Scrapping Trident for the savings is a losing argument; CND need realistic opposition

Scrapping Trident because it will save money is no longer a realistic argument; CND need to refocus on multilateral disarmament to win popular support.

The CND, Global Zero and a plethora of arms control campaigns have focused on the cost of nuclear weapons in recent years – however, once a significant sum has been spent, they will need to change tack; Andrew Gibson considers future campaigning options

Yesterday, actress Naomi Watts and ex-CIA operative Valerie Plame released a video highlighting the cost of new nuclear weapons.

The clip ends by asking viewers to sign a petition released by the US-based NGO Global Zero (GZ). Based on research by GZ’s founder Bruce Blair, the petition demands world leaders spend the $1 trillion earmarked for nukes over the next decade on clean energy, welfare and deficit reduction.

GZ’s campaign echoes CND’s ‘scrap trident’ initiative, which features David Cameron dressed as Marie Antoinette, straddling a missile. The CND has significantly invested in this line of argument, producing in-depth research on job losses in the conventional defence industry (caused, they imply, by plans to replace trident).

Prima facie, this tactic is smart. A split-sample survey from 2005 suggests the public are more susceptible to the disarmament message when it’s accompanied by opportunity cost arguments. However, £900 million has already been spent on trident II, £3 billion will be spent by 2016, and whichever ‘moderate’ wins the next election is likely to continue construction.

Jim Murphy, Labour’s centrist defence spokesman, has repeatedly voiced his support for trident replacement. A tipping point will come when so much money has been spent on trident II that scrapping it would itself be perceived as wasteful and, by that time, maintaining the system will consume only a small percentage of the defence budget.

This will be a problem for the CND, as public opinion data from a comparable period suggests the British don’t really mind nukes, they would just rather not pay.

For example, in 1987 a majority supported keeping the UK’s ageing Polaris system; however, when asked about replacing it, less than a majority favoured doing so. That a small majority now favour scrapping nukes for deficit reduction purposes (63 per cent), does not mean the UK is full of unilateral disarmers.

There are sound arguments against the UK’s nuclear status – legal, ethical and political – but what could a future (post-2016) CND ask the government to do?

The options are to demand the dismantlement of the trident II system or to advocate including it in multilateral negotiations. The former is unlikely for reasons just implied: it would be perceived as an expensive, ridiculous u-turn from any future Conservative or Labour government.

On the negotiation side, however, there are numerous options. Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems all allege a policy of multilateral disarmament: testing their claims should be an important part of arms control campaigning.

One option, as proposed in the GZ action plan, is to push for phased, proportionate reductions at the global level. This is a neat plan but does not take into account the diverse political and security needs of diverse states. The potential for European leadership is unacknowledged and the UK would not be compelled to do anything for decades.

Another option is to bring trident II into negotiations with Russia about tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Russia has an estimated 3,000-5,000 ageing TNWs and incorporating UK and French nukes into talks would bring NATO and Russia closer to parity. Whilst this would involve some classificatory imagination (i.e. trident is rarely referred to as a tactical nuke), it is politically fecund.

The Obama administration has signalled its intention to open talks on TNWs. If Obama wins in 2012, Democrats might look kindly on a UK government making things easier. There are multiple other formulations, both bilateral and multilateral, in which the UK could ‘negotiate away’ its nuclear arsenal.

To summarise, it will take a miracle to prevent trident replacement and CND need to be realistic about the coming trident II reality.

Legal, ethical and security arguments will be great for bashing the government but they need to be complemented with face-saving, multilateralist policies mainstream parties can embrace.

Opinion data in this article is drawn from Ipsos MORI, BPIX, Gallup and British Election Study polls; for precise references and/or more opinion data on the subject, feel free to contact the author.

See also:

Government ramps up Trident work despite coalition pledgeKate Hudson, February 18th 2011

Cost of Trident delay inevitable result of the compromise of coalitionMarcus Roberts, November 11th 2010

Strategic Defence Review: Cameron bats away Trident alternativesMarcus Roberts, October 19th 2010

CND: Is it now time to scrap Trident?Kate Hudson, October 18th 2010

Trident delay rumours lead to contrasting reactions on all sidesFrank Spring, September 16th 2010

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