband to significantly delay the project further? The SNP’s position is robust and gives them an undeniable electoral advantage in this election: for credibility in holding Labour’s feet to the fire, and a strong symbolism that supports their on-going attempts to achieve independence.
In other words, there is no earthly reason why the SNP would waver in attempting to apply as much pressure as they can on this issue. Ironically, Trident, justified on the basis of its protection of national security, is possibly the biggest threat to the integrity of the Union.
The current Lib Dem leadership has been attempting to develop a middle ground position, one that has won few (but probably lost fewer) votes. Its principal problem lies in its weak appeal to a debate traditionally characterized by polarity, and the myths perpetuated by a Trident Alternatives Review exploited by LibDem opponents from both sides.
BASIC’s Trident Commission was roundly criticized for failing to challenge head-on Britain’s attachment to nuclear weapons, but it estimated that a move away from continuous patrolling could save between £500m and £1bn a year throughout the life of the project, and far more significant savings than this in the next decade. These are big numbers by anyone’s book, and the Lib Dems could make much of this.
A more radical solution has recently been proposed, based upon stealth aircraft that Britain is buying from the Americans. This system, able to deliver a minimum credible nuclear deterrent, would deliver naval and air force dual-role systems already in the defence procurement plan (but for which there is insufficient funds) and save several billion on top for other priorities. By moving to a dual-use system it would also achieve significant savings in running costs.
This could be a highly attractive middle ground for those not yet ready to contemplate a non-nuclear future. It could certainly drive a review after the election.
There are many myths in Britain’s nuclear debate, but ultimately the fact that there are options, and no need to rush into major spend, looks set to play an important role in challenging post election negotiations. BASIC is looking to highlight those choices, and ensure that the Trident renewal programme is reviewed with the same demanding scrutiny that other government spending has been and will be experiencing in the coming years.
Paul Ingram is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council, and was host of the BASIC Trident Commission
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